The Personal Nature of Processing Grief

I can still remember the death of my grandfather vividly. I was just 14, and this was the first time I’d experienced the death of anyone I personally knew, let alone someone with whom I’d had a particularly close relationship. While I was growing up, my grandfather always lived just one or two doors down from my family in the same duplex or triplex. We were a family that looked out for each other, and because of that, he was always there when I needed him. It was his constant presence in my life that helped us develop a special bond that I know he treasured as much as I did.

Though I experienced profound sadness at his passing, the tears wouldn’t come. I just couldn’t cry. Looking back now, I can see that it was my state of shock and disbelief that my grandfather was actually gone that kept me from fully expressing everything I was feeling. Instead, I felt overwhelmed by the reactions of the people who were at his funeral.

When a loved one passes away in the Persian culture, extreme expressions of grief are encouraged. At my grandfather’s memorial, people were crying hysterically, while others were beating their breasts in agony over their loss. Some even threw themselves over my grandfather’s body just as it was about to be lowered into the ground, weeping profusely from the pain of wanting to follow him on the next part of the journey, while knowing that it was impossible.

Learning from Loss - The personal nature of processing grief.

In the midst of these dramatic displays of emotion, there I stood, equally traumatized by the experience in my own way, but completely dry-eyed. In fact, it was impossible to not notice the stark contrast between my behavior and the hyperemotional responses of nearly everyone else there. Instantly, I became self-conscious. I remember being afraid of what others would think of me when they noticed that my reaction was so different from theirs. Would they assume I didn’t love my grandfather simply because I was having a different experience of his passing?

Fear gave way to anger and confusion as I began to feel pressured to express my pain in the same way all the others were. It seemed to me that the way I was processing my own grief wasn’t proper, and so I suffered under the weight of cultural expectations that dictated what the expression of grief should to be. Because ways of grieving are as varied as the number of people who experience it, to conform to someone else’s idea of what grief looks like is to dishonor our own emotional process and ignore important issues that can only be fully resolved through our personal inner experience with grief.

Delayed Reactions

I was still trying to adjust to life without my grandfather, when I moved to the U.S. one year after this death. I was in the middle of a whirlwind of change that was difficult to maneuver. While I was adjusting to the culture shock, and before we were really settled in, the news arrived that my other grandfather had passed away. I was also very close to him, and although the news of his death affected me deeply, I struggled to find opportunities to properly grieve the loss because trying to build and manage a new life in a new country demanded so much of my attention. All of this became an emotional burden that threatened to overwhelm me at that young age.

“While everyone has a different way of grieving, it’s important to work through it completely in a way that honors your own emotional process, as well as the memory of your loved one.”

Death came to visit again in my early 30s, when I lost several close friends in the short span of five years. They were all around my age with nearly their whole lives in front of them. A few died from cancer and other illnesses, while one was taken suddenly in a car accident. When my best friend passed away from what was only described as unknown causes, it left me questioning everything I thought I knew about life. I felt trapped in grief so deep, I thought I would never recover.

At that time, I had just started dating Habib, the man who would become my husband. Because I felt that being grief-stricken might create difficulties in this new relationship, I suppressed my emotions and didn’t give myself the chance to fully process them when they came up. Later, on several occasions, I found myself having to pull off the highway because I was weeping uncontrollably, clearly needing to release the intense grief I could no longer hold down and that wouldn’t be denied.

I believe it’s because I hadn’t allowed myself the opportunity to fully express my emotions at the time of my best friend’s death, that the grief stayed with me for so many years. It wasn’t until I was studying for my Master’s Degree in Spiritual Psychology at the University of Santa Monica, almost a decade later, that something inside of me felt it was now safe for me to bear the full emotional weight of losing my dearest friend. Most importantly, I felt I could survive it. My class was given an assignment to write a letter to someone who was no longer in our lives and thank them for the gift of their presence in our lives. The letter to my best friend totaled 45 pages into which I poured all my sadness and feelings of loss to the extent that I became physically exhausted. At the same time, I experienced a subtle sense of joy that came from knowing I’d finally given myself the permission to move forward.

Learning from Loss - The personal nature of processing grief.

End of Life Lessons

When my father passed away, I discovered what it means to grieve in peace without the torment that comes with an intense sense of loss or even regret. While I knew I would miss my father very much, I had a distinct sense that we’d accomplished everything we were meant to in our time together. He was, without question, the person I’ve been the closest to in my life. He always made himself available for me and listened in a way that was genuine and compassionate, and didn’t present a lot of cold advice about what I “should” be doing. His willingness to create opportunities for me to pour my heart out to him, without judging my feelings or choices, was invaluable in helping me find my way in life. During his eight-year battle with cancer, our roles became reversed and I had the honor of holding the space for him to pour his heart out to me. It was a blessing to witness him process a lifetime of achievement, and express appreciation and forgiveness. When he passed, it was because of that experience that my grief was tempered with a comforting sense of completeness.

Only four years later, my mother passed away from a rapidly progressing degenerative condition that no one saw coming. Not since I was 15 had I experienced so much emotional upheaval in my life coming from so many different directions. Not only had I recently given birth to my daughter, Hannah, but Habib and I were in the final stages of combining our businesses and moving them to another location. I remember being awestruck by the extreme shifts in emotion I felt while simultaneously witnessing the power and vibrancy of the beginning of life with Hannah, and the peace and surrender at the end of life with my mother. It’s difficult to describe the wholeness of life I felt as I breastfed Hannah and then ran to the nursing home to feed my mom through a g-tube. When I was changing Hannah’s diaper, I couldn’t help but remember the last time I’d done the same for my mother.

