Grief is one of the most complex of emotions. You’ve probably heard it said that grief can include a variety of different, powerful emotions and feelings: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, guilt, confusion. The onslaught of these different emotions and feelings can change at any moment or each can last for long periods or we can experience some and not others. Grief does a number on our brain and body.
- Limbic System: Where emotions are triggered, chemicals released, and long-term memories are stored – a perfect storm for where the various cycles of grief seem to feed off of each other and which our brain continually tries to resist (fight/flight/freeze).
- Parasympathetic Nervous System: In the brain stem and lower spinal cord, this area handles breathing and digestion. Grief can mess with both of those, and can lead to changes in systems throughout our bodies, such as loss of appetite, insomnia, an increase in cortisol weakening our immune system, and so much more.
- Prefrontal Cortex / Frontal Lobe: Here is where we process, think, plan, find meaning, exhibit self control. This area shows similar activity when we experience emotional pain and physical pain. “Functioning” as we normally do in day-to-day life becomes difficult.
In practical terms, grief has been described several ways:
- Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind; it’s the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.
- “Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who’s always been there, only to discover when I need her [or him] one more time, she’s no longer there.”
- Conversely, grief can be “the feeling of reaching out for someone who has never been there for me, only to discover when I need them one more time, they still aren’t there for me.”
A Week of Grieving
Grief is experienced differently by everyone, in every situation, in every relationship, and at different points in our lives. This week, I have seen and experienced several different situations that have generated grief – in myself and in people around me.
One is my intense feelings of grief as I come to terms with the true and final end of a relationship that has had a year of disintegration. My attempts at holding a friendship together failed. All week long my emotions and thoughts have very quickly switched between fond memories, deep sadness, regret, resentment, and explosive anger.
Then, today, I shared space with my framily (friend-family) as we grieved the passing of a friend’s mother – a woman who developed strong and impactful relationships with each of us as individuals. She was kind, giving, charismatic, and authentic; she was a woman who lived in joy and whose every expression was rooted in love. My experience of grief in this instance was bitter-sweet. We all were feeling a deep sadness at losing her, even though we had known for months this was going to happen, while also laughing and smiling and tearing up as we remembered and celebrated who she was and all she encompassed.
Yesterday, I gifted my friend a portrait of her beloved pet that died recently. Seeing the beautiful water color painting brought up tears and sadness as we recalled into our hearts and minds just how much we miss her.
And, earlier this week, via social media, I bore witness to an intense grief spreading throughout my community due to an unexpected death of a teen. His inner turmoil and pain surpassed his vibrant and jovial spirit. I’ve experienced this type of grief before – confusion, denial, questioning, guilt, regret, anger, and a deep sadness that becomes all consuming. It has been difficult just to witness this type of grief happening.
Thinking about these very different manifestations of grief, I realized that I tend to navigate grief fairly well. I let each emotion happen naturally and with no judgment. I experience it, and then release it. Two times grief has become debilitating: this week with my cruel expressions of anger, and the instances when grief at my mother’s death will still rise up nearly 20 years later, often unpredictably, sometimes as a subtle pang, but other times with trembling, sobbing, and a pain that shoots through my chest.
I wondered how and why I generally (but not always) respond to this complex mix of intense emotions in a seemingly healthy way, especially when at many points in my life I did not process or express emotions very well at all.
And then, my thoughts jumped to historical trauma and transgenerational trauma. Our reaction to a traumatic experience, untreated, is passed down genetically from the first generation to the second and so on. Grief often follows traumatic experiences and grief unprocessed can itself become a trauma we carry.
When I first heard about historical trauma I immediately knew it to be true. I felt this truth deep inside me – in my very cells. My logic could not have explained it, but my body knew it to be a reality of the human experience. Of my experience.
Years later, this initial intuitive gut reaction started to make sense as I learned bits and pieces about the mystery that was my parent’s life before my siblings and I were born. My parents had lived through a life-altering traumatic experience that emotionally broke them. But, their trauma didn’t just leave them with depression, sadness, and sorrow. It triggered a switch in their DNA, the traits of which were then passed on to my siblings and me.
I was born into a grief that wasn’t my own, and it has shaped every aspect of my existence – my relationships, my limiting beliefs, my reactions to emotions and feelings and situations. It has been easy for me to navigate the myriad feelings of grief when I personally experience loss, because the feelings are familiar and constant.
After this week and today’s flurry of thoughts I know it is time for me to begin the heavy work of unpacking all of this. Even though grief has been my base point for four decades, I don’t believe it has to be permanent. I am resilient, as are we all. I have the desire, the drive, and the support to begin breaking it all down so that my foundation of grief can be replaced with one of unbridled joy and love.