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How To Handle Grief (of all kinds)

I was maybe 14 years old in 2009 or 2010 when I went to see Mac Miller perform in a wet and smoke-filled room in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Most of us kids in Pittsburgh did not know him as Mac Miller but as Malcolm McCormick, a goofy kid who was good in every sense of the word, from his musical talent to his heart. One of my best friends and I spent around 10 bucks each on the tickets, convincing my mom to drop us off in our faux leather jackets on a chilly Friday night. We looked around in awe at the crowd, studying the faces of older teenagers that were not familiar to us. The age gap is not what was important – we were all there to see someone who ended up being an incredibly gifted hip-hop artist, a constant in my life until he died of an overdose on a rainy September afternoon in 2018. That same friend and I had recently bought tickets to see his November tour in Pittsburgh. I listened to all of his albums for months after from front to back, and to this day he is still my phone and computer screensaver. Just this past Friday, two days before his 28th birthday, Malcolm’s family and producer released Circles, the succession to the album Swimming that Malcolm released a few months before his passing. I sat with my boyfriend in his kitchen area, eating a late breakfast and listening to Circles in a mesmerizingly meditative state. About halfway through the album, I felt my eyes quickly filling with tears and my heart physically aching. I felt sad and hopeful and hopeless simultaneously. I cried. My boyfriend listened as I spoke about Malcolm’s desire for a calm heart and mind, my own desire for a calm heart and mind. And even though I only knew some of Malcolm’s friends personally but not him, I was grieving. I am grieving.   

Though true that grief is a common experience, it is still complicated and nearly impossible to plan for. Each of us are unique individuals, and therefore how we handle a loss will be unique to our personalities and how we have learned to cope. How we handle a loss will also be dependent on the role that the person, place, or thing played in our life. It is important to clarify that grief does not have to equal death. Grief can be related to the loss of a job, a relationship, a physique, a drug or substance. You can grieve before a loss occurs, like if your grandmother is sick and you are aware that her time is limited. You can grieve without others acknowledging the importance of the loss. In fact, grief comes from feelings caused by the end of or a change in a familiar pattern. No matter when a person begins grieving or who/what they are grieving, the process is rarely easy and never linear. There are ways to make the process lighter and the symptoms of grief not as severe. The ways included in this article are not all that exist, but instead ones that come up frequently in my work doing grief and trauma therapy.

Aim not to pressure yourself.

Lowering expectations about your grief can either be looked at through a negative lens or through a lens of self-care and reality checking. Many of us learned to think about grief in relation to “the 5 stages”. There is absolutely meaning and substance to this theory, however, it is not backed by research or by the reality of how human emotions operate. The reality? That grief operates in loops, complex and opposite emotions that follow each other. Sometimes, that means back right where you started. Remember though, that is totally normal because progress is never linear. The other reality is that grief does not have an expiration date. Like love, grief can be felt for life and in an endless amount of ways. 

Ask for help.

Folks tend to forget that we do not only have a support system for when we are doing well, and this is a point I stress regularly with my clients. The most important role our support system plays is when we are at our lowest. Humans are naturally social beings, and we have all heard that misery loves company. All cliches aside, we need to be around others that we love and who love us back when we are grieving. Humans are social beings, and therefore require others around them at all points in life. Know that your support system would most likely call on you during their time of need and that it is okay for you to do the same.

Set boundaries with people.

People have opinions about lots of things, and this does mean that loved ones will have an opinion about how you should or should not be grieving. Having the ability to grieve is meaningful and not to mention personal. Setting boundaries, in general, is a practice of self-respect, putting action to the idea of loving yourself by honoring what you need. When you set boundaries with people about your grief, including what you can and cannot handle, you model what self-respect truly means. 

Honor who/what you lost.

In many other countries that do not partake in Western practices, the end of something or someone is viewed to be the next part of the life cycle. What ends is celebrated rather than mourned. Of course, mourning is part of grief, and so is celebration. While you mourn, celebrating the significance of this loss’s role in your life before its passing allows you to process that unique relationship and embrace what time you did have. Even if you feel there was not much to embrace, honoring them in any way that feels right for you, is right. 

Celebrate different feelings and preferences.

By honoring who/what you lost, continue to keep in mind that everyone grieves differently. Others dealing with the loss will not necessarily act or feel how you act or feel. This is what makes us who we are, and is absolutely not bad or negative in any sense of the word. Our grief is proof that not one of us processes any experience in the same way. This is something to be celebrated and welcomed in order for the grieving process to be a bit easier for everyone that is involved.