By Zachary J. Thieneman, Psy.D.
Grief and loss are a part of everyone’s life. Sometimes, it’s a big loss: the death of a friend, family member, or partner. Other times, it’s a small loss: ending a short relationship or a friend moving to a different part of town. Often, it’s somewhere in between. The death of Muhammad Ali, one of Louisville’s most prominent activists and philanthropists, is one such example. The tragedy in Orlando is another such example, where witnessing senseless violence can be incredibly impactful, creating intense emotions.
Like an enormous, emotional, internal building collapsing, grief leaves behind an empty space in one’s self. The grief process is, in essence, figuring out what to do with the space left behind. Many people think grief pertains only to death, but that is not the case. For example, after a relationship ends, you have to re-orient to life without your former partner. Moving to a different city, graduating from school, and other changes create transition periods. These transition periods leave us with a sense of mourning for the way life was before.
Grief is complex and hard to pinpoint; some days may be manageable or even good, others may feel unbearable. After waking up, it can be impossible to know what the next minute, hour, or day will yield. Denial. Anger. Guilt. Sadness. Lethargy. Acceptance. Pain. Memory. Love.
The complexity and shifts in emotion associated with a loss are normal and natural to the grieving process. Though loss is something everybody experiences, it doesn’t make it easy. However, it’s important to know that such vacillating emotions are a part of the natural process. Knowing what to expect during grief is like gathering your materials on the path to rebuilding. After all, reconstructing after a loss equates to filling the empty space left behind by what was lost.
So how do you rebuild after a loss? If things aren’t the same as they were, how can they ever be good again? Fortunately, grief is an experience that everybody goes through. I use the phrase “get through” because it’s equally important to remember to go through, not around, grief. Letting yourself experience your emotions and talking about it with others are great building blocks. It is especially important to do so when those intense, unexpected emotions hit like a ton of bricks. Talking with friends and family is one of the strongest foundations you can ask for when reconstructing. Relationships are a fundamental tool for recreating meaning.
Grief isn’t easy. However, knowing what to expect and how to manage the abrupt feelings associated with grief are the best way to reconstruct who you are after a loss. And remember: rebuilding an empty space doesn’t mean that person, place, or thing is forgotten. You can use what they left you, how it/they impacted you as a person, to reconstruct the space left into a new, integrated whole. A new normal.