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By Mari Nardolillo Dias
“I never knew grief felt so much like fear” (CS Lewis)
The term “uncharted territory” is often used to describe grief. Oftentimes the phrase is thrown around as a cliché. We need to describe how it feels to be in a place that we have never been before. For those of you who are not explorers, think about this: You are lost in the forest. The sun sets. No moonlight. No stars. No cell phone. No GPS. You are lost, alone and directionless. You are paralyzed with fear. You can’t seem to think rationally or think at all. Your thoughts are frozen. You are afraid of what danger lurks. Many describe grief similarly.
This is how many of my clients describe their grief, particularly if it is due to a sudden and/or unexpected loss. “Please, just tell me what to do”, they plead. “I will follow your directions to the letter.”
If only I could. Yes, my role is that of a Sherpa. I travel and accompany you on this journey. Unfortunately, there is no one right way to grieve. And if there is no right way, then there is no wrong way. You are the experts of you. Not me. This immobilizing fear renders us unable to move, and of course we want someone to advise us: provide us with a list of do’s and don’ts. Yet those do’s and don’ts are different for everyone. Directionless and overwhelmed with feeling lost, we beg for answers.
There is no GPS for grief. We have to muddle, trip, stumble and fall. Despite our efforts there is often something blocking the path. We can’t see clearly. It is dark. No moonlight. No stars. We are in a surreal vacuum. Alone. Lost.
And yet, we somehow find a way. We search for alternatives. We find some shelter or create one. We investigate alternatives to stay warm. We find a bubbling brook where the water is clear and sustaining. We hunt for berries – anything edible in the forest. We take miniscule steps to survive, hour by hour, day by day.
We think we hear a sound – perhaps someone is coming to the rescue. False alarm. They seemed to be coming closer, and then suddenly, further away. They want to find you, to help you, but after many efforts they retreat. And then – we have a slow-rising, bubbling epiphany. We hear a faraway sound that seems to be coming from deep inside us. It is a narrow glimpse of survival. It flickers, the sound, softly, and then louder, and then softer again. There is no consistency. Yet we learn that the loud flicker of sound, albeit transitory will become more consistent. We know that anxiety is the focus on the future, and depression is the focus on the past. We need to stay in this very moment, breathe and sit still.
We have been in survival mode to stay alive. To breathe, to nourish, to stay warm. Much like being lost in the forest, that is our only goal in early grief. Eventually, (and there is no timetable, it’s different for everyone) we recognize that the sun rises in the east. Sets in the west. We recognize an inner compass that has been there all along. No longer dormant, we take more baby steps until we follow our instincts.
And we survive. Take care of yourselves every minute of every day in the smallest ways you can manage.
Your survival mode will morph into living. Speak your grief, shout it out into the dense forest, and scream into the night, anger at the sun. You have been lost. And now found.
Dr. Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief. Dias is a Certified death doula, and has a Certificate in Psychological Autopsy.
She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program, Johnson & Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in North Kingstown, RI. For more information, go to: http://gracepointegrief.com/