Death: The Layers of Grief

El Diá de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) falls on the first two days of November. During this time I find myself reflecting on the importance of ritual and remembrance as part of honoring the dead. This two-day celebration is traditionally an Aztec salute paying homage to the deceased and is still observed throughout Mexico. It is a way to celebrate the life and legacy of the dead. Loved ones build altars and give offerings to those who have passed. The living share stories and celebrate those who have died. 

I appreciate the ritual and celebration of this holiday because it recognizes and commemorates death annually. What I have come to understand about death is, death needs to be digested in layers. Over the past few years I have worked with grief, both personally and with clients, I have recognized the gravity of death can not be assimilated all in one sitting. Death’s permanence and affect can be overwhelming and traumatic. Time is needed to absorb the impact on our body, mind, and heart.

Death as well as the loss of a loved one is something we will all experience, and is often an averted topic of conversation. Most people are uncomfortable with the topic of death and grief. The following are some guidelines when you or someone you love is grieving.    

1. Everyone grieves differently. People express, hold, and allow grief and sadness in a variety of ways. None of the personal approaches are right or wrong. The process of grief is as individual as our fingerprints. And as I mentioned before, grief needs to be digested in layers and will look different day to day, month to month, and year to year. Just because someone seems “back to normal” or “strong,” doesn’t mean they are “done” with their grieving process. Grief can change the internal landscape of a person to such a degree that the grieving process is never really “done.” Grief is similar to a deep cut that will heal, but will leave a scar. 

2. Sometimes there is nothing to say. And sometimes just saying,”I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry,” is the best response. People who are in the crux of their grief process often need someone to be there with them, if only in silence. We might not know what to say, but when we check in with our grieving friend, the emotional support is felt and appreciated. For example a text to say, “I’m thinking of you” can be a non-invasive way to let your bereaved friend know you are available to them if and when they need you. 

3. Gentle curiosity has never lead me astray. I try to ask all questions and inquiries with a gentle, non-judging, curiosity, especially when talking with someone about their grief. The goal is to understand their process, if they are willing to share. Allow for the grieving individual to guide the conversation because sometimes they may not want to talk, but it is important to continue to provide a loving space for conversation to happen when they are ready. The process of sharing their stories and experiences of their lost loved one can be incredibly beneficial for the bereaved. As a friend, remember to create a safe space for the grieving person to share their stories. Judgements and opinions are not reassuring to the grieving.

The attached video is Kelley Lynn, a stand up comic and speaker, who shares her own journey with grief. She encourages a change in the way we as a society deal with grief and death. Rather than “moving on,” or shutting down the conversation about our lost loved ones, she inspires us to continue the conversations about them. Similarly to el Diá de los Muertos, Lynn emboldens us to keep those we have lost alive through celebration, sharing our stories, and creating a new understanding of grief’s impact.