• Erica Tatum-Sheade, LCSW

Let's Talk About Grief

Grief often shows up in my office – both for my clients and for myself. Since I started in private practice I have had to endure 4 traumatic losses myself. Each time, I gathered myself and prepared for a day of sessions and held my own grief inside while I performed the role of therapist. This is a common experience for therapists, who of course are also humans having human experiences while holding space for their clients.


“Am I doing this right?” is one of the most common questions that comes up when clients are in grief. Grief is difficult precisely because we all grieve differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. I remember reading about grief represented as waves, and now I use this all the time with clients. Sometimes we are able to brace ourselves and prepare for the wave to come, and other times it overtakes us. In all grief experiences, we try our best to swim against the heavy currents – sometimes we make it back to shore safely, and other times the current takes us so far from shore we are unsure if we will ever make it back.


Grief can also be incredibly isolating. Since we all grieve differently, we may feel alone in our grief if it looks different from how others are grieving. I vividly remember going to work just hours after I found out that a loved one had died.  No one knew with the exception of my business partner (who happens to be my husband). I put on my life vest, hunkered down, and waited for the wave to hit me – watching over my shoulder and trying to outsmart it. It took three years for it to finally fully hit me, and when it did boy did it hit me. I was in the grocery store bakery looking for a birthday cake. That wave, building for all those years, took me so far away from shore – but that time, I actually let it. I took off that life vest and just allowed the wave to take me where it wanted me to go. I rode that grief, up and down, and felt “all the feelings” that it wanted me to feel without trying to control or “stuff” it.


Like all of our emotions, we do not get to choose how we feel grief, we only control what we do after they have presented themselves to us. I often see this desire to control our emotions in the form of tabling them until they are more convenient for us to deal with – mostly through numbing or avoidance. The fact is, numbing and avoiding “negative” emotions also numbs and avoids “positive” emotions. No wonder we’re always “off” emotionally! 


Many of us may be familiar with the “Stages of Grief” from Psych 101 (denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance), but rather than try to avoid, or numb, or even fit your experience into stages – today I challenge you to think about grief as a wave and trust that what you are experiencing is taking you somewhere, and somewhere that you may need to go. 


One of my favorite people once said to me, “Grief doesn’t get better. it gets different.”  We can’t numb it, we can’t outrun it, and we can’t schedule it.  Grief changes us - whether it’s the grief associated with losing a loved one, losing a relationship, or losing ANYTHING special to us.  When we ride the wave and honor the experience, when we open ourselves up to the change that it presents, we may not “feel better” right away – but we do, in fact, BECOME better simply from the experience. And isn’t that what we all want? To every day, in every way, become better?


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