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4 steps to dealing with loss, plus why you need to grieve before you can 'move on.'

Ignoring grief tears at the fabric of being human, and disallows one of the most crucial experiences that must occur in the wake of our loss.

I remember sitting with a friend who had been betrayed by her husband. After repeatedly cheating on her, he had abandoned her, and she felt helpless and alone for a long time.

During our conversation, it became increasingly clear to me that my friend was frustrated.

But she wasn’t frustrated because of what her ex-husband had done. Instead, she was frustrated because she was not fully healed emotionally, but felt that she should be healed by now.


“It was a few years ago," she said. "I feel like I should be over this by now.”

I immediately stopped her. She was still in intense pain, but not because she had grieved this loss for too long. No, she was still in pain because she hadn’t allowed herself to grieve at all.

One of the most damaging narratives we're fed is that grieving should only be done under strict controls.

Funerals are one of the few places we're "allowed" to grieve. Photo via iStock.

We’re sometimes told — either implicitly or explicitly — that it’s not appropriate to make a fuss, that grieving should be done in private, and perhaps, worst of all, that grief has an expiration date.

Society’s message is often incredibly clear: Grief is uncomfortable for others, so stay away and grieve alone. Grieving is a problem, so we’re going to put a gag order on it. If you need to grieve, fine, but it must not interfere with conventional norms.

But I want to set the record straight: This mindset can be incredibly destructive. Ignoring grief tears at the fabric of being human and disallows one of the most crucial experiences that must occur in the wake of our loss.

What so many of us fail to understand is that grief is a perfectly natural response to loss.

Although grief is generally associated with the death of a loved one, it can occur in response to any loss. If you’ve ever had a relationship fall apart, suffered a debilitating injury, faced financial calamity, or even had to deal with the consequences of having to let go of a dream, you’ve experienced grief.

Grief is an expression of the love that’s borne of our pain. Yet because it’s viewed as an unpleasant, irritating aberration, millions of people feel as if they do not have permission to grieve. This narrative plays out all the time, both privately and publicly.

For example, if anyone has ever told you to “move on” from a devastating injury or to “get over” a failed relationship, or they suggested that you should be thankful for the loss of a loved one because it was meant to “teach” you something, you’ve been subjected to this kind of shaming.

But telling grieving people to “get over” or “let go” of their losses can cause them to do the exact opposite of what these words intend. Instead of finding any sense of solace or hope in the most difficult period of their lives, they bury their grief in layer upon layer of shame and fear. The more they try to buck up or pretend as if their pain doesn’t exist, the more they fall into hopelessness and despair.

The reality is there is no one right way to grieve.

Photo via iStock.

Anyone who tells you otherwise simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. In fact, when you’ve suffered a loss, the single most important thing you can do if you want to find new life amid tragedy is to grieve the way you need to, and grieve fully, in whatever form that takes.

While there is no prescriptive way to grieve, it’s such a taboo topic that most of us don’t even know where to begin. In my experience, it helps to start with the following:

1. Truly acknowledge that you are, in fact, grieving.

This is usually very difficult to come to terms with because allowing yourself to grieve demands that you be vulnerable — not just with others, but with yourself. You must be willing to look yourself in the mirror and resist the temptation to bury the pain that resides within you.

Psychological research has shown that those who repress their grief are more likely to succumb to depression, sleep disorders, and other adverse effects in the aftermath of grief than those who don’t. As scary as it can be to allow yourself to experience grief, the reality is that it can actually prevent complications down the line.

2. Reach out to someone who’s willing to stand with you and listen without judgment.

Photo via iStock.

Most clinicians, including researchers at The Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University, stress the importance of finding support amid grief. In fact, it’s often cited as the most important step you can take when grief has consumed you.

3. Understand that you, and only you, can truly define what “getting better” might look like.

After all, when you’ve suffered a tremendous loss, you don’t ever really return to “normal.” You can’t get a loved one back or “cure” an incurable illness. The task is not to “heal” as defined by other people, but to build a new life for yourself in light of what you have lost.

4. Don’t hesitate to seek out support from a licensed therapist or in a support group.

Note that I said support, not help. In the early phases of grief, “help” is too often tied to the notion of being “repaired.” You don’t need to be repaired as you learn to grieve. You need to be supported, and that comes when you find a person or community of people who are willing to accept you, just as you are, and bear witness to your pain.

