Ask A Counselor: What can we do about loss and grief?

by Kay Bruner on June 4, 2015

wildebeests“Over the years, we’ve said goodbye to so many friends and colleagues.  What can we do about all the loss and grief that’s piled up?”

It’s that time of year again in the expat universe, when the Great Migration takes place.

You’re coming or you’re going.  You’re leaving or you’re staying.

It’s your first move, or your tenth, or your 27th.

And it just hurts.

So what do we do, with all the loss and grief that’s piling up?

We grieve it.

That is a really awful answer, I know.  I hate it myself.

But the only way through it is through.  Anything else—avoidance, denial, minimization–is just going to come back to bite us later.

So we grieve it.

What does that mean, exactly?

The best description I know of grief is what Anne Lamott says in Traveling Mercies:

I was terribly erratic: feeling so holy and serene some moments that I was sure I was going to end up dating the Dalai Lama. Then the grief and craziness would hit again, and I would be in Broken Mind, back in the howl.

The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it, like a nicotine craving, I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. After a while it was like an inside shower, washing off some of the rust and calcification in my pipes. It was like giving a dry garden a good watering. Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit. Mostly I have tried to avoid it by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avoid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can’t be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn’t for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering. But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart. But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illu­sion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: soft­ness and illumination.

A few tips for processing emotions during transition, loss, and grief:

  • Be gentle with yourself. You are wounded.
  • Allow yourself extra time for rest as you work through the loss. Grief is hard work.
  • Spend time with friends and family. Don’t isolate.
  • Get out into the sunshine for a few minutes each day, if possible.
  • Do something fun/enjoyable/creative every single day.
  • Watch funny movies, TV shows, YouTube videos.  Read some P.G. Wodehouse.  Listen to comedian Brian Regan, who is hilarious with no cuss words.
  • Journal, 20 minutes each day.

When do you need to seek help for processing through grief?

  • You’re not bouncing back. Every loss feels like a terrible blow.
  • You’re experiencing a decline in functioning—it’s hard to do what you need to do.
  • You feel exhausted or emotionless for extended periods of time.
  • You can’t think of anything fun or creative that you’d like to do.
  • You’re angry, especially at people who are leaving.
  • You cry a lot, and can’t seem to stop.
  • Your appetite has changed: you binge-eat, or you have no appetite.
  • Sleep is a problem. Either you have trouble falling asleep, or you wake up at night with racing thoughts and can’t go back to sleep.

Helpful resources

Check our resource tab, which includes counseling resources for expats.

The Way of Transition, William Bridges (If you’ve read his first book, Transitions, you’ve got to read this one, which he wrote after his wife died.  It’s beautiful and painful and amazing.)

Recent series at Velvet Ashes on Leaving and Staying 

Podcast on loss from Dan Allender

 Photo Credit (changes made)
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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Thanks for sharing all this, Kay. This leaving season, as well as last year’s, has been difficult for me. It’s almost as if it’s compounded by losing kindred spirits two years in a row. I stood in the church lobby last week, talking to my friend who is leaving, and couldn’t stop crying. I must have looked ridiculous. Kept trying to stop, but couldn’t. The last thing I want to do is make her feel bad that I am so sad, if that makes any sense.

    I’d been having trouble blinking back the tears during church for a couple weeks, thinking of her not being at church anymore. That kind of public crying exhibition is exhausting! I think I take pre-grieving to the extreme. But then when I see the signs that say you need extra help grieving, I realize that maybe letting myself lose it in the lobby is not such a bad strategy, because I’m not experiencing those symptoms (as yet).

    And on a peppier note, I love all your coping suggestions 🙂 I really need that sunshine. Could never live in the upper latitudes in the winter. Have always had some low-grade S.A.D. going on by January-February. Anyway. Last week I belly laughed for the first time in, what? Weeks, at least, maybe months. Reminded me how important it is to laugh. Almost as good as exercise for releasing some of my stress.

    I love Brian Regan, also Jim Gaffigan. Do you know him? Mostly appropriate humor, because he usually talks about food and Americans’ relationship to food. He’s got an old one on bacon, and a newer one on cake, that are both golden. Also we always go back to the NFL Bad Lip Reading you shared earlier this year! Never fails to elicit laughter! A bunch of those phrases are now part of our family vernacular. Various Bad Lip Readings have varying levels of appropriateness, so you have to view at your own discretion, especially with kids, but some of them are REALLY funny. And can I just say one of my favorite funny movies of all time, that always cracks me up, is Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do.” I can’t get over Steve Zahn’s character in that movie!! And this may not strike you funny at all, but here is the clip that a friend shared with me last week, that brought on the belly laughing:

    • Oh, yes, protecting other people from our grief. That’s a big one… And I was thinking after I wrote this, everybody handles feelings in their own way. As long as you don’t get stuck in it, however you handle it is how you handle it. And thank you for the excellent laugh over cricket this morning. I just started a Facebook thread on things that make you laugh, too. I have high hopes of more laughter as that list grows. 🙂

  • t

    What if you don’t have trouble sleeping, rather troubling waking up and getting on?

    • Yes, any persistent change in sleeping habits is something to watch. I should have mentioned sleeping more than normal as well. It’s not a big deal if it’s a brief change, but if it persists over several weeks and you still aren’t feeling well rested, then it might be time to take it seriously. For me personally, sleep issues were really the only sign of anxiety and depression for a very long time–I was really good at not feeling anything while I was awake. But our brains are still working while we are asleep, cleaning the place out, and I think if we don’t do our part in processing in a healthy way while we’re awake, it leaves too much for the clean-up crew. That’s my explanation, anyway 🙂

  • I found myself here. Not expected. A surprise. That’s me. Now…what to do? (She sighs a smile.)

    • Oops 🙂 Well, be gentle with yourself, get out into the sunshine, hang with friends any way you can (thank God for Skype). Journal. Laugh–if you didn’t see our facebook threads from yesterday, check them out! There’s serious good laughter stuff over there! And just take care of your wounded self. Much love.

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