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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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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