Finding meaning in grief

For many of us, the ‘festive season’ is anything but festive as it reminds us of loved ones lost, or of easier, healthier times. Clinical psychologist Marc Lipshitz has written three blog posts that will help you through the grieving process. This is the third.


Willingness to face the truth of what we have lost either through death or illness and to experience the full range of our feelings is the beginning of acceptance. It is also, more often than not, the beginning of a fuller appreciation of who we are and what we are capable of becoming because grief causes us to look inwards and question.

People who are able to confront and understand their feelings about loss discover in the process that they are more resilient than they had imagined themselves to be. The more they learn about themselves, the more they seem to believe that they can get through their pain and carry on with their lives.

The search for meaning in your experience of loss can help you to endure the intense emotions of grief. Victor Frankl made an important discovery when he was interned in concentration camps: that we, as human beings, can bear immense suffering and emotional pain as long as we have a reason for doing so. By finding a reason or personal meaning in your loss, you can then find meaning in the emotional suffering of your loss. Emotional pain, as uncomfortable and distressing as it can be, provides an opportunity for personal growth- movement toward who you want to be.

Pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin of our ability to feel. To deny ourselves the ability to feel grief or to avoid the emotions of grief would be to erode the essence of our human capacity for deep, intimate love.

Pleasure and pain always come and go; they are impermanent. Personal growth and self-actualisation stay with you for the rest of your life.


The grieving process

For many of us, the ‘festive season’ is anything but festive as it reminds us of loved ones lost, or of easier, healthier times. Clinical psychologist Marc Lipshitz has written three blog posts that will help you through the grieving process. This is the second.


Grieving is an active process that the griever needs to engage with. It does not passively happen to you but requires hard work and effort. Grief involves choices in coping because we can also choose not to grieve.

Think of a past or current loss that you have not fully grieved. What was or is the reason for this? See if the list below resonates:

  • Fear of having to deal with prior losses (as current losses trigger previous losses)


  • Fear of the unknown and change (especially if this is your first significant loss)


  • Having other commitments or being too busy(as a result lacking the time)


  • Being overly medicated (psychiatric medication can numb/dull feelings if the dosage is too high)


  • Fear of going crazy, losing control or becoming depressed (as a result fear of being trapped in a depression)


  • Experiencing too many losses at once (this is referred to as bereavement overload)


  • Lacking the right support (support availability is not the same as support satisfaction- I can have lots of people around me but not one person that I can turn to)


  • Already being disconnected from your feelings at the time of the loss (in other words I arrive disconnected)


  • Having difficulty tolerating strong emotions (thus soothing feelings with substances or food and never feeling the feelings)


  • Believing it was not culturally acceptable to mourn the loss (especially if there was stigma around the death, for example, HIV/Aids or suicide)

Grieving is a non-linear process that occurs cyclically with no specific end point. It involves alternating periods of intensification and subsiding of symptoms. Symptoms may return for years after the loss. The grieving process is highly personal and individualistic involving progress and setbacks- four steps forwards and three steps backwards.

One benchmark of grief that has been processed, and worked through is when the person is able to think of the deceased without pain. There is always a sense of sadness but it is a different kind of sadness- it lacks the wrenching quality it previously had. The griever is able to stay connected to the deceased by redefining the relationship whilst reinvesting his or her emotions into life and in living…

Grieving mindfully

For many of us, the ‘festive season’ is anything but festive as it reminds us of loved ones lost, or of easier, healthier times. Clinical psychologist Marc Lipshitz has written three blog posts that will help you through the grieving process. This is the first.


Grief is a personal journey never the same for any two people, and as unique as your life and your relationships.

Grief may be the experience of continuing to love someone after they die, of longing for a loved one’s presence, and yet knowing that is no longer available. However, grief is not limited to loss through death. Every time you lose a relationship or are faced with uncertainty, you grieve the loss of a predictable and safe world. You experience grief when you move to a new town, lose a job, or go through a divorce. You experience grief when you are diagnosed with a life-changing illness, or when you are separated from a loved one by circumstance. You experience grief when you experience any change in your relationship with yourself or to the world.

