These articles will help you understand your own grief or the grief of another. Grief is not as simple as it's made out to be -- it is more than just "feeling sad."
One reason that we often find grief such a difficult challenge is that we have never learned what to expect. The following facts will help you understand some crucial truths about grief and grieving and how we can work through the process to find healing.
1. Grief is normal.
Grief is not a disease. It is the normal, human response to a significant loss. People may encourage you to “be strong” or “not to cry”. But how sad it would be if someone we cared about died and we didn’t cry or we carried on as if nothing had happened. I’d like to think that someone will miss me enough to shed a tear after I’m gone. Wouldn’t you? When you lose someone special from your life you are going to grieve. Our grief is saying that we miss the person and that we’re struggling to adjust to a life without that special relationship. Admittedly, saying that grief is NORMAL does not minimize it’s DIFFICULTY. It may be one of the most challenging experiences of your life. But you are not crazy, or weak, or “not handling things”. You are experiencing grief and after a significant loss that is a normal response.
2. The worst kind of grief is YOURS
A loss is a very personal matter. Your loss seems like the worst possible thing that could have happened to you. Sometimes people ask if it is more difficult to lose a spouse than to lose a child. Others question if it is worse to lose someone after a long lingering illness or if they die suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack or in an accident. While these circumstances make each loss different, they are not important to you right now. The worst kind of loss is yours. When you lose a significant person from your life, whatever the relationship, it hurts and nothing takes away from your right to feel the loss and grief the absence of that person from your life.
3. The way out of grief is through it.
Grief is painful. Loss is one of the most difficult human experiences. There is no easy way around it. We may try to avoid the pain. We may attempt to get over it as quickly as possible. But most often it simply does not work that way. Helen Keller said “The only way to get to the other side is to go through the door”. We need to find the courage to go through this experience of grief. Learning this is a major key to recovery.
4. Your grief is intimately connected to the relationship
Every relationship holds a special and unique significance to us. To fully interpret our grief response we need to understand what the relationship brought to my life and therefore what has been lost from my life. We may grieve the loss of a parent differently from the loss of a friend. Each made a different contribution to our lives. What we have lost is not the same and so we grieve differently. Two individuals, both experiencing the loss of a spouse, may grieve quite differently because of the differing circumstances (the duration, level of happiness etc) of the relationship.
5. Grief is hard work
A grief response is often referred to as “Grief-work”. It requires more energy to work through than most people expect. It takes a toll on us physically and emotionally. This is why we often feel so fatigued after a loss or why we may feel very apathetic towards people and events. The problem is often compounded by people’s expectations of us to be strong or pull ourselves together or to get on with life.
6. Your grief will take longer than most people think
How long will grief last? It is finished when it is finished. The first few months may be particularly intense. The first year is difficult: especially the first Christmas or Hanukkah, the first birthday, anniversary, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, “a year ago today day” and many other times that remind us of our loss. All are difficult days and we need to anticipate them, know they are normal and be compassionate with ourselves. Some writers describe the second year of grief as the lonely year when the realization of the life without the deceased becomes even more of a reality. Take your time. As John Donne says “He who has no time to mourn, has no time to mend.” Grief always takes longer than people expect.
7. Grief is unpredictable
You may experience a wide variety of feelings and reactions, not just those generally associated with grief, like sadness, crying, depression etc. Some of your responses may seem quite uncharacteristic. “This isn’t like me”, you may think. Grief is unpredictable. We cannot present it in a neat predictable package. Just when you think you have it figured out something comes along to surprise us. In an unexpected moment, suddenly, without warning you find yourself missing the person again. In fact the one predictable thing about grief is that it is unpredictable.
8. There may be “Secondary losses” to deal with.
The death of any individual, difficult as that may be by itself, may also precipitate many other changes in your life. For some it may mean the loss of financial security, a home, or even their independence. For some it may mean the loss of a role: eg the role of being a parent to a child who dies. For others it may be the loss of our hopes and dreams of “living happily ever after” or enjoying retirement together, or having dad walk me down the aisle. There may be many losses - environment, status, alteration of relationships - because of the death. Each one has it’s own impact and each loss needs to be mourned.
9. Grief comes and goes
We have said that grief is not a disease. If you have a sore throat, it is painful for a few days, then the pain eases off and gradually disappears. Grief does not work that way, however. Our healing process is different from a sickness model. Sometimes, at first, we do not feel the pain of grief because we are in shock and numb. Often the pain is more intense some months after the event. Even then grief is not unlike a roller coaster. One day we feel pretty good, the next we find ourselves in the depths of despair. Just when we think we are getting over it we may experience another devastating setback. This can be discouraging to those who do not know what is happening. Most have not learned that grief comes and goes and takes much longer than most people expect. We need to realize that this is the way grief works itself out and trust that the process, difficult as it is, is helping us work towards reconciliation.
