mental health blog

overwhelm

Understanding How Children Grieve Can Help Us Cope With Loss As Adults

A tribute to loss and the wisdom of children

Loss is disruptive. Death, especially, impacts lives in the most permanent way. This doesn’t always show up how we expect it to. Sometimes with death comes relief. Sometimes we grieve the loss of something that isn’t human like a pet, a job, a relationship or a life-stage. Sometimes there is anger, sometimes sadness and tears, but not always, and not always right away.

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We're often told what grief "should" look like:
You should be sad.
Your sadness should show up as tears.
You should grieve alone.
You should expect and accept and support for a few weeks.
Then, you should “get on with your life” as quickly as possible.
You should only grieve when there’s a death.


If you do a Google-image search for “grief” you’ll find a lot of low saturation images of people, alone, in the dark, staring off into the distance. Grief is too often held as a solitary experience, one to be traversed behind closed doors, impacting as few people as possible. You don’t find many pictures of people laughing, seeking community, acting angry, or making unsafe decisions but these are all things that can happen in the wake of loss. Even if our personal culture holds grief in a more inviting way, we have often internalized the white-washed messages that grief should be solitary, mysterious, quick, quiet, and sad. This can create a truncated grieving process that is not allowed to unfold as naturally and fully as it may need to.

What about children is different?
Children, especially young children, have not yet internalized these messages from the world around them. Therefore their grief process often looks different. Sometimes, parents will worry, “is my child grieving?”. In many ways, children are experts at grieving when given the space and permission to do it in their own way. We can learn a lot from them about how grief manifests in the human experience when it is allowed to unfold without limitations.    

How do children grieve?

Children grieve intermittently: Loss is a huge thing to process, and children have a natural ability to titrate their experience, to make contact with their grief little by little in order to not become overwhelmed. Essentially they don’t process it all at once.

They grieve through play: Children are naturally in touch with symbolism. They often process their grief through creative means, playing out scenarios or burying things and digging them up. To many adults, this looks too lighthearted to be grief. But for children, play is work.

They experience grief in their bodies: Kids feel their feelings even when they don’t have words for them. The pain may manifest physically without a mental awareness of grief. They may experience, stomach aches, rashes, fatigue, muscle tension, insomnia etc. While it's always good to check with a physician, these symptoms may be grief related.  

They may act out: When experiences, such as loss, become overwhelming, they tend to go in, out, or both. When these emotions go outward, there may be outbursts of laughter, yelling, hitting, punching, biting, testing boundaries, breaking rules, etc. This is a time when gentle, non-shaming, limit setting can be especially important and comforting on a deep level.

They may act in: When the overwhelming emotions move inward, this can show up as isolation, withdraw, self-harm, freezing, not talking, not eating etc. While it is important to stay safe, this behavior can be understood as a normal reaction to loss. 

 

What does this have to do with me? I’m not a child.
In ways, you are. Look at a photo of yourself as a child. Do you recognize that person? That person is not gone. That child is still present inside of you. There may be many layers of life experience in between that child and the outside world, but you are still that person on many levels. That child inside you still has needs. 

How does this Show up in adults?

We can learn a lot about grieving freely from children. If we let go of our preconceptions of grief, we allow it to move through us in it’s own way. The beauty is, as adults, when we have a cognitive understanding of what is happening, we can try to guard against self-judgment. Here’s how these processes we see in children may show up in adults. Here's how we can attend to our inner child throughout the grief process. 

Grieving intermittently: You will not be able to force yourself to move through all the grief the time before you go back to work. It's okay if you feel nothing one week only to be fully in it the next. Ride the waves as they rise and fall and don’t try to change the ocean because you will end up frustrated. Remember the wisdom of children who naturally titrate and let yourself trust your own pace.

Grieving through play: Oftentimes, adults will feel guilty when they find themselves having fun too soon after a loss. Allow yourself to play as part of your process. Perhaps it is a concert, a creative outlet, or a social event. Perhaps it is a day at the beach, or a belly laugh with a friend. The options are endless. Just because you are not in direct contact with sadness does not mean you aren’t working through grief. Every day that you get up with loss is a day you are working through it.

