November 2023 – The Protocols of Grief
Fall (in the Northern half of the planet), with its increasing dark and insularity, as well as the setting in (for some of the planet) of the holiday season, can bring on experiences or re-experiences of loss. Sometimes these are new losses, and sometimes these are losses that we tried to tuck into the attic but nonetheless have made their way downstairs. Given the build of our human psyches, these losses trigger the grief process as the way we’ve been designed to resolve those losses. But as natural as that is, we often initially resist or deny or rationalize the loss. Which doesn’t work.
So, in this month’s article, I lay out a sketch of the “protocols” of grieving, the stripped down elements or principles that make the process flow as smoothly and elegantly as it can. Hewing to these as best you can is a decent (if not cookie-cutter) recipe for engaging a process all of us would prefer to ignore. But since hiding grief is the invitation to depression coming on, it behooves us to surrender to the grieving, and these rules of grief are here to support us in that surrender.
Some general protocols on engaging the process of grief.
If per March’s article (here) futility is an ally to wisdom, and futility initiates and requires grief, what is the ally to grieving? More specifically, what are the rules or protocols of grief?
Of course, in this article I understand that to articulate the “protocols of grief” is not the same thing as being in the experience of grief. The act of staying balanced in a windstorm can be described pretty succinctly—keep feet planted, hips loose, don’t brace but rather move with the wind as it buffets—and still you have to actually live that act of balancing to learn it. That said, it also is necessary to have a map or set of rules to return to as you are inevitably unbalancing, otherwise the experienced wobble becomes a disorientation in general that then can turn into panic, which then converts further into reaction rather than surrender.
So, here’s some of the “how to” of grieving. These are not meant to be in a strict sequence, but more like elements of the whole process which are clarified iteratively rather than one-two-three. (There are more writings on grief at the bottom of this article.)
1) Identify the loss:
This is not as self-evident as it sounds. What has been actually lost can be hidden within the folds of what has been obviously lost. For example, if I get fired from a job I was attached to, that’s an obvious loss. But it’s actually what the job means to me that is what I’m attached to, and if it meant that by virtue of being employed it made me feel like a valued member of society, then what is lost is a certain story about belonging, an access route to self-esteem.
2) Identify supports (for nervous system):
By definition, grief is stressful, which draws down our normal resources like a dip in the power supply. We need help and support, because when we’ve lost something important, that is a loss of what itself undergirded us. So we need support, but understanding “support” as anything that helps regulate our taxed nervous systems, i.e., whatever acts as support is a support. Whether that’s talking more to friends and family, watching horror movies, hiking more, prayer, or art—the method does not matter, just that you are doing what your nervous system needs to go through the stressful process.
3) Identify faith (for soul):
A particularly important support is “faith”, which here is not faith in anything particular, but rather a faith that life (life qua life) is still good even with the loss. With major losses of those things which have seemed to be our sources of goodness (a loved one, a career, a pet), it can feel like all the goodness of the world has been sucked out into the void of the loss. It hasn’t—life sustains—but we need sources of faith that goodness is still there under the darkness (otherwise we will freeze up in depression). This is where religious, spiritual, or philosophical touchstones are very important for support, as well as psychotherapy as necessary.
4) Focus on feelings:
Grief is “the emotional process of letting go of what’s already gone,” so it requires a tuning into the emotions. The famous “Stages of Grief” from Kubler-Ross have had a lot of critique, but in general she was decently right, in that grieving typically involves numbness, sadness, anger, bargaining, flatness (non-clinical depression), and poignancy (acceptance). The challenge of grief is to acknowledge the feelings (“I’m furious with my ex-boss”), but instead of staying in our heads or trying only to distract, we need to try to stay attuned to the feelings as much as we can, and feel (not think) them through.
5) Don’t force it:
Grief has its own pacing, like the healing of a physical wound. With other things in life we can apply more force to get more movement. But with grief, if we try to force the process, the process slows down. As best you can, surrender to the flow of the grief: when you need to cry, cry; when you need to rant, rant; when you need to watch dumb tv, do that. Yes, grief has certain principles and touchpoints, but how you specifically go through those is going to be relatively unique to you.
6) Scan for depression:
Lastly, it’s important in grieving to watch for it converting into depression. You can tell the difference between grief and depression by virtue of grief feeling alive (if painful) and moving in waves. In contrast, depression carries a sense of deadness and non-movement. While the process of grief does carry places of flatness, it’s not the same as clinical depression, which essentially is a defense against grief. (If you find yourself in one of these stalled depressions, it’s important to get more support, most particularly in a good therapist.)
So, those pretty much encompass the “protocols of grieving,” not proscriptively, but as general guidelines. Within them, it’s a wobbly path forward, with different speeds and tones, but eventually leading to acceptance and a reconfiguring of our worlds to include that absence of what has been lost, and to allow the base goodness of life to again be clear. My experience as a therapist is that if we engage the grief with these protocols in mind, it goes about as quickly as it can, and bring us in time to where we need to be.