Perhaps one of the most unexpected and challenging parts of change and transition is not the fear of the unknown or fear of failure - it is grief. Grief is a natural response to loss. It is a form of emotional suffering that many of us experience when we lose something or someone significant to us. 

While we often associate grief and loss with the death of a loved one or the ending of a significant relationship, grief, and loss can also be experienced when a significant aspect of our lives changes, even if we desire the change. Some examples of this type of change may include becoming a first-time parent, moving to a new city, or learning to communicate boundaries effectively. These experiences hold promise for positive outcomes, yet may present us with unexpected experiences of loss. Some common reflections clients share with me sound like: “I love being a mom, it is what I always wanted. But I am struggling.” “This move is more challenging than I thought it would be.” “I feel proud that I communicated a boundary, yet I am sad that they now seem distant from me.”

"For the transformation of grief to unfold, you have to surrender to the experience. Trying to stay in control by denying, inhibiting, or converting grief can result in what Kierkegaard termed "unconscious despair." Doing the soul work of grief demands going into and through suffering and integrating it in ways that help unite you with your fellow strugglers and the greater community of people." | Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado

When I moved to Washington from Oah’u, Hawai’i, I was excited to start my career as a therapist in a new city. The first six months were exciting and new. I went to Trader Joe’s for the first time (we don’t have one in Hawai’i), attempted to be a proud plant mom (still working on it), and gained invaluable experience as a therapist in a community health setting. I assumed I had grieved enough through being homesick. I sought and accepted “close enough” replacements for my usual comforts of home. About a year into my life in Seattle, however, I was feeling sorely ambivalent about it all.

While I was finding enjoyment in my work, I was also experiencing extended levels of stress. Even after having the fortunate opportunity to visit home for the first time since moving to Seattle, I was still deeply homesick. No longer blinded by the glitz and glam of a new experience and environment, I felt defeated and confused. There was still so much grief to process.

Looking back on this experience, there were emotional clues that I was carrying unprocessed grief. While this may not be true for everyone, I tend to see these emotional clues with clients experiencing difficulties adjusting to change as well. These clues are ambivalence and disappointment. When we feel mixed emotions or let down following a change in our lives, this is a good indicator that we may also be experiencing a sense of loss. Often these losses are subtle but certainly felt. For instance, you may be feeling a loss of confidence, loss of familiarity, or loss of a part of your identity.

Grief: A path to resilience

Sometimes the best way out is through. While you may temporarily bypass grief by focusing on something else, dismissing or minimizing it as less important, grief will inevitably resurface later, as it happened to me. Here are some tips to guide you through the grief of transitions.

  • Acknowledge your losses. In my work with clients navigating life transitions, acknowledging one’s loss(es) is a crucial step toward healing. Grief cannot ensue if a loss has not been named. This process may take some time, and that’s okay. When we are in the middle of change, several aspects of our lives are likely changing too. We do not always realize something has been lost until some of the moving parts come to a stop. Journaling during this time can aid you in recognizing the parts of your life that have shifted for you. 

  • Practice mindfulness while establishing a new routine. Mindfulness is simply a practice of noticing and observing. During a time of transition, mindfulness can be a solid tool to help you notice where a change may be affecting you more acutely than in other areas of your life. Some find it helpful to stick to their previous routines as closely as possible, while others may lean into a more loose way of organizing their time during change. Neither is necessarily better than the other. Rather, allow yourself some flexibility to shift and pivot until you land on a routine that fits you.

  • Seek support. Grief can be such an isolating experience. Having the guidance of a compassionate licensed therapist or a grief support group can provide opportunities to process your grief in a safe and validating environment. This is also a great time to reach out to trusted family and friends or to plug into a community of like-minded people. For me, I joined a hula dance school and yoga studio. 

  • Practice self-compassion. Grief may bring up aspects about yourself you would rather leave in the past. You may feel vulnerable, insecure, angry, guilty, or confused. Perhaps you find yourself irritable and easily triggered. These feelings are a normal part of grieving. Practice gentle reminders to yourself not to rush the process. We need time and space to come to terms with the loss.

  • Laugh and play. Grief can bring up a lot of pain, and may even feel all-consuming. One thing that surprises some of my clients is that I encourage them to seek out opportunities for joy, laughter, and play as part of their grieving experience. Intentionally seeking joy can offer a gentle reminder that grief and joy can co-exist within you. Joy helps increase your capacity to embrace the pain of loss, rather than diminishing it. It is okay to feel joy while you are still processing a loss. 

Begin Grief Counseling at our Ballard Clinic

If you are a resident of Seattle Washington and are struggling to process grief with a life transition, our team of talented therapists at Thrive for the People in Seattle can help. Your grief journey does not need to be traveled alone. We’d love to hear from you. Schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation with us today to see if one of our grief specialists is a good fit for you.