Experiencing grief in your body: Adults often have a need to make sense of their felt experience. We feel our feelings whether we can name them or not and this can be frustrating and confusing. Your body might do things you don’t understand. Certainly see a doctor if you’re worried. Insomnia, waking up at odd hours, rashes, digestive issues, chronic coughs, or muscle tension are just some of the many ways grief may move through the physical body.  

 

Death is the kind of trauma that impacts our attachment.

 

 

 

You may notice being in relationship is hard after a loss or a death. This is normal. It is scary to allow yourself to be connected with others when a deep attachment has been severed. If you are grieving the loss of a situation or life stage it may be scary to feel excited about whatever comes next.

Acting out: If you notice (or your friends and family notice) you’re acting differently, this is normal. Engaging in risky behavior, getting more angry, testing relational boundaries, or seeking more sexual contact than usual, are some of the ways that grief can manifest outwardly. While it is important to stay safe, it is also important to have compassion through these times and not be too hard on yourself when you notice that you’re pushing boundaries.

Acting in: When grief moves inwards it can show up as withdraw, apathy, self harm, substance use, numbness, disinterest in sexual connection, fatigue, or self criticism, just to name a few. Acting in can feel isolating and hopeless. It’s important to let yourself spend time alone if that’s what you need. It’s also important to remember support might feel nice even when reaching out feels impossible.

We can take care of our inner child by allowing the fullest range of expression possible.

When we give permission rather than trying to control, or even understand, we get out of our own way.  By not telling ourselves how we “should” grieve, we encourage the natural healing process. It can come along with a lot of feelings of uncertainty and fear, but coming back to the trust we once had as children can help the process unfold. Grief is already painful; we don’t need to add more pain by attempting to control it. Watch it, notice it, feel it, give it permission, and meet it with compassion especially when it feels confusing. 

If you are dealing with an ending, a loss, or a death, and would like support navigating the process please reach out. 

Freeing Yourself From The Pressure of Perfection

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Imagine you are climbing.

You have your goal in sight. You are headed to the highest point. You keep your eyes on your destination and push onward, ready for the feeling of accomplishment. When you reach that point, you look up to realize you’re not at the top. The peak in fact lies beyond and above, but you couldn’t see it before. You are crest-fallen. You’re tired. It feels as though you have failed, been duped. It’s hard to celebrate what you’ve accomplished because there is so much more ahead you didn’t anticipate. You can see it now…but can you even be sure it’s the top you’re looking at? This, my friend, is the mountain of perfection.  

In today’s world, especially Western Society, there is a not-so-subtle celebration of anything and anyone who is constantly improving. The media is flooded with articles and images about achieving the perfect body, the perfect relationship, the best sex, the most current wardrobe (impeccably organized of course), the highest paying job, flawless hair, etc. etc. Even if you can manage to avoid TV and magazines, your electronics are constantly updating, and notifying you about it. This creates an atmosphere where there is pressure to be constantly on the lookout for what can be improved upon, or what has simply become flawed due to lack of improvement.

The message that you are expected to perfect your looks, life, job, relationship, and thought processes until they are just right is pervasive. The truth is, if you buy into the notion of, “If I am not working towards bettering myself, my flaws will take over,” you are likely to also be unsatisfied, stressed out, exhausted, and feeling broken.

Photo by Luhrs Heldrich

Photo by Luhrs Heldrich

On some level, many sense that perfection is elusive and subjective. Once you reach a goal, a new one seems to emerge, as if it is a moving target. To make it even harder to achieve, what is a hot mess to one person is perfection to another, so there’s not even a reference point everyone can agree on.    

How do we define perfection?

Perfection is a word that has different meanings depending on who you ask. With the exception of, perhaps, mathematical perfection, it is a social construct that is marketed as an endpoint that will solve all of your problems. Frustratingly, it is also marketed as ever changing, and reserved for the most privileged, keeping it just beyond reach. But what is it? According to Google, this is the definition:

per·fec·tion [pərˈfekSH(ə)n/] (noun): the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects

I love this definition. If we use this as a jumping off point, the question becomes not “how to achieve perfection,” but “how to be free from imperfection.”  With that in mind I’d like to offer this solution as an exit ramp off the never-ending climb towards perfection:

Photo and words by Emily Adams

Photo and words by Emily Adams

If you can look at your flaws and truly love them you will free yourself from feeling imperfect. “Love my flaws, you say? I can’t! They are the problem. They are the barriers to perfection. They are the very things I need to banish, fix, erase, and overcome!”

