Movement and stillness through grief

Editor’s Note:

Local counsellor Tuulikki Tennant has been offering free grief workshops on Wednesdays at the Community Centre. She has also been providing The Current with her notes for these sessions. Here are the notes from last week’s workshop.

By Tuulikki Tennant

Grief well-experienced and expressed is a fluid movement that has times of active choice and action and then times of deep centering calm and stillness to a deep internal anchoring point within each of us. We are a “doing” culture usually trying to find the answer to pain outside of ourselves.

There are tasks that are negotiated during the grief process. There are times of deep silence, stillness, surrender and sacred witness. Sometimes we are deeply alone, sometimes we reach out to others.

Grief can feel like the ebb and flow of an ocean, a stormy sea, or a towering tsunami of emotion.  Fully expressed emotion, in ways that do no harm to self or others, is followed by calm.

We can tell ourselves stories about how to be with loss that will either support us and heal us or embed us further in the pain of loss. We can create an identity that is pain-centered rather than wholeness-centered.

We can ask ourselves questions that place us in the spin of a vortex of pain, or that allow us to pull perspective and support the development of our own true wisdom and resilience.

Wholeness, strengths and resilience are words I use intentionally when supporting people.

I believe we are whole beings, sometimes wounded, sometimes lost, sometimes overwhelmed by the circumstances of our lives.

I believe we have strengths:

  • “a beneficial quality or attribute of a person”

I believe we can all develop resilience:

  • “The human capacity to face, deal with, overcome, and be strengthened by or transformed by experiences of adversity”

(above descriptions of strength and resilience from “The Grief Assessment and Intervention Workbook: A Strengths Perspective” by Elizabeth C. Pomeroy and Renee Bradford Garcia) 

Viewing Grief as a journey rather than a lifelong reality allows movement in coping.

William Worden has defined a 4 Task process of healing grief which is useful and I have re-designed to include the 4 tasks and then gifts as follows:

Accept the reality of loss

Work through feelings

Adjust to an environment with the loved one missing

Re-invest in what is

Expand, evolve, evaluate, examine, embrace, endurance . . . .


Tasks of Grief/Mourning

(1) To Accept the Reality of the Loss

  • People feel in shock and numb at the beginning when they have lost a loved one
  • They have the sense that this really hasn’t happened, even when the death is expected
  • It is not uncommon in the early stages of grief to not completely believe that your loved one has died, for example, to catch a glimpse of someone who reminds you of your loved one and think it is him/her
  • past unresolved losses can also be evoked by a current loss and can intensify the experience of grief
  • It is helpful to fully understanding the impact of the loss on you to by recognizing all aspects of the loss – this includes how things have changed now and for the future, changes in roles, responsibilities, day-to-day living, expectations, plans, dreams, goals etc. – as well as identifying any past losses that are unresolved
  • Acceptance means that one fully understands that the individual is gone and they are not coming back to this physical life
  • Opposite of not accepting is not believing the person is gone – use of denial  – denying the facts of the loss can vary from slight to extreme – for eg. keeping a room exactly as it is waiting for the person to return to there have been instances where someone has not sought assistance for a number of days
  • Protecting from the Impact of loss can include denying the meaning of the loss – loss is seen as less significant – for eg. he/she wasn’t a good parent, we weren’t that close, I don’t miss her
  • Immediate removal of all items that remind you of your loved one
  • Selective forgetting – blocking reality of the loved one from your mind
  • Denying that death is irreversible for eg saying “I don’t want you dead. I won’t have you dead”

