I think that I have known for some time; but have not been able to put it into words until recently. I have had this gnawing pull to really explore the definition of grieving. This pull has come up from my own introspection, but mostly from conversations I have had recently.  The funny thing is that, as a counsellor and a widow, I spend my day in conversations. I sit and hold space for people, four days a week for eight hours per day. I love my work and I know it’s my calling.

Ironically, I hear a lot of stories of grief. I heard stories of grief before losing my husband and now, I feel that I have a keen sense in finding grief in people’s lives. Perhaps my own grieving has given me some hidden super power to detect it more easily. People tell me stories of grief in all forms, from a relationship ending, job loss, death of a child, transition in their life, family breakdowns, divorce, death…. the list in never ending. It has left me realizing that grief is universal, while the act of grieving is a choice.

What is grief?

We all use the term grief so easily in our culture to describe the feeling of loss, sorrow and pain. Grief is a noun that describes an experience that causes a “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss”. Grief is a human experience and it’s unavoidable. It doesn’t discriminate based on race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, marital status, political positions, or even how much you have in your savings account. Grief is simply a natural human experience that we cannot run from as we will all have the experience of loss. However, the messages we get from friends, family and the general community is that grief is ugly, messy and something to hide. If everyone experiences it, then why is it so shameful? Why are people so uncomfortable with it? As a widow, you know that a way to clear out a room or get out of a social situation is to share grief.

Grieving is a choice?

If the four walls of my office could talk, they would tell you that they’ve heard “I don’t deal well with grief” a million times over. However, this week when a young woman was telling me about grief and how terrible she is at dealing with it, it suddenly hit me. The DEALING with grief is an act that we consciously choose. We must willingly enter the grieving and accept it. The dictionary defines grieving “to feel great sorrow or grief” which is a verb, which implies choice.

In reflection, I’m struck by my mother in law. After the death of my husband, she wore black for an entire year. She never waivered despite the criticism and judgement she received. To her, this was her declaration of grieving to the world, the depth of her pain and loss of her son. I understood her choice to wear black and, in some ways, I admired it. An external symbol to the world that gave her space to openly grieve. I know that this is an old school practice, but I wish we still practiced it, as I can appreciate how this allows space for grieving.

How to make space for grieving

Our Western society has evolved to be extremely pain avoidant. We will do anything to avoid pain, and in fact, the advertising industry is built on our desire for this avoidance. Pain avoidance feeds shopping, drinking, drugging, gambling, speeding, ragging and any other activity that takes us away from our pain for five seconds. Why do we do this? Because it works! However, pain avoidance also takes us away from our true self and our true experiences. Joy and pain are two different sides of the same coin. If you avoid one, you will inevitably deprive yourself of the other. The trick is that we cannot avoid pain long term no matter what we do. There is no way to run away from pain. Plain and simple.

How can you make grieving a choice when it hurts so bad? Here’s the thing, we have always known how to grieve. As children, when we lost something special whether it was a toy or a friend who moved away, we knew how to grieve. We cried, we sobbed, we wanted to be held and we wanted comfort and reassurance that we were going to be ok. As children, we didn’t judge ourselves for the pain or the tears because our bodies knew intuitively what to do to grieve. We knew how long to grieve and allowed ourselves the time and space to feel the grieving as deeply as we needed to. We didn’t know that grieving was something to hide until an adult tells us to suck it up and stop crying. We are born with this wonderful and wise knowledge and then the world tells us to stuff it, hide it or be ashamed of it.

The greatest gift you can give yourself it to remember what you already know, that grieving is your true self’s expression, and gift yourself space to grieve. Grieve without judgement, expectations or timelines. Grieve the way that your intuitive calls you to grieve and don’t over think it. Let go of worrying about what others will think or if this is the “right” way to do it. Trust that you already know how to grieve and show yourself compassion.