The Grief Cheatsheet: 6 Essential Reminders About How to Grieve

Grieving is our natural response when someone dies. In cultural communities where crying is discouraged and endings are not always properly honored, we have had to rediscover for ourselves how to fully and honestly grieve. The inspiring response of my community to the recent death of two friends has inspired me to put together this grieving cheatsheet: six principles I find it useful to remember as we grieve together.

Here are my six reminders:

  1. Grieving is social.
  2. Crying is healing.
  3. Grief and praise go hand-in-hand.
  4. There’s a lot to cry about.
  5. There’s no right way to grieve (but there are some wrong ones).
  6. Death helps us wake up.

Watch the video for more.

Thank you, Brian and Adam, for being such beautiful, loving men. I love you! Farewell . . .

View Video Transcript
The Grief Cheatsheet: 6 Essential Reminders About How to Grieve
Steve Bearman
January 29, 2013

Everything ends, and everyone dies. Grief is our natural response when someone dies, but for those of us who live in cultural communities where crying and emotional expression are discouraged, and where the endings of things are not always properly honored, we often have had to recreate, rediscover for ourselves, how to grieve. Two members of my community died last week, one a close friend of mine. They were swept off of the rocks on the coast of Hawaii by a rogue wave into the ocean, never to return. My community has done such a beautiful job of coming together to celebrate these two men and to grieve about them that it's inspired me to want to put together a kind of cheat sheet on how to grieve. These are six kinds of reminders that I find it really useful to keep in mind when someone dies, to support the grieving process, and for me to support other people’s grieving as well. So, I offer them to you today. And the first of these is that: 1. Grieving Is Social When someone dies, in some ways the thing that's hardest is not that they're gone, but that we're still here, without them, and that that just keeps going on and on and on. But we’re all in that together, and for that reason we need to come together to grieve, we need each other in order to grieve. An important thing to remember about this is that, in communities some people feel like they need to be the ones who are strong, for other people, and to support them while they grieve. But being strong for others, and grieving yourself, are very compatible. It’s important to remember that, if you’re able to be with somebody, have empathy for them, and feel what they feel, while letting yourself also feel your own loss, that it’s possible for you to be in it together, to cry together and to support one another. We set each other off. We give each other permission by being in our own feelings. And so, you don’t need to be one or the other, you can be both. The second reminder that I like to hold on to is that: 2. Crying Is Healing We like to think of ourselves as separate individuals, self-contained, but we are not. Our identities are partially distributed into the people in our lives, especially the people we care about most, and so losing one of those people, when they’re suddenly gone, is like losing a limb. It’s like an amputation. It’s a real hurt. And crying is how we heal from hurts. Crying is the way the healing happens. Thinking itself is not enough. One of the reasons why crying is so important is that when you lose something, some part of yourself, you need to reorganize yourself. Your brain needs to reorganize around that change to discover what your identity is now in the absence of something or someone that was there before. The process of letting go, and reorganizing to discover who you are now, is facilitated by crying. Crying is the thing that allows us to do that. So, crying is healing, and so allowing ourselves to cry is key. My third reminder is that: 3. Grief And Praise Go Hand In Hand This is a concept that comes from the teacher Martin Prechtel. And it’s important for us, when someone dies, to remember what we loved about them and will miss. It’s in the appreciation and the praising of them that we are able to feel our sadness. It seems paradoxical, but it really is in remembering the goodness and what we loved that the tears are able to come. It goes the other way as well, the reason why we appreciate the things we appreciate is in part because they’re temporary, because they’re impermanent, and precious as a result. Appreciation comes from those things that we know won’t last. And, the opposite is also true. We are able to grieve about things when we notice how much we loved and appreciated them. So, helping someone to grieve can often happen by asking them questions about what they loved and will miss. My fourth reminder is related to this, and it’s that: 4. There Is Just A Lot To Cry About There’s a lot to cry about. And many of us judge ourselves for feeling more than we think we’re supposed to. If you weren’t so close to somebody, maybe you don’t think you’re supposed to feel as sad as you do or cry as much, or maybe you think you’re supposed to be done sooner than you are. But it turns out that most of us need to cry a lot more than we do. There’s a lot for us to cry about. And so, giving ourselves, or one another, permission to keep crying, even when we judge ourselves for it, is really important. Especially, if you are starting to learn to reclaim your feelings and cry and heal, in a way that you haven’t in previous parts of your life, you may find that the loss of a someone you love, starts a grieving process, and then riding on the coattails of that grief, is grief for other losses that you have experienced in your life, other things that have ended and other people who you’ve lost. And that you may have the opportunity to heal from many of those losses as you respond honestly to your grief in the moment about the person who you’ve lost in the present. And, the amount that people need to cry brings me to this fifth reminder, which is that: 5. There Is No One Right Way To Grieve (But There Are Some Wrong Ways To Grieve) Here is what I mean by this. For instance, some people might find that they don’t cry, or that it takes a long time for them to cry, or that they cry at crazy moments, you know, gazing down into their bowl of soup, instead of when they think they should be. It just goes differently for everybody. If you lose your partner, if your partner dies, you may find yourself immediately needing to get into another relationship because you need that kind of security, or you may find yourself not able to form another relationship like the one you had for months or years. And both are equally valid ways of responding to death. We just respond differently. And giving ourselves room to be who we are, and honestly look at death and respond in our way, is important. Don’t assume that other people will need to do it the way that you do. Help them figure out their way, and what’s right for them. However, there are things that people do, that look like their own personal way of grieving that are really, in my perspective, avoiding grief: ways that people avoid looking at the pain that they feel about the person that they’ve lost. So, it’s important to look out for these. And one that’s common that I see is that people very quickly go to recognizing what’s beautiful or positive about the death, either imagining the person in some beautiful place and thinking that they’ve gone somewhere better, or perhaps talking about how death is part of rebirth and a natural part of life, and all of those things are true, but going too quickly to those places can often mean you skip the step of noticing how painful it is that they died. Death is painful! It’s supposed to be painful. It’s like birth. Birth is always painful, and death is the same. When someone dies, their body has to stop functioning for them to die, and that hurts, and when we lose them it hurts us. So, let it be painful before you notice what’s also beautiful about it. The final thing that I want offer as a reminder, my sixth reminder in my cheat sheet is that: 6. Death Helps Us To Wake Up When someone dies, it reminds us of the impermanence of life and the myth of the future that we’ve been living. It kind of breaks a trance that we have had, about how we think our life is going to go. It brings us into the immediacy of the present and causes us to ask questions about what we want our lives to be like. What is the purpose of your life? Why are you really here, and are you living it? Asking those questions, those deep existential questions, is a very natural response when someone dies, and it’s a very helpful response. It allows us to live in a more fully present, more deliberate way, instead of being in the trance of the myth of the future, and believing that things will just go on as they have. Some of you are probably well familiar with the words of Mary Oliver in a poem in which she speaks about death and then asks: - - - - Tell me, what is that you plan to do - - - - With your one wild and precious life? This is the question that all of us need to ask ourselves and each other, if we haven’t gone yet, if we’re still sticking around. So, I encourage you to find your way to grieve. Find the ways to support your community members in grieving, and make sure that we all stay in this together. I want to dedicate this to my dear friends Brian Baker and Adam Griffiths. I love you.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.