Stop Kicking the Turtle! Or How to Let Yourself Grieve

If you’ve ever suffered an important loss in your life…whether it was the loss of a loved one, a beloved pet, or a special dream…then you know what it means to grieve. Mourning a loss is an important process, and it’s one that you cannot just skip because it feels really bad. With grief, there’s no way out but through.

It’s like slogging your way through a really nasty swamp, full of mosquitoes and alligators and muck. (I live in Florida…this is imagery I can relate to). When grieving, you can’t go around the swamp, you don’t want to just stop in the middle of it…it’s best to just put your head down and keep on going until you get out of it.

You know you’re grieving when you just don’t care about things the way you used to following a loss.  You don’t look forward to much, even special things like celebrations and the holidays.  You don’t have any motivation to get anything done.  Food doesn’t taste that great anymore.  You don’t want to hang out with your friends or family like you used to.  Everything seems to be such an effort.

Sometimes just getting out of your pajamas and getting to the mailbox to get the mail is a major undertaking. All you want to do some days (maybe most days) is close the blinds, stay in bed, and pull the covers up over your head and cry. If you have to get up and function, you’re drained and tired.  You’re like a turtle who needs to pull within for awhile in order to heal.

It’s Okay to Stop and Get Off the Merry-Go-Round

This is so normal, regardless of whether it feels like the most abnormal “you” you have ever experienced. If the person, pet, or dream that died meant anything to you, then you shouldn’t be able to just go on with your life as if nothing happened. If you can wake up the next morning and go on like normal, then you’re either in shock, denial, or it/they didn’t mean that much to you.

People die everyday.  We don’t grieve.  Unless we were connected to them in some meaningful way. And the more connected we were, the more we need to grieve the loss. Grieving is a way of saying to yourself, and the rest of the world, that something important has just happened and you cannot just go on as if it didn’t.

What has happened to you is too important to ignore. It is a way of paying respect to the person, pet, or dream you have had to give up. It is your proverbial “moment of silence.”  Except that it takes a lot longer than a moment.

There’s No Deadline to Finish Your Grieving

In our Western (fast-talking, fast-moving) culture, we are not very good about understanding that people don’t just “get over it” and “move on” in a week, a month, or a year after experiencing a devastating loss. Each person grieves in their own unique way, and it takes as long as it takes. There’s nothing wrong with grieving someone’s death for the rest of your own life.

That happens, and it doesn’t mean that it takes away from your being able to live.…it just means that living with that loss and what it means to you is how you are going to do it. I sometimes think in this culture we have the erroneous notion that a few weeks after a funeral, a person is supposed to be able to return to their normal life with a smile on their face. That would certainly make everyone around them feel better.  But it’s not the way grief works.

Don’t Kick The Turtle!

When you’re grieving, you need to pull inside yourself and put your energy into mourning. That means remembering, honoring, crying, and grieving the lost loved one or thing.  It’s bewildering to try to figure out how to live your life without that special person in it. You are allowed to be like a turtle, safe inside a protected shell, and you don’t have to come out until you’re ready.

If you are expecting yourself to feel, look, act, or function like a non-grieving person before you’re ready, it’s like kicking that turtle…it’s not going to make the turtle come out of it’s shell any faster, that’s for sure. It is draining to try to “act normal” when you don’t feel that way.

It’s draining to have to try to smile and function in all those old ways, when all you want to do is curl up and cry yourself to sleep. You’ll come out of the shell faster if you give yourself the time and space to honor the grieving process.

Grief is NOT Depression

And it is a process…a dynamic, forward-moving process, where the more pain and grief you let yourself feel, the more you heal and move forward. It isn’t like depression, which is like being in a black pit of nothingness where you aren’t moving at all.  It’s numbness, nothingness, void of hope and light. Grieving tends to be less about being numb, and more about feeling the excruciating pain of loss.

Although grief and depression can both look and feel so much alike that it fools a lot of people, they are different things. They are both painful emotionally, in both people want to withdraw from the world, they are fatigued, can’t concentrate, they cry, they’re irritable, and they can’t function the way they can normally.

With depression, the treatment is the exact opposite of what you do when you need to grieve:  you kick yourself in the butt! You make yourself accomplish one task…even if that task is just moving from the bed to the couch to sleep.

You don’t give in to the depression…you keep giving it small, swift kicks to keep yourself moving, to give your brain some new stimulation, to give yourself some hope that things can change. People who are depressed will usually feel better if they give themselves that kick in the rear-end. People who are grieving, however, will not.

Well-meaning friends will want a grieving person to “get out” and ‘have some fun.” This just isn’t possible, and will likely just drain that person’s energy even more.

They’re kicking a turtle.

So, if you are dealing with an important loss that has left you dazed, confused, and not yourself…please be kind to yourself. Stop expecting yourself to do everything the way you always have in the past. Something horrible has happened and it’s okay to feel like the rug has been pulled out from underneath you.

You need time to get your energy back and get your bearings.  Let yourself pull within and tend to that pain, for as long as you need to. Let yourself mourn that loss in peace.

Stop kicking the turtle.

You’ll come out when you’re feeling ready to rejoin the world.

DrAnita Sanz, PhD, Psychologist

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