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  • Randall Wilson, Psy.D.

3 Steps for Grieving a Loss

One thing is inevitable in life... if you love and care about others, at some point you will experience the pain of loss. Until you've experienced it for yourself, it's hard to understand just how difficult the processes of loss and grief can really be. Personally, as a child I had experienced a certain level of loss when grandparents passed away or beloved family pets reached the end of their days. However, it wasn't until I lost my father to a rare and quickly progressing form of cancer that I finally learned the true impact of a deep and painful loss.

When confronted with emotional pain of such an intense nature, it's common to seek out ways to avoid that pain. For some it could be avoiding the topic or anyone who might bring it up, for others it might be losing themselves in their work, and for others it might mean turning to substance use. Regardless of the method, avoiding the pain of loss is at best a temporary fix, and at worst leads to long-term psychological suffering and a lack of personal growth.

After years of working with clients who were either coping with a loss from their past, or a loss that occurred during their work with me, I've discovered that there are 3 ingredients that are essential to grieving a loss in a healthy and productive manner:

1. Intentionally "visiting with" the loved one.

This first ingredient means simply taking the time to pause and think about the loved one you lost. This happens naturally when we engage in ritual ceremonies such as funerals, wakes, and visiting the burial site of a loved on. But those quickly pass and then it is up to us to take the time to remember them. This process can mean just simply pausing and intentionally thinking about them, the time you spent with them, what they were like as a person. Pictures, videos, and even journaling can be useful tools to help with this process. And most importantly, as you walk through this process, make sure to consider carefully what exactly it was about this person that made them so hard to lose. What was unique or admirable about this person that made them so special to you? Then, as you begin this process, prepare yourself for ingredient number 2...

2. Turn towards and open up to the pain that arises.

As you pause and intentionally open up to the memory of this loved one, you will inevitably be confronted with the deep emotional pain associated with losing them. This is the moment where you have a choice to pivot, turn towards the pain, and create growth, rather than turn away and potentially worsen the emotional pain in the long-run. Going into the process of step #1 fully aware and open to feeling the pain is essential. And then once it arises, taking an open, compassionate stance toward that pain allows you to stay with their memory and maintain access to them and the unique qualities they possessed.

3. Live out some of their values and positive qualities in your own life.

This is the ingredient that involves turning the emotional growth work above into meaningful and tangible growth in your life. Once you have fully connected with the loved one's values and positive qualities and opened up to the pain in order to stay connected, you have the opportunity to carry on those values for them. Their time on this earth has ended, and the most effective way for their values and qualities to live on is through those whose lives they touched while they were still here. When you connect deeply with their values and person qualities, ask yourself, "How can I be more like them in my day to day actions?" When difficult situations arise, ask yourself, "What would they do in this moment?" If you are able to begin living out some of their values and qualities, you not only carry the torch for this loved one, but you also earn yourself the gift of their presence in your life. Living out their values and qualities means cherishing their memory, remembering the joy they brought to you and others, and ultimately, it means being in more frequent contact with them in a very real way.

This is how I've learned to grieve the loss of my father, and it has seemed to help many of my clients dealing with similarly painful losses. I hope that you can work these 3 ingredients into your life so that you can grow with and through the pain of loss, and most importantly, so the loved one that you lost can continue to be a meaningful part of your life.

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