(2) To Experience the Pain of Grief

  • Not everyone experiences the same intensity of pain or feels it in exactly the same way – we will have our unique/individual expression of our pain in grief
    Release all feelings (for example, sadness, anger, disappointment, guilt, hurt, resentment, fear, self-reproach, yearning, relief, helplessness etc.)
  • It takes strength to feel strong feelings – our culture tends to believe strength is suppressing and containing strong feelings of grief – this is not true and actually delays and/ or prolongs the grief process
  • You can feel as though you are going “crazy” – this is a common thought and it is important to know that it is normal to feel disorganized, distracted, preoccupied, forgetful, to experience many intense and sometimes contradictory feelings
  • Releasing feelings can be accomplished by accepting the wide range of emotion that occurs following the death of someone we love – allowing ourselves to weep, express anger, etc. – it is helpful to have someone who cares about us, who is compassionate and non-judgmental about any feeling or thought we may have, to simply be present and bear witness to our pain
  • Journaling and talking as much as you wish or need to with family and friends can be very therapeutic
  • It is important to know that grief comes in waves of emotion – one can be feeling quite calm and composed and all of a sudden a huge wave of emotion comes – this is normal -deep breathing and allowing full expression of the emotion is necessary
  • More intense feelings of anger often require a physical outlet, such as exercise, hammering nails, chopping wood, hitting a punching bag etc.
  • Remember it is okay to be angry towards the person who has died
  • Past unresolved loss can increase the intensity of current loss and requires time and attention to address – everything that is unresolved comes forward for resolution in order to further our own healing
  • Be aware that if you have had a challenging relationship with someone who has died or participating in an extended dying process it is not uncommon for people to feel relief as well as other emotions
  • Events such as the first Christmas, family birthdays, anniversaries, etc. are especially painful and require anticipating this, preparing for it, asking for support and caring for oneself well
  • If you begin to have serious thoughts of wishing to die and acting upon this, it is necessary to seek professional help
  • Opposite – anything that continually allows an individual to avoid or suppress pain can be expected to prolong the grieving process
  • Our cultural/societal teachings can interfere with the expression of pain  – for eg. saying to someone your loved one wouldn’t want you to feel sad, it’s God’s will, etc. can inhibit the needed and natural expression of emotion, the belief that grieving will be done in weeks, months or a year is unrealistic
  • We also tend to look for pain relief in the form of choices outside of ourselves such as eating, drinking, drugging, working hard as a way to soothe and distract painful feelings
  • Our culture does not tend to teach reaching to one’s internal resources and calming choices as a way to cope
  • Use of thought-stopping processes to avoid painful thoughts
  • Minimizing the impact of the loss by the belief that the person who has died is in a better place – this may be true however it prevents one from feeling all the feelings one needs to feel to fully heal from the loss
  • Sometimes people try to move as a way to escape their pain
  • Others idealize the loved one or avoid reminders of them
  • The concern is that if this task does not have completion that depression can be the outcome – anxiety about death/loss of others  can occur as well
  • We are always in motion in healing – if we does not completely resolve a loss it will be triggered in the future by another loss or life change/experience

(3) To Adjust to an Environment in Which the Loved One is Missing

  • This means different things to different people – dependent upon the relationship with the person who has died and the roles and responsibilities this person held in your shared life – the loss if not just of the person but may extend to other aspects of your life – for eg. loss of family income, a dreamed-for-future
  • New skills sometimes have to be developed
  • Adjustment is a gradual process – there is no hurry
  • It can mean taking on the roles and responsibilities of the one who has died and getting accustomed, little by little, to your loved one not being in your life
  • Day to day routine is helpful in creating structure – going to work or, for children, going to school when you feel ready can serve as a focus or distraction
  • It is all right to ask for the kind of help you need, whether it be for a practical task or for company so you do not feel as alone
  • As a general principle it is important not to make significant life decisions, such as a change in job, career, selling property or moving within the first year after a significant loss
  • Over time you will relinquish what was – letting go/letting be
  • It is creating and accepting a “new normal”
  • Recognition that life circumstances have changes, revising one’s view of one’s life and re-defining goals/dreams for one’s life
  • Opposite – not adapting to the loss – becoming helpless, not developing the skills needed to cope, withdrawing from the world, not maintaining one’s life
  • Suspending one’s growth by being caught in a dilemma one cannot solve

(4) To Reinvest in what Is

  • Love remains after grief is complete – you will always have the memories and the warmth love holds when you have grieved fully
  • You will continue to love those who are in your life and you will meet others to love in the future
  • For people who have lost a mate there is often guilt associated with the thought or movement into a love relationship – the belief being at times that they may be dishonouring the spouse who has passed
  • there may be a belief that this person as spouse who died was one’s “one and only” and that there will never be another
  • Sometimes there is fear about loving others or forming attachments as it may too end in loss – constriction occurs and protection from further pain is the desire
  • Sometimes people will make a pact with themselves to never love again as loss is too painful
  • There is a choice to be made – and this is an example of how I made the choice to love deeply no matter what – if I were to get to the end of my life and look back, would I be content with the choice of protecting myself from future pain or sorrow – the answer was No – I am willing to risk feeling pain and sorrow in order to love deeply – with this choice I am content
  • For everyone this is uniquely their own – for eg. MADD is an example of reinvestment – people who have lost a loved one to drinking and driving have created an organization to try to make a difference
  • For others it may be simply being more aware and mindful of their life and those they love – making sure they are living their life fully in alignment with what truly matters to them and loving deeply
  • William Worden – “asking when mourning is finished is a little like asking how high is up?”
  • My experience has been that movement through grief is complete when one can think of the loved one without intense pain/active grief – there may be a sense of sadness but it is not all-encompassing

Tuulikki Tennant is a Revelstoke-based counsellor. For more information about this special series call 250-837-2155