Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You are listening to episode 46, titled, “They’re Ready – I’m Not.” Grief affects every person differently. We know this intellectually, but subconsciously, I think we hold ourselves to what we think is a more normative standard. If one person looks like they’ve healed, I should too. We should on ourselves and allow tormenting thoughts to persecute us for wanting more time to mourn. So this week, we’re having a very frank discussion about what could be considered normative, as well as framing out some methods to support your own healing when someone else wants to push you faster down the path. Before I go on, just wanted to give a quick THANK YOU and shout out to my FIRST Patrons and premium subscribers! Hello to Pam, Jeremiah, Larry, Beth, Debbie, Micah, and Jered! Your contributions are incredible and I’m so very grateful. So thank you! Let’s get into it.
The first thing we want to do is dismantle the idea that a “normal” grieving process exists. As much as we can say, any and all of it can be normal depending on your immediate family culture, your socio-economic status, your community, your ethnicity, your belief system. As it turns out, we are people beholden to the variables! Which is great news for the grief process – and also terrible news. We’re all completely individual – our stories and experiences are as unique as our DNA – and we are going to be able to form our own experience and understanding of loss. But that also means we don’t have much of a road map to follow.
However, there are common threads through loss that we’ve learned over decades of study. Each principle is going to fit like an oversized sweatshirt. In some areas, it makes sense. It serves the purpose of warmth, even if it’s too roomy or maybe longer than we want. The size is more than we bargained for, but it’s still the same idea. In the same way, grief is SO much more than we expected, but the basic ideas remain – so from there, we can find our own experiences within what we see, hear, and feel.
When you are grieving as part of a community, you are all going to experience the loss and express your loss in unique ways. Some will sob, some will feel unable to cry. Some will practically embody platitudes, while others can hardly speak of the loss. This, we expect, right? What we don’t expect is to feel somewhat “left behind” as we continue to actively grieve yet witness others in our community appear to heal and move on.
Even though we know they’re not “moving on,” it’s difficult to observe. Comparison is an easy critical thought to entertain, and when you don’t necessarily have a path forward of your own, observing another person’s apparent “success” at grief can cut to the quick.
So first, we need some definitions. Since we know that grief doesn’t really ever come to an end, we can reasonably conclude that it must remain then in different states of being. One framework we can use is the concept of acute or subtle grief. They’re about as straightforward as they sound. Acute grief is knock you on your ass, spontaneous tears at the dry cleaners, unable to remember if you ate that food or never prepared it in the first place grieving. The tidal waves that make you wish for a quick death of your own just to make the confusion and ambiguity and anguish come to an end. Sorry if that sounds brutal. It is. It’s very brutal and it sucks. If you were here for sugar coating, I’m super sorry. But I’ll support you through it.
Subtle grief is the shore after the storm. There’s debris and aftermath to sort. Wreckage that may remain with treasures or simply be unsalvageable. But, there is a sense of calm. Of completion. We may even believe that our grief is over. More on that later. But it is this subtle grief that looks and feels like healing. Because it is. Subtle grief may still interrupt your day with tears, but they’re of a more gentle nature. You’re able to observe your grief like a friend; like a familiar for which you have compassion and understanding.
Now that we have all this context, our question is when we are in the middle of acute grief, and those around us seem to have shifted into a more subtle experience of grief, how do we continue to heal when we feel so alone? Or even offended by their process and state of healing while we continue to float?
In my experience, we have to return to the spiraling nature of life. It’s not linear, just as grief is not linear. We grow in a way that we are expanding upwards, widening our influence and understanding as we go. The same is true of grief. We may circle back around to familiar territory (or a repeated grief trigger, conversation, or feeling in the loss) but we are still approaching it from a new point of view. This is where any grief work we’ve done really comes into play.
When our grief is acute, we are in triage mode, right? Whatever serves in the moment that alleviates the pain, so long as we are caring for ourselves. As time passes, we tend to gain perspective and move toward harm reduction. For example, if we were coping by drinking alcohol or engaging in risky social behaviors, maybe we dial those back a bit as time passes and we see the impact they’re having on our life. So each little spiral into a new position of decreased harm on our own behalf is healing.
Take a minute and think back on your own coping tools. Did you give yourself credit for all the healing? Are you right now, in the middle of acute grief and wondering what you could possibly do to decrease your drinking? Even pouring the drink in our hand down the sink is a mark of healing. It’s making a different choice. It’s literally training your brain to fire a new synapse (or to push a new button) that says, “Hey! When I’m feeling this low, I dump out my drink.” When you give your brain a new action, you’re asking it to remember a new order of operations. That’s retraining, and that is healing. No matter how small those moments feel, the celebration of every baby step is reinforcing the new and less harmful behavior.
The more you allow yourself to retrain your thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, and spiritual connections to self, others, the world, and God, the more you will experience the steady pace of subtle grief. I found that in my own life, I was elbow deep in subtle grief before I recognized it. But when I noticed the change, and reflected on how long I’d felt this way, it genuinely felt like a miracle. I’d found my way into healing.