Grief is not a linear process.

Grief is a lonely, aching, complicated journey with many winding roads. Remember that although only you can experience your grief in your own way, you’re not alone in that experience. Right now, at this very moment, millions of other people are grieving tremendous losses alongside you. Recognizing this won’t make everything better, but it can serve as a source of refuge as you navigate your losses.

Some years ago, a close friend of mine committed suicide. As I grieved this terrible loss, I distinctly remember one person telling me to "get over it" just a month after my friend’s death. This left me humiliated and angry. My first inclination was to hide my grief, but it didn’t take me long to realize that I could also choose to ignore this person’s terrible advice. The loss of my friend should never have happened, and I needed to experience my grief on my own.

Your losses should never have happened either.

The fact that you’re faced with tragedy is itself painful enough. How you honor what you have lost is something that you — and only you — can enact.

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Three women, three MS journeys: How multiple sclerosis looks different for everyone

Gina, Nathalie and Helga share their reactions to being diagnosed with MS and how they stay informed and positive in the face of ever-changing symptoms.

Courtesy of Sanofi

Helga, Nathalie and Gina all have MS, and their experiences show how differently the disease can manifest.

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It’s been 155 years since neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot gave the first lecture on a mysterious progressive illness he called “multiple sclerosis.” Since then, we’ve learned a lot. We know MS causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue, including damaging the brain and spinal cord. Resulting symptoms can be debilitating and include fatigue, blurred vision, memory problems and weakness. Huge advancements in our understanding of MS and its underlying causes, as well as treatment advances, have been made in the past few decades, but MS remains a complex and unpredictable reality for the 2.8 million+ people diagnosed around the world.

Ironically, the only real constant for people living with MS is change. There’s no set pattern or standard progression of the disease, so each person’s experience is unique. Some people with MS have mild symptoms that worsen slowly but sometimes improve, while others can have severe symptoms that drastically alter their daily lives.

All people with MS share some things in common, however, such as the need to stay informed on the ever-evolving research, find various lines of support and try to remain hopeful as they continue living with the disease.

To better understand what navigating life with MS really looks like, three women shared their MS stories with us. Their journeys demonstrate how MS can look different for different people and interestingly, how the language used to talk about the disease can greatly impact how people understand their realities.

woman with horse, woman riding horseGina loves riding her horse, Benita.Courtesy of Sanofi

Gina—Hamburg, Germany (diagnosed with relapsing multiple sclerosis in 2017)

When her youngest son was 4 months old, Gina started having problems with her eye. She’d soon learn she was experiencing optic neuritis—her first symptom of MS.

“Immediately after the diagnosis, I looked up facts on MS because I didn’t know anything about it,” Gina says. “And as soon as I knew what could really happen with this disease, I actually got scared.”

As her family’s primary income provider, she worried about how MS would impact her ability to work as a writer and editor. Her family was afraid she was going to end up in a wheelchair. However, for now, Gina’s MS is managed well enough that she still works full-time and is able to be active.

“When I tell somebody that I have MS, they often don't believe me the first time because I don't fulfill any stereotypes,” she says.

Overwhelmed by negative perspectives on living with MS, Gina sought support in the online MS community, which she found to be much more positive.

“I think it’s important to use as many positive words as you can when talking about MS.” It’s important to be realistic while also conveying hope, she says. “MS is an insidious disease that can cause many bad symptoms…that can be frightening, and you can't gloss over it, either.”

To give back to the online community that helped her so much, Gina started a blog to share her story and help others trying to learn about their diagnosis.

Though she deals with fatigue and cognitive dysfunction sometimes, Gina stays active swimming, biking, riding horses and playing with her sons, who are now 11 and 6.

Cognitive dysfunction is common in MS, with over half of people affected. It can impact memory, attention, planning, and word-finding. As with many aspects of MS, some people experience mild changes, while others face more challenges.