Caring for my mother and daughter, two people with similar needs but at opposite ends of the life spectrum, left me with an indelible sense of how short a human existence really is. It cultivated within me the consciousness that everything, including trees, insects, animals, and even rocks and soil exist in a state of constant transition. To understand this intellectually is one thing, but to experience it in such a personal way has left me with a sense of life’s oneness that is almost impossible to describe. Every one of us is integral to this great cycle, and I know that my temporary body is just one part of this eternal journey.

“It’s only though an open heart that we can access our compassion and extend it to others. In this way, grief is an unlikely blessing and the parting gift all loved ones leave behind.”

I was present with my mother when she passed. For as many people as I’d lost in my life up to that point, this was my first experience of being with someone at the moment they made their transition. Next to the births of my children, I can honestly say that the moment of my mother’s passing was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. There was no suffering, just a distinct look of peaceful resolution that washed over her, making her appear younger, as if her wrinkles had faded away. The room felt charged, like there was a cocoon of higher energy holding her in its care until she made her final and full transition into it.

Opening to Empathy

Barely 18 months after my mother passed away, Habib and I found ourselves dealing with the sudden death of his brother, Mehrdad. Even though I’d only had a causal relationship with my brother-in-law for most of the years we’d known each other, he began confiding in me during his final months. Unfortunately, he was separated from his wife during this serious health crisis, which only intensified the painful feelings he was experiencing and would pour out in our late night phone calls. He shared his vulnerabilities, as well as his ideas about God and the universe.

An hour before he died, I received a text message from him thanking me for showing him God, as he said, and for the opportunity to share his feelings with me. When I received the news of his passing, I experienced grief that was tempered with an understanding that making the decision to complete his own life was the best choice for him under those circumstances. Although Mehrdad is no longer with us in the physical world, I still experience his presence in many ways, such as when I’m meditating or making myself available for his grieving family. Yes, Mehrdad is still very much with us, and it’s because of my experience with my mother’s passing that I know Mehrdad’s transition isn’t the end of his journey.

Learning from Loss - The personal nature of processing grief.

Grief as a Gift

While everyone has a different way of grieving, it’s important to work through it completely in a way that honors your own emotional process, as well as the memory of your loved one. It’s only when we really know how to process grief that we can be of service to others in their moments of great loss. Learning how to grieve helps us cultivate compassion and understand how to be there when it counts, not just for ourselves, but for those we love, as well.

When loved ones pass on, there is certainly a profound sense of loss in the experience, but danger lies in allowing ourselves to be consumed by that sadness indefinitely. When we become trapped in grief, bitterness and self-pity have a way of taking over, causing us to ask, “Why me?” or get mad at the universe for our loss. It seems strange that it never dawns on anyone to ask, “Why not me?” Maybe this loss is a part of your path and leading to a greater gift that’s waiting for you on the other side of your grief.

Someone once said that if your heart has to be broken, then let it be broken open. It’s only though an open heart that we can access our compassion and extend it to others. In this way, grief is an unlikely blessing and the parting gift all loved ones leave behind.

Guidance for Processing Grief

Consider these options if you’re having difficulty dealing with a recent loss

  1. Purge Emotional Writing (PEW-12): Get a notebook and pen, and set a timer for twelve minutes. Start writing using a stream-of-consciousness approach, in other words, write whatever comes forward without stopping to think or read what you’ve written. Write down everything you wanted to say to this person but never got the chance to express. It doesn’t matter if it’s loving or angry. Just be honest. If your emotions carry you away, keep writing. It doesn’t matter if your writing is legible. No one is going to read this. This is an exercise in emotional cleansing and creating closure for yourself. When finished, don’t read the letter. If the content is loving in nature, find a way to let go of it that’s symbolic and has meaning for you. Perhaps you could tie the note to a helium balloon of the person’s favorite color and let it float off into the distance, carrying your sorrow with it. If the letter is of an angry nature, consider burning it in a safe place like a fireplace, barbeque grill, or on a concrete patio. For thousands of years, fire has been revered for its transformative powers. Feel your pain dissolving as the pages disappear.
  2. Get creative: Art is very healing because it’s an expression of what’s in our hearts. Paint a picture, create a drawing, compose music, or use any other talent you have to allow your grief to move through you. You don’t have to be an expert to reap the benefit of the healing power of art.
  3. Stay connected: Be sure you have someone to talk to, whether it’s a family member, friend, or co-worker. A good therapist can be invaluable in helping to process grief.
  4. Be of service: Volunteering or helping others is empowering and provides purpose and motivation in life.
  5. Don’t avoid: Stay conscious of whether you’re throwing yourself into work as a way to avoid processing your grief.
  6. Punch it out: If you’re angry with God, the healthcare system, or even the deceased, getting physical helps to discharge a lot of emotion. Beat your bed pillows with a tennis racquet, let loose on a punching bag, or smash a bunch of old dishes you don’t use anymore. Be vocal and feel the power that comes from your anger. It will release the pain that’s hiding beneath your rage.
  7. Get organized: It’s easy for the details of life to fall by the wayside when grieving, but responsibilities must be met and bills still have to be paid. Be sure someone is in charge of these important affairs. Approach them in small amounts, and it will all get done.
  8. Journal: Starting a journal is an excellent way to help process what you’re feeling.
  9. Get moving: Exercise generates endorphins in the body and can go a long way toward elevating your mood without you having to try to make yourself feel better.
  10. Make a ritual: Rituals are a powerful way to create healing and closure. You might light a candle on certain days and at certain times to remind yourself that your loved one is with you. Plant flowers that return every spring in honor of their memory, or plant a tree. Carry something with you that reminds you of your loved one, or get some friends together to celebrate their upcoming birthday.

For more inspirational insights from Dr. Sami check out the annual well-being journal MegaZEN or follow her on Instagram (@drsherrysami) and Twitter (@drsamikids).