As a therapist I have sat face to face with people during some of the darkest and most painful moments of their lives. When I was just starting out, I have to be honest, grief used to make me uncomfortable. I always wondered what can I possibly say that could help? What can I do to lessen the pain? To put it bluntly, I felt completely and utterly inadequate.

As time went on, and I unfortunately sat with more and more people, I came to realize that it is absolutely true. There is nothing I can say or do to make it better. I am completely inadequate when someone is stuck in the thoroughs of pain. But, while I cannot fix the problem and end the pain, I can bear witness to it, I can sit with a person and let them know that they are not alone, I can help support people through the complicated process of grief.

Grief can take on many forms. It could be the death of a loved one, it could be the ending of an important relationship, or it could be the loss of one’s previously conceived identity. Regardless of the form of grief, these ideas have been useful for those traveling through it.

1) Grief is not a straight and constant path.

Because the pain is so intense, people like to believe that each day they will get better and better. While sometimes that happens, often it could go more like this:

  • Horrible
  • Terrible
  • Ok
  • Good
  • Great
  • Horrible

People often feel discouraged and will say things like “This is even worse, because I thought I was better and now I’m right back to where I started!” It may feel like that, but that is not the reality. If you can accept that the process can zig and zag a bit, and anticipate that it could be horrible again, it can soften the blow. Understanding that the way through grief is not a straight and constant line is useful.

2) There is no wrong way to grieve.

Many clients have asked me if I think that they are grieving appropriately. The fact that they are asking this question tells me that they are. The truth is, there is really no wrong way to grieve. People are going to need different things. Some may find it helpful to stay busy, while some may feel it is best to take some time off. Some people want to be alone, while others would like to be surrounded by friends. Some people cry, some people don’t.

As a therapist I can offer you suggestions that have been useful for others, but ultimately grief is an individual process. If you are cognizant of the fact that you need to grieve, and questioning whether or not you are doing it right, you are doing exactly what you should be doing.

3) Think of grief as a road trip.

Imagine you are taking a cross country road trip. You have to be somewhere but timing is not important. Imagine you are heading from Illinois to California. Some days you may cover a lot of ground. You will drive miles and miles even though you want to stop, you will just keep going. Some days you may travel a little, but get the rest and break that you need. Some days you may not travel at all, and spend the night at a hotel. Ultimately, none of these choices are wrong, and all serve a purpose in helping you get to where you need to be. Grief is very much the same.

Some days will be really hard, and you will feel a great deal of pain and that day will feel like an eternity. Some days you may push through and push thoughts of sadness to the back of your mind and try to focus on other things. Some days you may even not process your grief at all, and simply enjoy the moment. None of these are bad, and eventually you will get to where you need to be. But, you may just cover a bit more ground if you allow yourself to really feel. I mean really feel. Lean into that sadness, lean into that hopelessness, lean into that pain. While it hurts, it also allows you to feel what you ultimately need to feel.

Therapy can be useful, because it can give a person the space that they need in order to grieve. Often people feel that their friends and family are just “done” with them. Or maybe they feel that no one understands, or that they don’t want to be a burden. Knowing that weekly they need to go and are expected to talk to someone about what they are experiencing can be reassuring. While I SO wish that there was something I could actually do to make the pain go away, I am honored and humbled when someone trusts me enough to allow me to accompany them on at least some part of the journey. I dedicate this article to my clients who have allowed me to do just that.