Gina says that while there’s still a lot of education about MS needed, she feels positive about the future of MS because there’s so much research being done.

woman in wheelchair holding medal, woman rowingNathalie is an award-winning rower with multiple international titles.Courtesy of Sanofi

Nathalie — Pennes Mirabeau, France (diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis in 2002)

Nathalie was a teenager and a competitive athlete when she noticed her first symptoms of MS, but it would take four years of “limbo” before she was diagnosed.

“Ultimately, the diagnosis was more of a relief, than a shock,” she says. “Because when you have signs and you don’t know why, it’s worse than knowing, in the end, what you have.”

However, learning more about the disease—and the realities of disease progression—scared her.

“That glimpse of the future was direct and traumatic,” she says. Her neurologist explained that the disease evolves differently for everyone, and her situation might end up being serious or very mild. So, she decided to stop comparing herself to others with MS.

She said to herself, “We’ll see what happens, and you’ll manage it bit by bit.”

By 2005, Nathalie’s MS had progressed to the point of needing a wheelchair. However, that has not dampened her competitive spirit.

Nathalie began her international rowing career in 2009 and has won multiple world titles, including two Paralympic medals—silver in London and bronze in Tokyo. Now, at 42, she still trains 11 times a week. Fatigue can be a problem, and sometimes hard workouts leave her with muscle stiffness and shaking, but she credits her ongoing sports career for helping her feel in tune with her body’s signals.

“Over the years, I’ve learned to listen to my body, letting my body guide when I need to stop and take breaks,” she says.

Nathalie explains that she used to only look backwards because of the initial shock of her diagnosis. In time, she stopped thinking about what she couldn’t do anymore and focused on her future. She now lives in the following mindset: “Even when doors close, don’t miss out on those that open.” Instead of focusing on what she can’t do, she focuses on the opportunities she still has. Right now, this includes her training for the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris, where she will compete for another rowing medal.

“I only go forward,” she says. “Well, I try, anyway…It’s easy to say, it’s not always easy to do. But that’s what I try to do.”

woman exiting water after swimming, woman with great daneHelga's Great Dane has become a helpful and beloved companion.Courtesy of Sanofi

Helga—Johannesburg, South Africa (diagnosed with relapsing multiple sclerosis in 2010)

When Helga first started having balance issues and numbness in her feet, she chalked it up to her training as a runner. But when the numbness moved to her face, she knew something was wrong. She never guessed it was MS.

“When I was diagnosed, I felt completely overwhelmed and clueless,” Helga says. “I felt that I had nowhere near enough information. I did not know anything about the disease…I had no idea that it was going to be a process of continually monitoring and adjusting your lifestyle.”

In the beginning, Helga’s symptoms developed slowly, and she didn’t appear ill to others. She was even able to run for a few years after her diagnosis, but she couldn’t do marathons anymore, and she began to fall frequently due to balance issues and right-foot dragging. Then her cognition issues became more problematic, especially in her job as a trainer in a printing company.

“My executive function, decision-making and short-term memory were affected to the point that I was eventually medically unfit for work,” she says. She stopped working in 2017.

However, she didn’t stop living life. Even though she could no longer run, she continued to swim competitively. She got a Great Dane puppy and trained him as a service dog to help her walk. She also serves as vice chair of the patient support organization Multiple Sclerosis South Africa, and she advises others who have been diagnosed to join a patient advocacy group as soon as possible to get reliable information and meet others with MS.

Helga says she is “hopeful” about the future of MS. “I must say that I am so grateful that we have all the new medications available, because my life would not be the same if it wasn't for that,” she adds.

Part of how she manages her MS is by looking at the positives.

“If I could tell the world one thing about MS, it would be that MS is an incurable disease of the nervous system, but it's also the greatest teacher of valuing your health, family, friends, and managing change in your life,” she says. “My life is diversified in a way that I never, ever thought it would, and MS has been honestly the greatest teacher.”

Each MS journey is unique – with each person impacted experiencing different struggles, successes, and feelings as they manage this unpredictable disease. But the common thread is clear – there is a critical need for information, support, and hope. We are proud to participate in World MS Day and share these incredible stories of living life while living with MS. To learn more about MS, go to https://www.sanofi.com/why-words-really-matter-when-it-comes-to-multiple-sclerosis.

MAT-GLB-2301642-v1.0-05/2023

This article was sponsored by Sanofi. Participants were compensated when applicable.

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