The Why and How of Accessing Grief
When you experience a sudden loss of a loved one, grief usually arises immediately, and, if you allow it, it has its own cycle. But when you experience a loss that is more complex, such as a sense of care and support in childhood, grief can be difficult to access. This inaccessible grief contributes to habitual anger and disconnectedness. In these situations, knowing how to access grief is essential to healing and to releasing reactivity.
Before getting into the “how to” of accessing grief, it’s important to have clarity about the definition of grief in this context. Grief that leads to healing is an expansive state. It is a deep allowing or willingness to be with a particular experience and truth. If you are not resisting grief, then it is a neutral-to-pleasant experience. The pleasant sensations are most obvious in a given moment at the end of a grieving cycle. Typically there is a sense of spaciousness and relief as something is integrated and a tense holding is released.
Grief is often confused with anguish. Anguish is a painful feeling that is accompanied by deep resistance to a particular experience or the truth of what happened. If you are feeling anguish, you are likely also shuttling between other emotions like anger, shock, and horror. The thoughts and body tension that go with anguish don’t directly lead to healing but may be a necessary part of your process.
Grief is distinguished by an absence of thoughts. It arises in a moment, and you find yourself crying or sobbing, and then, in its own time, it calms and relaxes. If you are able to let it have space, grief will run its natural cycle. This brings us to the first “how to” of accessing grief.
Accessing grief requires willingness to set aside quiet time with no distractions. You might lay down or sit quietly and settle your thoughts. Focus your attention on inviting your habitual body tension to relax as much as it can. Once settled, gently reassure yourself that it’s okay to feel whatever comes up. As feelings come up, maintain your attention on them and where they are in the body. Images or memories may arise naturally. Simply notice them and the accompanying feelings. The key here is to not get distracted by thinking. Let go of each thought as it comes up without following it into a story or analysis.
If you don’t have a stable meditation practice, doing this on your own may be too difficult. And, even if you do have a meditation practice, accessing grief often requires empathic presence from another. Your psyche naturally responds to someone who is truly capable of being with you in this way. In other words, when you perceive that there is safe container that can hold and allow your grief, grief will flow.
These are the first two broad aspects of how to access grief: setting aside a spacious time of allowing and finding the empathic presence of another. Within these broad aspects you may need additional specific steps. Let’s look at eight specific steps using the example of grieving a lost childhood.
Begin by anchoring.
Articulate a specific neutral observation of the relevant situation. EXAMPLE: I remember the day after my eighth birthday; my mother told me that I was responsible for taking care of my younger siblings while she was at work.
Access empathy for feelings. EXAMPLE: Sitting with that memory now I can feel fear, overwhelm, and anger.
Access empathy for needs. EXAMPLE: I needed care! I was a little kid, I needed support and to just play and learn. I couldn’t be myself (need for authenticity,). I had to be a little adult.
Articulate what you wish were true. EXAMPLE: I just wanted my mom to see me and be with me. I wanted us to be together and do things other families did. I wanted her to come to my school play and take me to soccer practice like other kids’ moms did.
Articulate the way it was for you. EXAMPLE: I was so lonely. I felt like I lived far away from things. I resented my younger siblings. I started to shut down, but I desperately wanted my mom’s attention.
Allow grief. Grief will likely naturally arise here as you completely allow the truth of what happened and what you really wanted at the time.
Take action or make a plan. Once you have integrated an experience through grieving, you may want to do something to care for the needs you identified in that situation. Specific and doable requests for yourself or others help to give the newly released energy direction. This supports healing.
When grieving something in childhood, some of the most common obstacles are the impulse to protect the parents and the fear of appearing ungrateful. However, this impulse to protect others’ good intentions or your own sense of gratitude can interfere with the healing process. Accessing grief means being able to acknowledge that experiences are complex and multi-layered. More simply, grieving one aspect of an experience doesn’t negate anything else that is true in that situation. For example, it can be true that your mother loved you and was doing the best she could, that you felt that love, and, at the same time, that you were lonely and missing some essential support and care.
In the long run, completing a grief process (whether with a present moment loss or a loss in the past) will give you more access to compassion for all those involved in a particular situation. You will be able to see the situation more clearly and from a larger perspective. From this softening in your heart and clarity of seeing, you will find that you meet old triggers with greater equanimity. With equanimity, relating to others and taking action can be informed by wisdom.
Start practicing with grief in a simple way right now. Reflect on the last day or two with the intention of finding a moment when your needs were unmet. Regardless of how mundane the situation might seem, go through each of the eight steps outlined above.