10. Effective grief work is not done alone
Society has unrealistic expectations about mourning and often responds inappropriately. Most people do not understand what is normal in grief, expecting us to get over it quickly and expressing these expectations in a way that seems less than sensitive. Many people mistakenly believe that grief is so personal we want to keep it to ourselves. People mean well, but they are not being helpful. Sometimes when people are using cliches or expressing unrealistic expectations we feel like shutting ourselves away. Often they feel uncomfortable with our grief and so, shortly after the funeral is over, the person or the loss is not mentioned. There sometimes seems to be a conspiracy of silence. People are afraid to say or do the wrong thing so they say and do nothing which is possibly the worst thing. Grieving people need to talk. Not everyone will be willing or even able to respond to you. In fairness, not everyone can. Accept that and try to find a support group or a counselor who can help. Or talk to someone who has been through a similar experience. I believe in the power of shared experiences, and often others who have been through the deep places can be a real help. Grief is about coping with the loss of a relationship and often in a helping relationship, relief can be found.
How are we to understand bereavement?
Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to explain it. Perhaps the most influential and well-known theory has been that of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying” focused on an emotional transition through five stages, beginning with denial and progressing through anger, bargaining and depression before arriving at acceptance. The “stage theory,” as it came to be known, quickly created a paradigm for how people die in our western culture, and eventually a prototype of how we should grieve.
The trouble is that stage theories of grief that make loss sound so controllable turns out largely to be fiction. Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, more recent research suggests that grief and mourning rarely if ever follow such a checklist; the process of grief is often complicated, untidy and unpredictable, more of a process than a progression, and one that sometimes never fully ends.
Even Dr. Kübler-Ross herself, towards the end of her life, recognized how far astray our understanding of grief had gone. In her book “On Grief and Grieving” (1995) she insisted that the stages were “never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.” If her injunction went unheeded, perhaps it is because that very messiness of grief is what makes us all so uncomfortable.
The implied suggestion of many traditional grief models seems to be that the person suffering a loss simply has to go through the inevitable process, wait it out, “see it through,” on the assumption that “time heals all wounds,” and that eventually “in time,” they will “get over it.” This would seem to suggest that in the emotional aftermath of a loss, bereaved individuals are essentially passive, having to simply submit to suffering through a series of stages or a certain structured grief system over a defined period of time and incidentally over which they have little or no control and in which there is not much choice.
But this is not what people actually experience after bereavement. We cannot understand the grief process ONLY by some “timeline” system or “set formula” whereby a person goes passively through certain emotions, stages, phases or reactions in order to somehow eventually arrive at this destination we erroneously call acceptance.
So, consider these foundational facts:
We cannot understand bereavement and every individual response to it unless we appreciate how each bereaved person’s world has been forever changed by the loss.
I am suggesting a different paradigm, another way of thinking about our topic. The main focus should not primarily be (as it so often is) on a person’s emotional reactions, or on their behaviours or manifestations of grief, and more specifically how we can “control” these in order to get things “back to normal.” Those who focus on these considerations are trying to “fix” a situation that simply cannot be fixed; trying to get “back to normal” something that has changed forever.
Losing someone we love is often likened to an amputation. But even this analogy tends to be too clinical. The word bereavement comes from the root word “reave” that literally means being torn apart. Losing a loved one has been described as being like a branch that is torn off a limb, not in some nice sanitized surgical way, but literally being ripped away. The emotional and behavioural reactions of the grieving person should be seen as symptoms of this unwelcome change.
I am suggesting that we serve people better if we focus on the significance of this bereavement to the individual rather than on the substance of their specific reaction to the bereavement.Rather than concentrating on the reactions of grieving people and then quantifying their responses, we need to ask the “why” of these reactions. We must understand the meaning of the loss to this individual, which I suggest is being “expressed” through their specific emotions and uniquely individual behaviours.
In other words, the emotions and reactions of grief should be seen symptomatically as behaviours in response to and in protest of the need to search for meaning in what has become a new and unwelcome world. This is the crucial point in understanding bereavement, one which many people do not recognize, understand or perceive. The task is to help the bereaved and grieving person locate themselves in a world that they know nothing about, and that they, and indeed WE, cannot fully understand.
Put simply, instead of trying to get people back to normal by seeking to resolve and rectify their emotions and behaviours, we should rather regard these reactions as a symptom of the much deeper issue, namely, “My world has changed … and I don’t like it.” Grief is a protest against something I didn’t want, don’t like, but can’t change. And the challenge for the helper is in enabling them to come to terms with this new albeit unwelcome reality by beginning to form appropriate new patterns of emotion and behaviour.
