Running East: The Four Tasks of Grief and Loss

“The quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.” 
― Gerald L. Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss

Grief. The word alone can make people run for the covers to try to hide under the soft but stifling blanket of avoidance. We seem to have a natural tendency to avoid grief, because we avoid anything that brings us pain.

Grief is an overwhelming sense of loss that induces a pain and longing so deep that we sometimes can’t catch our breath. Or remember to sleep, eat, go to work, or maintain relationships and responsibilities. This natural tendency to avoid grief can feel foreign and unnatural to us. However, we have the same capacity to grieve as we do to love. After all, grief is a response to losing something or someone we loved and cherished.

Deciding to head to the east is a hard choice but one worth taking. Once we make our way toward the east and into the night to embrace our grief, questions, doubts, and fears arise. We can’t help but be afraid of what is waiting for us in the dark. It’s important to realize that you are not alone, nor the first person to fear what’s coming your way. Many people have wondered, questioned, and feared in the exact same ways that you are, and from their experiences we have the opportunity to learn what grief is and how to cope with it in a way that honors both our loved one and ourselves. One of these people is renown psychologist and author William Worden, who says that instead of viewing grief as stages of feelings, we need to understand grief as a series of tasks that we journey through and complete.

Before we look at these four tasks, it’s important to realize that grief will be different for everyone. And differences do not signal unhealthiness. Just as we all work differently, play differently, and love differently, we will all grieve differently. We need to figure out what is right for ourselves. You’ll know this because you’ll be moving forward. You’ll get glimpses of that sunrise as you head east, even if only for a short while. You’ll be taking care of yourself—truly, not superficially. So although the tasks below are the same and apply to all, your experience may be very different from the person next to you.

So here are the tasks:

1. Accept the reality of the loss. This may be the hardest part, because it’s the first step toward the east and because it is a step that must be taken over and over again. To accept the reality of the loss is to recognize the impact this person had on your life. It’s not denying that they mattered to you or that you loved them fiercely.

2. Work through the pain. Learning to sit with sorrow and loss takes time and practice. It takes being vulnerable with ourselves and others. We understand that we are not okay and we don’t wrestle with that. Working through the pain of grief means giving yourself permission to feel the full impact of the loss. It’s embracing all of your feelings (the good and the ugly) and giving yourself the space to feel all those things honestly.

3. Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. Working through the pain of grief will illuminate the need to create a “new normal.” It’s learning to adapt to internal adjustments, external adjustments, and spiritual adjustments. It’s adapting to who you are after the loss and how it has changed you. It also means living a life in which you will participate differently without the loved one there.

4. Find an enduring connection with the deceased and embark on a new life without them. This means remaining emotionally connected with the person while still moving forward. Your life does not stop. You move toward a new beginning, while carrying your grief with you. It’s easy to mistake this last task as moving on and forgetting, but that is not the case. This step involves recognizing that while grief never really leaves us, it changes over time. It travels with us, not as a hindrance, but as a companion.

These tasks may not be a one-time ordeal. Many people find that they must work through some of these tasks again and again and or work through them out of order. All of this is fine. The point is to do so in a way that is healthy for you. You may be able to work through these tasks alone, or you may find you need extra support and guidance. If you or someone you know is struggling with grief, consider seeking professional help to facilitate that trip to the east.

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