• Making Space for Grief

    I have been grieving this loss for 11 years, when does it get easier? I asked my therapist one day, several years back.

    She looked at me for awhile, and then asked me if I had made space for my grief yet. 

    Made space for it? Such a foreign concept to me. I didn’t know what that meant. Which, by extention, means I didn’t know how much I needed to do it. She handed me a small Sadness plush doll from the movie Inside Out, and told me to imagine that the doll represtented my grief and sadness. She then told me to hold it for however long I felt I needed to. 

    When I tell you I sobbed, y’all. I ugly-cried harder than I think I had every ugly-cried before. At that moment I realized that for the past 11 years I had been running from grief. I had been escaping grief. I had been denying grief. I had been dancing with grief. I had been burying my grief. In 11 years, I had not once made space for grief. 

    Even when I thought I was, “letting myself grieve” by listening to sad songs or writing poetry, I was doing these things to the point of dissociation. I had engaged with my grief in the past, but I didn’t have the tools to do this without becoming overwhelmed and disconnecting from it very quickly. 

    I didn’t realize that the first step to making space for grief was first to expand your window of tolerance, because, well, grief is some heavy shit. 

    So How Do You Expand Your Window of Tolerance?

    When I first start working with clients who come to me with heavy things, we first take a look at their window of tolerance. This means figuring out what things do they feel confident in handling, and what things overwhelm them. Sometimes people come to me with multiple traumatic events in their lives, and they may find it relatively easy to talk or think about one event (i.e. a car accident) but difficult to talk or think about another (i.e. a sexual assault). It’s important for us to know where their comfort zone is, and how they respond when they’re pushed outside of their comfort zone. 

    Next, I like to learn about my client’s current resources and strengths. What helps them deal with the things that overwhelm them? How do they currently cope with stress? I also like to know if they’re pleased with these resources, or if they’d like to change them. For example, I might have someone tell me that they cope with stress by smoking a cigarette, but that they’d like to eventually quit smoking. 

    After I have a good idea of what a person’s window of tolerance currently looks like, and what their current resources are, we develop a plan to improve their resources with the goal of expanding their window of tolerance. We might do this through mindfulness strategies, breath work, grounding techniques, creative processes, self-soothing, physical activities, thought challenging, imagery, body scans, etc. 

    We always go at a comfortable pace for the client, and we only begin facing the difficult things once they feel ready to do so. 

    So what did it look like for me?

    For me, we did a lot of mindfulness, lots of imagery, a lot of grounding activities, and a lot of body scans. It was important for me to get connected to my body, and to the here and now because my defense mechanism was to often disconnect from my body and the here and now and spend lots of time in my head/thoughts. 

    Once I felt ready, I was able to make that space for my grief. But you said you ugly-cried harder than you ever did before, might be your first thought. Yes, I did. But because of the work I had done on building up my resources, I was no longer afraid of ugly-crying. I had skills that kept me from spiraling. I had tools that kept me from crying for the rest of the day. I had resources that kept me from feeling that way for the following days or weeks. 

    These days, it doesn’t take me 11 years to make space for grief. I tend to greet grief like an old friend when it comes around. I find value in it, where I once only found fear of it. 

    In making space for grief, we are paying tribute to something that matters so much to us. We are saying that even though that thing or that person doesn’t take up space in our worlds anymore, we are offering space to their absence in our worlds. Let me repeat that. By making space for grief, we are saying that even though the person or thing no longer takes up space in our world, we are offering space for their absence in our world. 

    If you’ve ever lost someone, you’ll know that their absence has just as significant an impact on your life as their presence did. We need to honor that. We need to allow space for that. So often we push that impact to the side. We run from it. We bury it. We hide it. 

    I invite you instead, to embrace the impact that their absence has on your world. When I was a teenager I lost my father. When he was here, he gave me my sense of humor, taught me not to take life too seriously, taught me to have a strong work ethic, and taught me that if you love what you do for work, you’ll never work a day in your life. But his absence has taught me to be fiercely independent, to make meaning out of hardship, to appreciate love and laughter, that bad days are just bad days, and that life is what you make it. For 11 years, I denied myself the benefit of grieving the loss of him. And for 11 years, I denied him the space in my world after he left it. 

    This past weekend, I had to make the difficult decision to lay my sweet dog to rest. I got her when I first moved into my own place. We grew up together. She led me all through my 20s and into my 30s. In her life, she taught me more about being my authentic self than I ever thought I could learn, she taught me about holding my head high and walking with confidence, loving with my whole heart, and she continued to remind me not to take life too seriously. This time, as grief came knocking, I answered the door with a smile and welcomed her in, because the best way I can honor my sweet pup is to continue to make space for her in my world, and to continue to learn from her in her absence. 

    You Deserve to Stop Running From Grief. They Deserve Space in Your World.