Recently, I was asked to present on the topic of “Processing Grief” to a Families Against Narcotics (FAN) meeting in Grand Rapids. As I stood in front of the room, I looked into the crowd and saw grief staring back at me.
Grief and Loss to Narcotics…
I experienced an internal tug of war… Here I was presenting on grief when I felt the room was already so deeply affected by it. Before my presentation I learned that 14 new families had recently come to FAN because all 14 had lost someone to narcotics within the past month. And they were all present in the audience.
Grief is identified as: deep distress, cause of suffering through unfortunate outcomes and bereavement. (Webster, 2018)
The above words are only the seed to help make sense of identifying why we are grieving. The process has more depth. And most importantly, we need to understand that grief is not a linear process.
And grief is not the same for every person…
The grieving process is not the same for every person. Each individual experiences grief differently. There is no cookie cutter version of sorrow or a “how to” guide in processing. Grief can be experienced from a physical loss, such as a person. Or an internal loss, such as loss of identity, autonomy or belonging.
After much research Kubler-Ross (2005) identifies “stages of grief” as:
These stages are commonly misunderstood as a “one fits all” process. In actuality they are not. They are intended to help make sense of what a person is experiencing while grieving – individually.
Their is no “Order” to Grief
The order of these stages is not an actual order either. Some people start at depression and others may experience their grief process by going between anger and depression for a while. Acceptance is commonly understood as an “acceptance of this new normal”. But, it is not necessarily an acceptance of what happened. You just start to live a life that may be integrated with good and bad days.
Dayton (2005) also identifies stages of grief in living a life in recovery. These stages are identified as:
Yearning and Searching
Disorganization, Anger and Despair
Reorganization and Integration
Reinvestment, Spiritual Growth and Renewed Commitment to Life
Someone in recovery may experience Kubler Ross’s stages of grief, Dayton’s or a combination of the two.
While experiencing grief, we cannot dismiss other symptoms as well. Grief stirs a lot of emotions and physical ailments that may go untreated. These may include:
Sleep Deprivation or Difficulty Sleeping
Loss of Appetite
When looking at these symptoms separate from grief, they appear to be symptoms that would affect someone’s daily living. Adding grief to these emotions can certainly cause one’s daily routine to be affected.
We know each person processes grief differently based on past, physical and psychological make up, personality etc. Most importantly, our brains are designed to keep us in “survival mode” throughout life. In order to do so, our brains respond with an automatic reaction to our emotions such as anger, sadness, frustration or confusion. This is because our automatic survival mode strives to “think for us”. It causes us to respond automatically rather than from our rational and logical thinking.
And this may induce a response that is fueled from our emotions such as anger, sadness, frustration or confusion. We may look back at how we responded and wonder what we were thinking! The fact is, we were not thinking.
If the grief being experienced is from a traumatic experience, a person may not be able to talk about it. Their verbal processing is literally not able to function. The brain has gone into survival mode and is protecting them from processing an experience, because they are not ready to process yet.
Trauma disrupts the stress hormone which affects our processing. The Broca’s area which includes verbal processing goes off the radar because our minds have decided they need to protect us whatever it takes. Rather than processing our information our minds just respond immediately (Van Der Kolk, 2014).
Sanford House at John Street for Men…
As an Art Therapist at Sanford House, I lead a weekly grief group for men. During this group, we talk about how both “stages of grief” are applicable to their recovery. Several people explained they felt as if they had to go through Kubler’s stages before working through Dayton’s and that they were just starting Dayton’s stages of grief while in treatment. While the group focuses on coping skills and resiliency, we also create a group art piece.
The process helps the men to experience putting into practice ways to find clarity through chaos – in situations and emotions. One of our groups painted a picture together. In addition, a story was created and the group shared how they felt about the image:
Art Title: Funny Farm
Lord of the Flyrings on drugs.
Where everything is colorful and nothing makes sense.
There is no start and no end.
Just controlled chaos in a box.
Through this creative process, the group was able to proceed with a verbal discussion about the chaos, mentally and physically, they were experiencing while processing grief. It allowed them to let go of things that can’t be controlled, begin to sit comfortably in the mess, and find ways of gaining clarity when feeling loss, distress and confusion.
If You are Experiencing Grief…
You may be reading this and experiencing grief yourself. I understand this can seem like a lot of information. When I looked at the crowd at FAN, I was not sure how much information was being retained. So I concluded with some universals to live by.
And if there is anything you should take away from this article, it’s this:
It’s okay to be sad.
Tears are like visitors making camp in your life and they will come and go throughout your life.
When you feel broken it’s because you have been resilient, you loved with all you have and that can hurt.
You will have good and bad days – it’s okay.
There is no need to feel guilty when you have good days. That does not dismiss your loss. And your bad days do not dismiss the fact you also have good things in your life too.
Your grief does not have to dishonor having joy in your life too, you can have happiness and you can still have sadness at the same time.
You just have to make it through. No one said you have to be good at it or make it through gracefully. Just make it through…