Paradoxically, it is often when you try to resist the intense emotions of grief that they linger, and even hurt more deeply when they inevitably surface. Grieving is the process of using your emotional vulnerability not to suffer greater distress, or to intensify your pain but to redirect this pain toward your growth as a human being.

Engaging in this process begins when you come in full contact with yourself and learn to ride the waves of grief. Your thoughts, your feelings, your identity during a life-threatening illness or after loss of a loved one all become vehicles for your own evolution.

Grieving can be understood as making the decision to allow yourself to mourn, and to fully experience the lessons of grief with the goal of living life better. The terrible emotional pain of grief tends to have a life and process of its own. Allowing the process to unfold does not remove all distress but it can soften the sharp edge of pain. To allow the process means to allow yourself to feel and experience each day on its own terms; we cannot assume that we know what tomorrow will bring.

As you are experiencing this process, you will feel that very natural pull to escape or numb yourself from the pain. However, by being aware of grief rather than ignoring or denying it, and by working to understand what drives this pain, you can release yourself into the person you are and the person you want to be. In other words, you can move closer to the people in your life who matter the most, and begin to change habits or beliefs that have been keeping you from living fully.

Just as love depends on the courage to share yourself with another person, grieving depends on the courage to accept your own feelings.

We have a tendency to associate grief and distress with something being wrong. Loss and grief is a part of life. It will happen no matter what we do. If we view grief as a problem, we will think of one of the most natural parts of life, and love, as a pathology or “disorder.” But grief has always been part of the order of things, and it always will be.

Leaving the Door Open for Hope

So, so many questions… Was my diagnosis adequately explained to me in a way that makes me feel reassured? Did I feel free to ask all the questions I needed to? Did my doctor listen to me with careful compassion?

In her book, On Death & Dying, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross writes the following:

“If a doctor can speak freely with his patients about the diagnosis of malignancy without equating it necessarily with impending death, he will do the patient a great service. He should at the same time leave the door open for HOPE, namely – new drugs, treatments, chances of new techniques and new research.

The main thing is that he communicated to the patient that all is not lost; that he is not giving him up because of a certain diagnosis; that it is a battle they are going to fight together – patient, family and doctor – no matter the end result.

Such a patient will not fear isolation, deceit or rejection, but will continue to have confidence in the honesty of his physician and know that if there is anything that can be done, they will do it together.

Such an approach is equally reassuring to the family who often feel terribly impotent in such moments. They greatly depend on the verbal and non-verbal reassurance from the doctor. They are encouraged to know that everything possible will be done, if not to prolong life, then at least to diminish suffering.”

  • Every patient has the right to have their diagnosis explained to them in a language that they understand and comprehend.
  • You have the right to ask questions until you fully understand your diagnosis, prognosis and treatment options.
  • You have the right to make your own informed decision on your treatment options and to ask for a second opinion.
  • You have the right to refuse treatment.

Make sure, if at all possible, that there is a family member or close friend with you when your diagnosis is explained to you. During and after the diagnosis, you may be in such a state of shock that you will need this person with you to ask important questions you may not think to ask, as well as be your ‘ears’ to take in all the information surrounding your diagnosis. Afterwards, they will be able to reliably relay that information back to you accurately.

You do not have to travel this journey on your OWN. Cancer is a like a PASSENGER that, from now on, will be PART your life. MAKE PEACE with your passenger – and live with it in peace.


breast cancer journey abc

TAKEAWAY: If Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s perspective + ideas resonate with you, please click here for a downloadable + printable PDF of ‘On Death & Dying‘.

Coping With Grief At Christmas – by Marie Ennis-O’Connor

coping with christmas breast cancer grief

For many, Christmas is a happy time of observing traditions, enjoying seasonal treats, and spending time with family and friends. But for those of us who have lost a loved one, it can be a deeply lonely time. Losing someone you love to cancer is a painful experience at any time, but particularly during the holidays the feeling of loss can be overwhelming. In 2011 my mother died just a few weeks before Christmas, so I understand how hard this time of year can be.  I’d like to share with you some of the things that help me cope during the holidays.