See, we’re not going to get anywhere looking at another person’s grief process – not really. We bear witness to others as an act of generosity and yes, there will be times that we relate to another person’s story or try something new that encouraged them. But learning about someone else’s grief process isn’t the most meaningful way we can uncover what we need. We do that by paying attention to and telling our own story. When we are safe enough in community to fall apart, we are spiraling upwards by speaking up about what we’ve experienced and expressing honestly what we need. That new positioning allows for new insight and new actions that leading to our healing pathway.
Sometimes, people in the subtle grief space in your life may feel you’re not “putting in the work.” Maybe they disapprove of your coping mechanisms, but rather than ask about harm reduction, offering judgment against your choices. They use shame or comparison to motivate you into healing. Others still will use their experience of purpose, speaking of your potential as if you are unaware that you have any. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard grievers say something like, “I pulled away from them because they kept telling me I was wasting my life by crying all the time, as if I could control it.”
Shame never works. Comparison fails every time. Even promising a revelation of purpose is painful, because it relegates our grief to a simply stepping stone into a new thing – as if that grief event was the catalyst for our life to have meaning.
The best way I have found to support myself when someone wants me to move at their pace is to point out that we are very different people. Sometimes I use the acute and subtle grief language. Sometimes, I’m not safe to push back, and I create a boundary in that relationship. But most of the time, I simply remark, “Grief has no timeframe, so I have no timeframe. I’m sorry that makes you uncomfortable, but nothing about this process is expected to feel great. I’m learning how to exist without having to feel at ease or in a comfort zone all the time, and that’s okay.”
If someone genuinely has the audacity to push back on you here, send them to me. You deserve to grieve as you need to, and my whole vibe is protecting the innocent grievers from well-intentioned but harm-causing shame salesmen. I simply won’t allow it. 😉
But I digress. Let’s end this conversation with the inevitable swing back into acute grief. It happens to all of us familiar with the process. We feel like we’re making incredible progress; life is offering a bit of clarity and we might even find ourselves smiling or laughing again. Then like a tsunami, the acute grief is back at the helm and we’re just praying we find a lifejacket on board. What then?
Then, my friends, we remember the spiral. We pause, and recognize that although we’ve been here before, we’re standing on higher ground. We know some of the ways we supported our healing in the first “waves” of acute grief, and because we allowed our brains to carve out new neural pathways with those harm reductive behaviors, we are quicker to recall what helped us and what didn’t. Basically, we’re the EMT graduates now, no longer looking to see what the other trainees are doing. We know how to triage. We are experienced and quick to act on our behalf. We know how to save our life.
Thank you for listening to episode 46 of Restorative Grief. This one hits so hard for me every time. Acute grief is no joke. We make jokes, because we often let our dark sense of humor drive the bus so we can find something to laugh at. I actually love so-called “dark comedies,” so if you have a favorite you should send me an email. I definitely lean into them when I’m stressed and grieving.
But no matter where you sit right now, your grief story is yours to experience. Don’t waste your time comparing it to others. Don’t let their decisions or actions become the measuring stick for healing, and certainly check your own judgments. It’s okay to realize you’re offended by someone’s healing process. It’s not okay to allow that offense to linger and cause even more secondary losses as you grow distant from the people you really love. If an honest conversation is needed, go for it. No one will be ready to move forward in loss or even begin integration of their loss at the same time. Believing otherwise only leads to more walls and broken connections.
If this is your first time listening to Restorative Grief, thank you 3000 for being here! My name is Mandy – I’m a trauma-informed grief coach in the PNW and I started this show to increase grief literacy in our lives. We can’t heal if no one around us knows what healing looks like, and gosh – once we find it for ourselves, we can’t help but live in a way that shows other people it’s possible for them, too.
Please take a few minutes to open your app and leave a review for the show, because I love it and I want you to love it, too. Don’t forget to subscribe as well for a new episode each week. Speaking of which, this is actually my one year anniversary from when I launched the SHOW! I think it was last week, and I took a few weeks off so we’re not at 52 episodes… but still! Incredible. Your faithfulness as an audience keeps me going, and if you’re really invested, you can also now literally invest. Do it as an anniversary gift for me! That’s perfect. I would never return it. Okay – I’m talking about becoming a premium subscriber for the show for the low low price of $4.99/month. I just launched this option and there are already seven bonus episodes, including an exclusive interview with my friend Josh Scott. I’m telling you, if your grief story involves difficultly with faith in any way, you do not want to miss that episode. It’s fire. The link to become a premium member is in the show notes, as well as the link to check out my Patreon for more fun bonuses and opportunities to partner with Restorative Grief.
Whew, long outro today. Thanks for sticking with me. I love your guts, and I’m so grateful you’re here. And one last thing, before you go. Please remember: The only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.
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