How To Turn Bad Grief Into Good Grief
Dipti Tait, hypnotherapist, speaker and author of ‘Good Grief’, explores how we can all develop strategies to stay relaxed and resilient in times of stress, change, and loss by increasing our awareness and harnessing the power of our rational, intellectual minds.
I was once asked how I would define ‘grief‘ in one neat sentence – and for once, I was actually speechless. There were too many emotionally charged adjectives and powerful metaphors crashing around in my mind to choose from and my brain and mouth could not – for the life of me – connect them into a cohesive sentence.
I realised that attempting to summarise grief into a nice Instagramable ‘meme‘ would totally and utterly diminish it. It reminded me of the time I was asked to describe childbirth, and I had the same ‘no words!‘ response then too. Both these powerful experiences have a common thread...
To me, grief felt exactly like going into labour the first time... A tornado of mixed emotions with the powerful ability to sweep you off your feet, right up into the air so high above the ground that you lose touch with all feeling, and then to immediately slam you back down to painful reality without a second thought. Exactly like the final stage of labour, albeit instead of one area contracting, this is entire body and mind labour – where all the cells in your being are fully contracting in excruciating pain with periodic moments of numbness and nothingness.
The major difference between grief and childbirth is that there isn‘t a healthcare system available in preparation for grief, similar to a series of hypnobirthing classes to go to in preparation for childbirth. The only way to get through grief, is to grieve. Once grief strikes, there are systems to manage it, but why is there not a system to prepare for it in the first place?
I believe strongly that we are ALL grieving something. Grief doesn‘t just occur when somebody dies, which seems to be the first thing we think of when we hear the word grief. Grief happens when we as humans face a significant change or any kind of loss in our life.
Grief can strike in many unusual ways unrelated to death. For example, when meaningful relationships end and friendships break down, this loss of connection can bring about grief. We also grieve our youth – moving from our thirties to our forties. We grieve when our life changes direction, such as saying goodbye to a career we once loved. Strangely enough, we can also grieve our environment. So moving home or location can trigger a feeling of deep loss, and give us an empty sense of homesickness as we grieve our place of belonging.
Surprisingly, it‘s not only the losses in our life that trigger grief – we can even feel grief in the good times of gain. Getting married can be a bittersweet time when we are happy and in love, but also grieving our single life. Likewise, when we have babies and become parents, we experience gratitude and joy, but also we can really grieve our freedom. Grieving in good times is not something that is obvious.
This is why I am really passionate about spreading this idea that grief is inextricably linked to our human experience and is happening to us all the time. Given this, it is vital that we learn the skills and prepare ourselves with the tools to cope so we are able to deal with grief when it does strike us hard.
Grief and loss are natural to all life cycles, so why does the idea of loss come as a surprise to us? The idea that grief and loss is something that happens to other people is a fundamental denial of how our planet operates. We should, as human beings, recognise and be willing to invite the idea of grief into our lives. This recognition and deep understanding will begin to break down our fear and evasion of grief.
If we stay in denial mode, and grief or loss does happen in our world, this is a very tough and raw way to cope. My analogy here is that you can learn to swim in two ways – by being thrown in at the deep end, and having to literally sink or swim, or you learn by taking a few gentle lessons to get the basics in place so that if you do find yourself out of depth, you have some strategies to get to safety. If we don‘t learn to swim in grief and it suddenly knocks us overboard, we will quickly feel out of our depth in the vicious ocean of worry, filled with sinking fears about losing control. This can lead to panic engulfing and overwhelming us, which feeds into our stress bucket.
When the stress bucket in our brain overspills, the fight-flight-freeze part of the brain switches on and takes over the rational part of our mind. We lose the ability to stay calm and relax, and we move into stress mode. The stress mode heightens our anxiety and keeps our fear-based radar active, helping us to stay on high alert; it also serves as a protective mechanism enabling us to cope and stay out of danger. This stress model may be useful in the short term to get us to safety quickly, but it is certainly not supportive to well-being in the long term and it is not sustainable for our mental, emotional or physical health.
So, how do we break this vicious stress cycle?
My simple answer, albeit not easy to always do without the right support in place, is to learn to relax into the grief (which sounds contradictory, I know), but, in my opinion – this is actually the answer. Relaxation is, after all, the opposite of stressing! When relaxation is taught as a skill – and practised on repeat to build the skill into a habit – a boundary of relaxation awareness develops as a safety barrier around our mind. This relaxation buffer acts as a metaphorical comfort zone – a place that we can always retreat to when we feel out of our depth.
Learning to relax into any pain, discomfort or overwhelming emotion, such as grief, can help the body and mind stay relatively calm. When we can engage with our calm and more rational part of the brain, we are much more likely to feel in control. Even if we can‘t control the external world, we begin to be able to find some awareness within ourselves of how to stay in control over our internal world.
This is the first step towards understanding how the mind, body, and emotions connect together and, how they can, like a group of unruly toddlers when given some boundaries and rules, all play nicely with each other, rather than squabble for attention and cause chaos.
One of the practical exercises in my book suggests that you start a ‘grief diary’ – this simple exercise of writing down whatever thoughts and feelings you may have can help you to create this awareness. And, slowly, by embracing awareness and learning to relax into your pain and grief, you can begin to put these thought-based concepts into feeling-based practices.
This is how we can all learn to turn bad grief into good grief.
Dipti Tait began her career in TV Post Production working for the BBC in London and now describes herself as wearing lots of hats: mum of two teenage boys, lecturer, hypnotherapist, and author of Good Grief. She was drawn to becoming a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist because she loves listening, just as much as she likes talking! She is also utterly fascinated by the brain, and enjoys learning about how our brain continues to evolve, develop, and change. She uses her knowledge and experience to help each one of her clients understand how their brain works so they can get the best out of it, simply by changing how they think. She runs her practice from the Cotswolds in the UK, but her clients are based around the world and she regularly lectures, writes, and appears on TV and radio discussing hypnotherapy and solutions-based approaches to mental health.
The author's book Good Grief delves further into the philosophy behind this article.