We would probably all agree that, in one way, bereavement is a “choiceless event.” Few if any would choose to lose those they love, or suffer through the other life losses that inevitably affect us. Even when the death is “by choice” such as a suicide, the incident is usually “choiceless” for survivors who wish they could have “done something” to change the outcome and feel guilt and regret because that option was not made available to them. Thus, bereavement is an unwelcome intruder in our lives, one which refuses to retreat despite our impassioned protests.
But, from another perspective, while the loss may be a reality we are powerless to avert, the experience of grieving itself involves hundreds of concrete choices that the bereaved person is invited or forced to make, or indeed avoid. It is in another way a call for us to change. To go with it, or to resist the process. We have a choice of whether to attend to the distress occasioned by the loss or to avoid the pain by “keeping busy” or “trying not to think about it,” which is an impossible task, by the way. We have a choice as to whether to feel and explore the grief of our loved one’s absence or to suppress our private pain and focus instead on simply trying to adjust to a changed external reality. Loss may be inevitable, but what we DO about it is optional. We may not have a choice in what has happened, but we do have a choice in what we do about it.
Grieving is something we do, not something that is done to us.
We need to gain a better understanding of not only “what” people experience after a loss, but also “why” grief affects people so uniquely and individually. We have come to realize that people do not passively and inevitably go through a series of stages or tasks. Rather the grief process involves many choices, with numerous possible options to approach or avoid the situation at hand.
In other words, any good paradigm of grief will not simply propose some futile attempt to re-establish pre-loss patterns of emotion or behaviour, expressed in comments like “getting back to normal.” Life has changed and will never be the same again! But that does not mean it cannot be good. The challenge is how we can support the person in integrating these changes into their life as it now is.
Perhaps we can illustrate it this way. We all write a script for our lives. I remember writing the screenplay for my life when I was a teenager. As the main character in the production, my draft scenario included going to school and university, having a career, meeting and marrying the most beautiful woman in the world. As the plot progressed, we would work hard, have children, do things as a family and when the kids were grown we would travel, then retire, and ride off into the sunset together. Think about YOUR script … most of us have one.
Every human being constructs a unique world of meaning. We all make assumptions about “how life is going to be” in the course of daily living. We are sustained by the network of explanations, expectations and enactments that shape our lives with ourselves and others. These assumptions provide us with a basic sense of order regarding our past, awareness regarding our current relationships and predictability regarding our future.
And most of us, at the end of the script, whatever the final details, add the words … “and they lived happily ever after.” Because that is what most of us would like to think is going to happen. While the particulars may change from time to time, we all want to think that life will be orderly, predictable, and go “according to the script.”
But sometimes life does not go according to the script. Not everything works out the way we planned. And then we find ourselves struggling to come to terms with “the grief of unmet expectations.” Any loss can be interpreted as disrupting the continuity of this assumed narrative. When this occurs, we have one of two choices: either we revise the plot by rewriting the script and assimilating the loss into pre-existing frameworks of meaning, ultimately reasserting or justifying the viability of our pre-existing belief system; or we accommodate our life narrative to correspond more closely to what we perceive as a changed reality in the violation of our assumptive world.
It is vitally important to realise that “who we are” is determined not just by genetic makeup, but also by our experiences and how we allow them to affect us. In this statement we find an important key for life and living. We do not have a choice in how we are born and our genetic or cultural influence. We may have a choice over some difficult events and negative experiences that affect us. Stuff happens! But while we may not have a choice over certain circumstances, we do have a choice about how we are going to allow them to affect us. The key is in enabling people to make good choices about what they are going to “do” about what has happened.
So, we need to place the loss in a context of meaning. We can do this in one of two ways. First we can reaffirm what we formerly believed about life; or secondly, we can establish a new belief system about the meaning of life. In other words, does this experience make sense according to what I believed about life before or do I have to adapt my way of interpreting how life can be meaningful. The challenge is to find ways to integrate the experience into life as it now is, and to adopt new assumptions about our world which has been shaken and even violated by the loss.
The implication of this idea for caregivers, families and those seeking to support grieving people is that we need to recognize the unique and personal meanings of loss which will take us beyond clichéd expressions of support or preconceived ideas of what a particular loss “feels like” to any given griever. The particularity of any loss should prompt us to listen intently for clues as to the unique significance of the bereavement experience for each individual.
Thus I contend that helping people through the grief of bereavement is not simply a matter of understanding the emotions that they may be expressing. Rather it involves supporting them through a reinterpretation of “how life can be meaningful even in the light of loss,” and empowering them to define life as it now is and to find ways to make the most of what they have left.