Navigating Grief

How To Navigate Grief

By Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes

When Sheryl Sandberg marked the end of sheloshim last month with an incredible post about the sudden passing of her husband, she gave voice to a reality that anyone who has experienced loss has likely felt. She wrote: “I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.” Grief is one of the few emotions for which you can’t prepare—and the path through is winding, varied, and unpredictable. We asked long-time goop friend Karen Binder-Brynes—one of the earliest and most prolific contributors to goop—for her thoughts on grief. As a trauma specialist and psychologist who has a private practice in NYC, she has helped many in mourning navigate their way to a new normal.

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not get over the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”
—Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Years ago, I took my two daughters to see an IMAX film about Africa. As we sat in the darkened theater with our 3-D glasses on, a scene unfolded which I will never forget. The camera was following a herd of elephants. One of the babies in the herd had just died. The mother elephant seemed wracked by grief. She would not leave her baby. After some amount of time passed other elephants in the herd began to gently nudge her away from her baby’s lifeless form. She resisted for a while but slowly with the others’ persistent and gentle coaxing, she walked on with the herd. Her grief was palpable.

On June 3rd, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, released a poignant post marking the end of sheloshim, a period of religious mourning in the Jewish faith, for her late husband David, who had passed way suddenly 30 days prior. Because Ms. Sandberg is so well known, her sudden loss and revelations about her grieving process set off a wave of renewed discussion about the vicissitudes of grief and mourning.

As a psychologist in private practice for over 25 years, and as trauma specialist, I decided that it was time to write about what I have learned about the grief not only from my professional experience but in my personal life as well.

“There is no guidebook about navigating through the immense pain of loss and working through the transition into the new normal of life.”

There isn’t a human being on earth who has not experienced some form or degree of grief in their lives. From the moment we have consciousness, we experience loss, and therefore the grief that follows. Babies experience grief and distress when they are separated from a caregiver, children feel bereavement from the loss of pets or even a beloved toy or security object. We continue to feel loss and grief, varying in intensity and meaning, throughout our lifespan.

There has been much written on grief and the stages of mourning, but even so, when one is confronted with a sudden loss they are thrust into a realm of uncertainty, as is everyone who surrounds them. There is no guidebook about navigating through the immense pain of loss and working through the transition into the new normal of life. Often, on top of the need to process mourning, the person is also plagued with self-doubt or even shame about how they are going through their grief. How often has a patient come to me racked with guilt that they have not cried yet or that they feel numb at the loss of a loved one? How often has a patient felt shame that they are feeling grief at the loss of a lover, job, friendship, etc. when others have so many more serious issues to grieve about?

Here is what I have learned. There is no rule book when it comes to grief and mourning. Each individual goes through the grief process in his or her own way and in his or her own time. My beloved father died suddenly while I was raising young daughters and going through a divorce. I was shocked and quite numb for a period of time. Wrapped up in the immense responsibilities of my personal and professional life and worrying and being there for my mother (also in deep shock), I had to hold it together and keep functioning.

Two years after his passing, I was packing my daughters’ sleep-away camp trunks. I could not fit everything into the two canvas duffel bags they were each allowed to bring. I became hysterical, crying out of nowhere. I could not stop for quite a while. This was uncharacteristic of me. All of a sudden, I had a flash of insight. I was grieving my father. He had been a WWII veteran and later, an engineer. All my life he had prided himself on his amazing packing abilities. Now, he was no longer there to help me pack the camp trunks. As trivial as this may sound, I was finally able to grasp the full reality of his absence and allow the pain to surface.

“Acknowledging the permanence of a loss is an exquisitely complex process and there is no predictable time frame in which the acceptance of the loss will occur.”

The permanence of a loss often takes quite a long time to set in. This is why we must have patience with others and with ourselves during the grieving process. Acknowledging the permanence of a loss is an exquisitely complex process, and there is no predictable time frame in which the acceptance of the loss will occur.

Grief comes in many forms and presents itself in myriad ways. Shock is usually the first stage of grief. Whether one has been bracing for an inevitable ending or the loss is sudden, no one can ever really be mentally prepared for the reality that losing someone or something deeply valued will bring.

Almost every religion in the world has mourning rituals following a death. It’s a universal human need to partake in these mourning rituals to get through the agony of acute loss. However, when the rituals end and the formal mourning period subsides, the individual is left alone to embark on the journey of coming to grips with the new reality in which they are living. It is only after the shock begins to abate and people begin to go back to their normal lives that the deeper work of grieving commences.

We have learned in the field of trauma, for instance, that sending mental health professionals running toward a trauma scene immediately after the event is often useless and even disruptive to the survivors. The time that most people really need the grief work is when the shock diminishes mentally and the new normal begins to set in. In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe or sudden loss, more practical matters need to be attended to. For example, if an earthquake devastates one’s home, the most immediate needs are not emotional; rather they often encompass such things as medical attention, shelter, food, etc. At the time of a death, making funeral arrangements becomes paramount. The psychological needs can be attended to only after the more basic survival requirements or practical issues are addressed.

“However, if you dive through the wave and let it wash over you, you will surface immediately and begin to be able to take a breath. Grief is like this.”

There are countless causes of grief. Illness and death of a loved one, one’s own illness or impending death, loss of friendships, loss of a job, a home, or even a dream. It is not always the type or nature of the loss which is universal, but its the way people respond to grief that is human.

I have two very dear friends going through acute grief right now. One has become widowed and the other is suffering through the breakup of a long lasting relationship. Both of my friends are suffering deeply, even though their losses were caused by different events. Both are trying to make sense of their new status in the world and the countless losses that are part of and related to the main loss. Both of these friends need the people around them to be patient with their suffering and believe in their resilience. Both need to be empathized with but not pitied. Both will survive but do not always need to hear that they will in the moments where their suffering is the greatest. Both merely need to be asked what they need at any given time.

I often use metaphor in my work with patients. When dealing with grief I often use the image of being at the beach and jumping the waves. If you try to stand up when a wave is breaking, you will be knocked over by the force of the water and find your self being dragged along the bottom, wondering when and if you will be able to come up for air. However, if you dive through the wave and let it wash over you, you will surface immediately and begin to be able to take a breath. Grief is like this. It comes in waves; sometimes more mellow and sometimes like a tsunami.

“When it comes to grieving the only way out is to go through one’s own process without self-judgment.”

Grief fills us with sorrow. Sorrow will not kill us, but it hurts terribly. Most people will get through their grief in the time that they need to, but a few may require medical or psychiatric intervention if, after reasonable amounts of time, the person finds himself or herself unable to function and move forward through their grieving process at all (this is called pathological mourning). Again, reasonable amounts of time vary depending on the situation and the person.

One of the main principles of Tibetan Buddhism is that suffering is a universal truth. When it comes to grieving, the only way out is to go through one’s own process without self-judgment. Instead of looking at grief as a process that comes to some end, perhaps it’s worth acknowledging that grief in itself is a life force that is as important to our existence as all of our other emotions. If we suffer no grief, then we have never been attached. If we have never been attached, we have not been alive and human.

When grief strikes, allow yourself to experience whatever you need to for as long as you need to. Feel the pain but know you will eventually find yourself in less agony and have faith that you will one day come to a place where you will be better able to tolerate your feelings. Have faith in yourself and your psyche’s ability to survive. The time to have faith is when you need it the most. Thank you.

“When it seems that our sorrow is too great to be borne, let us think of the great family into which our grief has given its entrance, and inevitably, we will feel about their arms, their sympathy and understanding.”
—Helen Keller

In memory of Mehrdad Sadeghi M.D.