I disagree. That is a belief system that we have been taught to buy into. A paradigm that we have been encouraged to abide by because it keeps everything orderly, hierarchical, and wrinkle free (because wrinkles, a natural sign of use and age, are to be avoided?).  If you take a moment and ask yourself why your flaws are flaws, most of the time you will realize that it is simply because someone else told you they were. Occasionally it is because they truly get in the way of your happiness and wellbeing. The difficult pill to swallow is that we need to love EVEN those flaws.

You’re right, true acceptance, especially self-acceptance is really, really difficult, but the payoff is way greater than that which we get from criticism. Wes Angelozzi once said,

 “Go and love someone exactly as they are. And then watch how quickly they transform into the greatest, truest version of themselves. When one feels seen and appreciated in their own essence, one is instantly empowered.”

The real magic is that oftentimes it is the very acceptance of “flaws” that makes them disappear. This is called the Paradoxical Theory of Change. It comes from Gestalt Therapy practices, which focus very much on the present moment. Fritz Perl introduced the concept and Arnold Beisser gave the theory its name.

“Briefly stated, it is that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.” He goes on to explain, “Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is –to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of the change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.” You can read more about it here.

But why is it so hard to feel perfect just as you are?
Meet: The Inner Critic

The inner critic is the voice inside of you, the part of your psyche that lets you know what you're doing wrong. It is usually familiar, sometimes so familiar that it is hard to differentiate from your own voice. It is the part of you that wants you to succeed and to belong.

Its function is to protect you from failure. However, when it’s in overdrive, the inner critic elicits shame rather than encouragement.

It makes you feel flawed. It makes you feel imperfect. It halts growth. Many people believe that you need to be hard on yourself in order to achieve greatness. It is logical to think that if you constantly critique yourself, you can avoid making mistakes. The problem is, mistakes are inevitable. They are human nature and often signs of growth. If you treat mistakes like indications of failure you end up getting in the way of your personal growth. Imperfections are important. They are essential. 

Photo and words by Emily Adams

Photo and words by Emily Adams

Here are some tips to help you meet your imperfections with love:

Step 1. Identify your inner critic: the inner critic begins to lose power the instant it is seen. Make a practice of calling it out in the moment and saying, “Hey, Ouch. That was harsh.” Watch what happens.

Step 2. Protect yourself from shame: When you identify your inner critic, respond! Create a protector voice. Think of this voice like a bodyguard for your tender heart and let it speak back to any harshness you experience.

Step 3. Try a different tone: Lisa M. Hayes once said, “Be careful what you say to yourself because you are listening.” Start to bring some awareness to how you speak to yourself. When your tone is harsh, see if you can access a softer one.

Step 4. Move into full-on celebration: when you come across a so-called flaw, look at it like an unexpected brush stroke in a work of art. Maybe it is meant to be there. Maybe it makes you more interesting. Maybe it has a function. Maybe you need it right now. Perhaps, you even love it.

Step 5. Nurture yourself and your uniqueness: Smother every part of yourself with love, especially the parts you struggle to accept, or have been taught don’t deserve love. Self-care is not selfish. It is hard work! Do more of what feels truly nurturing. Eat whole foods, drink water, sleep, take showers, move your body in ways that feel nice, give yourself a present, write your “flaws” a love letter.

Every time you find yourself climbing the mountain of perfection, striving, fixing, critiquing, invite yourself to shift gears. Treat yourself as though you are tending a plant. Take a moment to notice how much growing you’ve already done in your lifetime.

 

Ask yourself:
What can I give myself in this moment to allow my growth to happen in the most natural way possible? Do I need space? Do I need nourishment? Support? Attention? Water? Encouragement? A new environment? Do I need to remove something? Or perhaps, do I just need time?

If you would like support with quieting your inner critic and creating a self-love dialogue, please reach out.