Dealing With Grief

The Tale of The Mustard Seeds

There is a famous tale from the Buddhist text called the Dhammapada about grief that I want to share with you. The wife of a wealthy Indian man in ancient times lost her only child, and out of her desperation and sorrow, was instructed to go meet the Buddha. Many had already thought that she had lost her mind because of her grief.

The Buddha told her that before he could bring the chid back to life, she would need to find white mustard seeds from a family where no one had died, and bring them to him. The grieving woman went from house to house, but couldn’t find a household that had not suffered the death of a family member. She finally realized that that there is no house that is free from dying, and she returned to the Buddha, who comforted her and preached the truth about death and dying.

I like that story, because it reminds me that in death and grieving, we’re not alone. Everyone who lives has to deal with grief, and eventually die, and that commonality helps me feel united with the rest of humankind – that people die, those people that people love die, and that it’s a natural and inevitable process we all experience at one point or another in our lives.

Grief is not Same for Everyone

I don’t think that there is one way to grieve. Grief isn’t the same for everyone, so it’s difficult to say how long grief will happen to you. Don’t get caught in comparing your grief to someone else’s, because it will just make it harder on you. Honor the process of grief as a personal and intimate experience for yourself, and understand that it does take time to work through. If you try to rush it, you might end up simply pushing away, which makes the process more painful.

Time helps, yes, but experiencing grief in it’s full magnitude is the way it organically passes. Grief doesn’t revolve around any one’s schedule. Sometimes it comes, and sometimes it goes, and only with an open experience can you invite it in, and let it fall away on its own.

What funerals help to do is create a ritual process for the experience of grieving. It allows those loved ones the experience of reliving their relationship and memories about the person who died. Funerals facilitate the grief process, and create some sense of comfort  through our shared worldview, often through a religious lens. I also encourage clients to set up little shrines in a personal space, at home, and add items, photos, or tokens of the person who has died. This process helps formalize the grieving process, and allows it to come in, many times when it’s being denied or pushed away, or not talked about.

Get some support, whether it’s a good friend or a therapist, and also grieve alone when you need to. Grieve in the car, or shower, or with your spouse. Sometimes, pets help in this process, too. Watch for people’s prescriptions for you, because many times, others are terrified and uncomfortable with death themselves, especially when people die. They don’t know any better ways to deal with it than you do, so if you’re suggestible to other’s ways of doing it, be sure to filter them through your own way of dealing with grief, and make sure that they’re right for you.

You Won’t Get Stuck if You Really Feel It

If you can feel your emotions in their raw, unadulterated state, your grief will pass much sooner. But, it doesn’t mean it will feel any better while you’re going through it. It will be difficult, and sometimes scary. don’t let your mind get in the middle of it by saying that if you go into your grief, you won’t come out of it, because that’s not true. There is light on the other side of the tunnel with the grief process. You can come out the other side.

Sometimes, we bypass feeling our emotions when we’re stuck in our heads – holding onto the past or future memories concerning the deceased person. When we live in those spaces, we avoid the experience of grief in the present. Memories are portals to the emotions, and when we can feel the emotions, we move through our grief.

Tears – and sometimes physical heaving – is involved in the grief process. Sometimes, it may feel like the tears don’t stop. Let them come, and don’t try to impose any restrictions on yourself. You may, after a while, try to tell yourself that “It’s time to stop grieving,” or “You should be getting over this by now.” Watch your self-critic, because he/she can really get in the way of allowing yourself the full grief process. If you’re sad, be sad. If you continue to be sad, do that. If it continues to keep you stuck for so long that you get concerned you’re not moving through it, seek out some professional help to assist you.

Men have a difficult time with their emotions, so it’s no wonder that many have a hard time with grieving. There is vulnerability in grief, which is often taboo for men in our culture. We’re not supposed to show weakness, let alone tears and pain, so the routine for many men is to compartmentalize their grief and store it in the vault of their experience. Keeping it stuck like that prolongs the grief process, or keeps it frozen for years or decades. If it’s never touched and worked through, it can affect other situations and experiences down the line in your life.

Unfinished Business

The issues that you haven’t resolved can get in the way of the grieving process. If someone close to you dies, and you’ve not wrapped up your issues or conflicts with them, that “unfinished business” can complicate your grieving process. Often times, it’s difficult to tease out what is grief, and what is the unfinished business, because the two can swirl and make for one difficult experience.

From the unfinished business point of view, grief can be a bit more subtle. Grief can also characterize the process of recognition that you have not gotten what you have needed from the deceased person while they were living, be it a spouse, a parent, or a friend. You might be grieving not getting the love, support, visibility, care, parenting, mentorship, or anything else that may have been important to you. Working through those issues means coming to terms with the fact that you won’t have another opportunity to communicate with or get from the person what you needed from them.

Grieving means letting go, and accepting things as they are – not just intellectually, but more so emotionally. Sadness, anger and pain often accompany that acknowledgement that the person is gone, and that what you were missing from that person will never be fulfilled. The emotional part of dealing with your unfinished business can, however, be worked through, even if the person is no longer here in your life.

There is liberation on the other side of grieving your unfinished business, although it may be hard to see when you’re in it. When you can truly process the pain of the unfinished business, an emotional “clearing” comes and the tight grip becomes a little more relaxed with the new acknowledgement. Life can then go on, and the pain is not to be forgotten, only transformed into something more manageable.

Grieving Relationships

People can be grieved if they die, but I believe relationships are like people in that they, too, can come to and end, and can trigger the grief process. Marriages end, friendships end, and businesses end, and all are organisms in their own right – things people put their time, energy, love, hopes, dream and attention into. Do understand that grief is a natural part of the letting go and acceptance process of the finality of things, even if it looks different from physical death, because other parts of our lives can die, too.

The process of grieving is a very personal experience, and it’s different for everyone. It takes time, focus, and allowance of difficult emotions to wash over you without running from them. It may twist and turn, coming and going from time to time, but the more open and accepting you are of that process, the easier your grief becomes to deal with.

About Jason

As "The Man That Men Will Talk To," Jason Fierstein, MA, LPC is a private practice counselor and psychotherapist for men and couples in the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area. He works with struggling men to find happiness in their lives, and with their wives.
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