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How to do Grief Work: The Obstacle Isn’t Pain, but Shutting Down to It

I often get asked what I mean when I speak about “grief work”, it’s a fair question. It’s a question that can be hard to answer as there isn’t one concrete answer or some manual, I can hand out to my clients that says “Okay; here's step 1, then step 2, and so on.” Grief work is much more complicated, much messier than that. It requires vulnerability, courage, an open heart, and a willingness to enter the painful places where the grief lies.

If I could sum it up, I would say grief work is about staying open to grief, rather than trying to avoid, escape, drown out or run away from it. Grief work also involves finding ways to rebuild the life that has been left shattered due to your loss.

Megan Devine writes on the nature of grief work, stating “The ultimate goal is to open our hearts, to keep our hearts open when slamming them shut makes more sense” (Devine, 20221). Devine discusses how “grief work” is the art of keeping your heart open to all the emotions that come with grief. Anyone who has lost someone they love knows that grief is filled with a wide array of emotions ranging from pain, love, loss, despair, anger, and even relief. All of which are normal responses to loss and grief. So, to keep our hearts open to this, to stay vulnerable when we would rather shut ourselves off from it all takes a tremendous amount of strength and vulnerability.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert (2018) talks about her experience with grief as an act of surrendering to this force of grief that is bigger than her; bigger than us all. A force we can’t fight with, and one that when we try to fight, we only suffer more. She writes “The only way that I can “handle” grief, then, is the same way that I “handle” Love — by not “handling” it. By bowing down before its power, in complete humility.”(Popova, 2018). Gilbert touches on a key point in that the more we struggle with our emotions and experiences, such as grief, the more suffering we endure.

I also liken grief work to the art of showing up for our pain just as it is. We often look at pain as our obstacle or roadblock, but I see the actual roadblock as the act of shutting down in the face of our pain. Showing up for our pain and our grief can look different for everyone and can change in different moments. It may look like carving out time for a journaling practice, spending time looking through old photo albums, dancing with grief, crying our eyes out, or talking about the person we lost with others. There is no one size fits all to grief.

Grief work looks like a lot of things, showing up for our pain with our hearts open even though we want to shut down, surrendering to the grief that is bigger than us, even though we want to fight it, and learning what this new terrain looks like without our person right beside us.

It can be challenging to know how to start sitting with, moving with, or releasing some of your grief, if that’s the case here are 3 activities to try!

  1. Journal a letter from your grief to yourself- Ask grief what it wants you to know, what it would like from you, or how you can work together through this experience.

  2. Put on a song and invite your grief into the room to dance with you through the song.

  3. Take a self-compassion break- it can be challenging to not be hard on yourself through grief, so next time you find yourself beating yourself up for something like sleeping in, not being able to go grocery shopping, or canceling plans instead try to put your hand over your heart or another part of your body that feels comforting and say something like Dr. Kristin Neff demonstrates- “This is a moment of suffering, suffering is a part of life, let me be kind to myself in this moment” (Neff, 2015). And ask yourself what you need to hear to express that compassion towards yourself. It can help to find language that resonates with you for this exercise. While doing this notice any sensations or emotions that come up.

Devine, M @Refugeingrief. (2021, May 29). What is the real work of grief? And is there a goal? (Instagram Post) Instagram.

Neff, K. (2015, February 23). Exercise 2: Self-Compassion Break. break/

Popova, M. (2018, October 19). Elizabeth Gilbert on Love, Loss, and How to Move Through Grief as Grief Moves Through you.Brain Pickings.


Post written by Anna Finnegan, LSW of Green Door Therapy.

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