• The heartbreak of grief, says Christopher Spriggs, can show us the depths of our love and remind us of what matters

  • He offers his five lessons from loss 

  • We have bereavement counsellors available to support you here

Sometimes we need to be reminded of important things we have known in the past, that are intuitively true, but get clouded over by other things. Here are five aspects about the nature of grief that offer hope, safe ground and a larger perspective to help you cope, recover and heal.

1. Grief is about love

You only grieve who, what and where holds meaning and value for you. Grief, the physiological and psychological response to loss (not just bereavement), is a powerful indication of the love you have. As humans we are wired to love, to be connected to one another and to the earth. 

Grieving, however it manifests, is not a signal that there is something faulty with you (“come on, pull yourself together”) but that someone or something significant has been lost that you love.

2. Grief is presence, not only absence

Because loss can cause you to focus on what is no longer there – whether loss of an enjoyable role at work, physical mobility or loss of a friendship – you might become tricked into thinking grief is only about absence: “What is missing?” But grief is a presence. Our word grief comes from an old French word meaning “heavy” and shares the same word origins as “gravity”. 

Grief, although nearly always unbidden and often unexpected, draws you nearer to the ground. Behind much of what may be diagnosed as depression will often be a source of grief, perhaps unacknowledged. Grief is the deep presence of love for what has been lost.

3. Grief speaks

Sadly in many cultures, especially in the western world, the stigma that prevents people from expressing their emotion (perhaps men especially) causes grief to go unacknowledged and unrecognised. Expressing emotion doesn’t necessarily mean being overtly emotional (e.g. crying, screaming). Grief communicates. It maybe hard to understand what it wants to say, but keeping it hidden or silent will prove detrimental to recovery, healing and integration. 

This doesn’t mean you have to be public about your grief, or openly emotional. This is about listening to the grief. Using direct sentences, such as “I feel lost”, “this is hard”, are ways of verbalising your experience. This won’t be easily possible in the immediate aftermath of a significant loss – the shock will trigger the release of stress hormones and there will be a requirement to get on with day-to-day things. But in time, grief becomes an invitation to listen in new ways. Listening to your body, perhaps the need to slow down, the invitation to rest, taking the chance to notice the moment-to-moment turning of life. Grief wants to remind you “although that has gone, you are still here, you can still love.” Maybe the grief is saying “be tender towards your experience”, not just driving on with life as-it-was as a way to cope. 

For some, journalling might help as a way of tuning into underlying feelings, thoughts and instincts. Additionally, finding a trusted friend, helper or counsellor might offer a chance for your grief to be heard. Grief might not only speak through words (spoken or written) but also through creative action, perhaps making something, painting, tending a garden. 

Let your grief speak, it has things to show you.

4. Grief wants fresh air

It is well-documented that being in natural outdoor environments has benefits for your brain, body, moods and relationships. Your brain 'opens up' when given space and light, when you have longer horizons to view as opposed to being faced with the same old table, chairs and ticking clock. 

Grieving is not completed in an afternoon, and for some losses, the grieving may be lifelong in different ways. Grief needs time and physical space to breathe. Outdoor space causes surprise because it exists beyond your ability to totally control it. Life ‘out there’ moves to its own rhythms and you can become open to a different experience.

5. Grief grows you

Grief changes you, irrevocably. You cannot be the same person after a significant loss as you were before it. You become chemically, neurologically, biologically, relationally different. The system of your life has changed in some irreversible way. The loss of who or what you loved and treasured leaves a felt gap, although you might be numb to this for a time. “They were there and now they are not.” 

If you refuse to let go, if you reject or downplay your experience – which are all entirely normal and valid responses – then unacknowledged grief might cause you to harden and the fear of further loss becomes constricting. But in time you can transcend this time of grieving and something new emerges from the loss. Test this against your own experience of life so far. You can reflect, gain insight in conversation with helpful others, form new meanings. 

None of this is inevitable. It requires choice, openness to help and some persistence. But you can grow from grief. Grieving and healing are one continuous process. Perhaps you become more gentle towards life, more aware of the present, have the capacity to understand why others hurt when they experience loss and you can bring compassion to them.

In these five surprising ways, you gradually come to befriend the grief, which is an act of great courage.

Christopher Spriggs is the author of Grief: A Guided Workbook to Help You Heal

Further reading

How I grieved my husband before he died

Why loss is one of the toughest challenges we can face

5 things I've learned about mortality

How EMDR can help in times of complex grief

Why grieving our losses is essential to moving on