1. Acknowledge your pain

To be bereaved literally means “to be torn apart”, so no wonder it hurts so much. Give yourself permission to feel whatever emotions come along. Don’t let anyone else tell you how you “should” feel. It’s okay to be angry, to cry,  or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and not to feel guilty about it.  Experiencing joy and laughter does not mean you have forgotten your loved one.

  1. Articulate your grief

Talking to a caring listener about how you are feeling can help. For some people, it’s easier to write thoughts and feelings in a private journal, rather than to say them out loud. Others find release in creative expression such as art or poetry.

  1. Take care of your physical health

Grief is as much a physical as an emotional process, so it’s important that you get a good night’s sleep, eat healthy meals, and regain your physical strength in order to cope better. Try to get outside for a walk each day – it doesn’t have to be strenuous exercise. Ask a friend to join you.  Avoid using alcohol or drugs to self-medicate your mood.

  1. Reach out to others for help

Communicate your needs to those around you and lean on their support. Friends want to help, but sometimes they don’t know how to. Let them know what practical ways they can help you; for example, by shopping, cooking, cleaning, gift wrapping, or decorating.

  1. Don’t isolate yourself

It’s ok to say no to situations you don’t feel ready to handle, but don’t isolate yourself completely.  Surround yourself with people who love and support you.

  1. Set realistic expectations for yourself

Decide how much of your usual holiday responsibilities you can realistically handle this year. Let family and friends know if you intend to change any traditional routines and ask them to help you shoulder more of the responsibility. Avoid the hustle and bustle of crowded shopping malls and do your shopping online. 

  1. Be extra kind and gentle with yourself

Grieving is a long process with many ups and downs. Don’t try to rush the process; treat yourself with extra compassion and gentleness. Make a list of everything you could do that would bring you some pleasure – like going for a walk, reading a book, or taking a hot bubble bath. Make a conscious effort to work small pleasures into your day.

  1. Practice relaxation techniques

Set aside a regular time to practise relaxation each day. Creating a regular routine will help you establish a habit of relaxation that can soothe your spirit. Choose a special place where you can sit (or lie down) comfortably and quietly. Light a candle and play some soothing music. Experiment with several different relaxation techniques to see which one works best for you.

Here’s a simple breathing exercise you can do right now.

  1. Place one hand on your abdomen right beneath your rib cage and take in a deep breath from your diaphragm (this is the muscle between your lungs and abdomen).Feel your stomach rise as you breathe in, pushing your hand up.
  2. Hold the breath for several seconds—however long is comfortable for you—and then exhale slowly through your mouth. It should take you twice as long to exhale as it did to inhale.The trick to switching from chest to abdominal breathing is to exhale the air completely from the lungs. This full exhalation pushes out all the stale air from the bottom of the lungs.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 two more times.

9. Modify existing traditions or create new ones

Just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean it always has to be done the same way. While some people find comfort in the old traditions, others find them too painful to continue after the death of a loved one. Discuss with your family which traditions you want to carry forward, and which you want to change.

  1. Do something to honour the memory of your loved one

You do not have to “let go” completely of the person who died; share your memories of Christmas spent with your loved one by telling stories and looking at photos of special times.  Toast their memory at dinner.  Hang an ornament or light a candle in memory of the person who died. Bring flowers to their grave. Consider giving a donation or gift in memory of your loved one.

Finally, the most important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season. The best way to cope, particularly if this is the first Christmas without your loved one, is to plan ahead, get support from others, and be gentle and patient with yourself.

I wish you peace and healing this Christmastime.


Marie Ennis-O’Connor is a writer, social media consultant, and author of the award-winning blog, Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer,  one of the most widely-read cancer survivorship blogs, reaching a global audience of patients, researchers, and healthcare professionals. A 10-year breast cancer survivor, she is a board member of Europa Donna Ireland – The Irish Breast Cancer Campaign, a patient advocacy group that is one of 46 member countries across Europe. Marie lives in Ireland with her husband.