Navigating the Journey of Grief
Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC | Clinical Director & Senior Clinical Therapist | Young Adults
November is Children’s Grief Awareness Month. As a member of the National Alliance on Children’s Grief (NACG), Open Sky is committed to building awareness around the needs of grieving children, teens, and families. As we highlight this important issue this month, we encourage you to visit the NACG website for helpful resources and activities focused on supporting grieving children.
The weight of grief. It’s physical. As heavy as an elephant on the chest. It can take your breath away. Grief can arise when a person or animal dies, when life becomes difficult, when things change, or when we’re in a place we didn’t expect. We all experience grief when something is lost, and there is pain in its absence. Typically, the more significant the loss or the more significant the change, the more intense the grief.
Many of our students and families at Open Sky experience grief. Grief is not a disorder but an emotional, physical, and spiritual necessity. Grief is a lifelong journey that we don’t move on from but we move forward through. It’s important to acknowledge what we are experiencing as this allows us to ask for the support we need and take steps to heal. As a community, we want to ensure we’re responding to and supporting each person on their path of healing.
Grief can affect and even be detrimental to many aspects of our lives—sleep, relationships, work, and school. Open Sky therapists work with grieving students to slow things down so that together, we can understand the most upsetting part of their loss. We validate that grief and loss are normal parts of being human, and we ask questions to help explore what grief means for each person. Questions like: Do you feel alone? Are you afraid? Are you angry?
We also identify behaviors that are present, as sometimes behaviors give us keys to healing.
Are you isolating? Do you numb with food, screens, or substances?
Many of our clinical therapists at Open Sky approach grief through the framework of the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are a part of the process of integrating and adapting to a new reality. Underneath it all, those in grief are working hard to survive and, with help, get to a place they can thrive.
The stage of denial might look like avoiding and isolating oneself, refusing to talk about what is difficult, numbing the pain by going online or watching videos, keeping busy, using substances, and blaming others. It can feel like shock, shame, confusion, and hopelessness. Students or families might tell themselves that things aren’t that bad or everything is fine at this stage. As a result, they might experience frustration or resentment toward others who have strong emotions surrounding the loss or are coping better than they are.
The stage of anger can look like sarcasm, blame, irritability, and aggression, and it can feel like rage, frustration, resentment, and embarrassment. This stage can range from someone being disrespectful to lashing out with violent behavior. Many people lack the coping skills to deal with significant life changes, so anger is a way to discharge emotions and mask sadness or fear.
When someone is in the stage of bargaining, they might be ruminating on situations from the past and about the future, worrying, and getting stuck in regret. Emotions that arise can be shame, blame, guilt, and fear. Bargaining is a stage in which the person grieving believes they could have or should have done something different. Sometimes it sounds like, “If only I had said or done…” This is a good time to look at how we make meaning of our beliefs.
The stage of depression can manifest as isolation, sleep or eating changes, statements of hopelessness, failing grades, unsafe sex, self-harm, preoccupation with death, and agitation. It can feel like despair, hopelessness, aimlessness, and feeling overwhelmed. These are all common coping mechanisms and signs that point to depression. This is an important stage to watch for, especially if the person is already prone to depression.
When someone is experiencing the stage of acceptance, this might look like being able to talk about the loss, being vulnerable, connecting with others, coping with emotions that arise, and communicating in assertive ways. This can be accompanied by feelings of pride, curiosity, compassion for oneself and others, and joy. It’s natural to experience moments of acceptance and then cycle through other stages again, especially during big moments in life. Guilt might arise when feeling acceptance, as one wonders if that means they didn’t care about what or who was lost. Many don’t realize they can simultaneously experience acceptance and miss what was.
It is important to note that these stages are fluid and not always linear. It is a messy process with a mix of many behaviors and emotions. However, as people develop a relationship with their grief, they develop new strengths, hope, affirmation, and acceptance.
We know that the antidote to grief is healthy habits, community, and appropriate support. The wilderness is a healthy container to deal with grief, preventing behaviors like isolation, unhealthy eating, or substance use that perpetuate downward spirals. At Open Sky, we start with healthy habits like eating well, drinking water, regulating sleep and wake cycles, and daily exercise. Students benefit from the supportive community. With their guides and peers, they hike, eat meals, have groups, and support one another each day, learning to manage their emotions and share their experiences with one another. As they gain expertise in the wilderness, they begin to teach new students what they know, building confidence and helping everyone feel connected and less alone.
Psychologist Dr. William Worden’s tasks of mourning are also used at Open Sky:
Open Sky supports grieving students by:
As you support someone who is grieving, you have to start with “putting your oxygen mask on first.” Make sure you are supporting yourself, especially if you are dealing with your own grief. This puts you in a position to be more available to help someone else with presence and compassion. It is essential to hold space for that person to feel and express grief. You don’t have to do anything perfectly; it is enough just to be present with them. Communicate that there is no one “right” way to experience grief, and they are exactly where they should be in their process.
Many think that talking about the loss will upset the person, but death, change, and loss are a part of life. We can make the mistake of telling someone they need to “be strong” or “don’t feel that way” or encouraging them to just “move on.” Encouraging someone to hide their emotions or move on without attending to their grief can prevent someone from learning how to deal with what life throws at them. Hiding emotions now will only be detrimental when dealing with future losses. Normalize grief by talking about it—people in grief want to be heard.
At times, one’s grief can be so overwhelming that support from a trained professional is needed. Awareness of indicators pointing to the need for outside help is important. These may include: