Information about Grief that can help
Grief is one of the most misunderstood natural processes that all human beings experience, and the most overlooked form of growth. Below I answer basic questions, based on a lifetime of experience and research. I am not a psychologist or therapist. I am an artist who enjoys reading about grief, talking about it, and being around people who are in it.
What is grief?
Grief is the normal, natural response to loss. As Queen Elizabeth ll famously said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” (She was actually quoting a British psychologist named Dr. Colin Murray Parkes.) I would add that the depth of our grief is in direct proportion to the love lost.
What are the five stages of grief and are they still relevant?
The five “stages” of grief, as outlined and defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross have been criticized and discussed for the five or so decades since she published her seminal work, On Death and Dying. Though her research was with terminally ill patients, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance became widely used for understanding the symptoms of survivors. They remain a useful framework for talking about grief, but are largely misunderstood by the general public, which has led to much of the criticism. Many others since Kubler-Ross have proposed models of grief, but most derive from her important work. The main thing to understand about the stages is that they are not sequential or mandatory. I think of them as this: What to expect (in any order and often simultaneously) when you are grieving.
Human beings grieve constantly throughout life. The mechanics of the process are the same. You can grieve a lost shoe, a lost opportunity, or a lost pet the same way you grieve a loved one. The depth and duration of the process will vary in proportion to the magnitude of the loss and one’s experience with grief. We know how deeply the loss of a beloved toy can affect a child. As we mature, we learn to cycle through the same aspects of grief in a few minutes, a day, or a few weeks. But when a family member dies, unexpectedly or not, it may take years or the rest of one’s life to feel all those feelings. Multiple losses may result in compounded or unresolved grief.
What is normal grief? How long should it last?
“Normal” is defined by what society deems normal, and everyone grieves differently. A teenager may want to go right back to school after their parent dies, but a mother may stay in bed for months after losing a child. Both are common responses.
In contemporary American society, grief is barely acknowledged. Most people in the U.S. believe grief should take two days to two weeks. In movies or TV, it’s over in a matter of minutes. The belief that grief is momentary is reflected in the fact that most employers expect the bereaved to come back to work or take unpaid time off. I think most psychologists and therapists would agree that each grief experience is unique and open-ended.
In other words, there is no timeline for grief. It depends on the loss and it takes as long as it takes.
Is it okay to grieve alone?
Yes, but we should not grieve entirely alone. Most people are more comfortable crying by themselves. We often apologize when tears start to flow. When someone cries in front of me, I say, “good,” because it’s good to feel your feelings and express them in the company of others. And it is even more beneficial to cry in the presence of a family member or close friend who understands. We are human. We are built to comfort one another, not to cry alone.
I advocate public displays of grief because it’s good for society to see crying as a normal activity. We have no objection when a baby cries. Children and adults need to cry too.
What about children?
When I was ten, my father’s sister took her own life. I saw how this upset my parents, though they were careful not to cry in front of me. The quality of their voices and their words let me know they were distressed, but I was not supposed to be. They didn’t cry or say, “we’re sad,” which would have shown me it’s okay to be sad when someone dies. The message was this:When people die we try not to feel sad and we expect you to do the same.
As parents our impulse is to protect children. We try not to upset them. But I am a strong believer in grieving openly with children. I believe in being “grief positive.” This shows kids it’s safe to be sad and allows them to express it without fear, shame or embarrassment.
The first big loss is always the most painful because it’s a new experience. So when I was fourteen and my mother died, there was no way I would just bounce back. My father thought we should spend a month grieving by going away together. This was a good idea except that teenagers do not feel comfortable showing their emotions, which is normal for them. So my siblings and I spent hours crying alone in our bedrooms that month. Later on, I found it comforting to cry with an older sibling and I’m grateful I was able to do that.
Still, two years later I became anorexic and engaged in a lot of risky behavior. This is typical for a teen who has lost a parent. I struggled with depression for years. I had a constant feeling that there was something wrong with me. I had trouble accepting myself because I carried so much sadness and shame about not feeling whole. I was well into adulthood when I was finally ready to work through all those feelings.
Do people really need grief counseling?
No one needs grief counseling, but it can be helpful to encourage the process. Critics of it point to studies they say show no benefit to expressing “negative” emotions, and that people are naturally resilient when left to their own devices. In my personal experience and many years of working with others, I have found the opposite is true. My parents left me and my siblings to our own devices and it didn’t work very well. People who express their grief feel better. Yes, you can manage your feelings by largely ignoring them. For some this may work well. But for most people, over time, depression, anxiety or other mental and physical ailments will take their toll.
Unresolved grief is a fancy term for carrying sadness around. Most of us carry some sadness for the losses we’ve endured. Pent up anger or a short temper may indicate unresolved grief. Sometimes a new loss can bring up an older one that we didn’t fully grieve. Sometimes multiple losses result in compounded grief, meaning the grief is too much to manage. This can happen as the result of a terrible tragedy with multiple losses, or as we get older and more people we love are dying, or when a young person loses a loved one as well as their own innocence.
What is Help with Grief?
When I counsel bereaved people, we mainly talk. We make space for the grief. I listen carefully. Sometimes we use breathwork if emotions are stuck. More often a short writing assignment, or discussing mourning practices is helpful.
When people come to me, it is usually because they feel grief has taken over their lives. I explain that this is actually normal after a major loss. Some people need help understanding the multiple layers of grief. In our culture we have a lot of judgement about grieving and most of us need permission to do it. Plus, we don’t have many opportunities to express grief through mourning practices, the way we used to. I help people find things to do that feel right for them.
How has mourning changed in modern society?
Families used to care for the dying in their homes, often doing a home funeral and burial themselves. The family did this all together, including children and following established rituals based on religious beliefs.
My favorite religious practices around bereavement are those found in Judaism. I’m not Jewish so I admire these traditions from afar. But things like sitting shiva (for more information about shiva click here) for a week, saying kaddish for eleven months, or washing the body as muslims do, wearing black for months or years, these are all rituals that aid in the grieving process. They are designed to keep mourners focused on their grief for a period of time, instead of being distracted from it.
In our culture, bodies are most often whisked away and cremated. We miss the chance to mentally process our greatest losses because doctors and funeral directors are accustomed to hiding what happens when we die. Our own mortality is frightening. We encourage people to “move on” as quickly as possible. We’re not very good at losing things or loved ones. We need to get better at letting go by mourning our losses and feeling our feelings along the way.
My personal approach to healing my own unresolved childhood grief was largely through writing. This helped me lift the heavy feelings I carried for many years. However, writing is not necessarily the solution for everyone. Maybe not even for most. But I have found it to be an amazing tool for working through regret and melancholy toward resolution and joy.
How do I get to the “growth” part?
The growth one can experience from grieving happens naturally, without effort. We are never the same after losing someone we love. When we fully embrace the experience it makes us stronger, more resilient, more compassionate and emotionally intelligent.
I advise making room in your life to grieve. Allow time and space for feelings to be expressed. Write to the person who died. Talk to them too. Forge a connection with the positive aspects of loss through the love that remains. Learn to face your sadness rather than avoid it. Even better, make friends with it and find out what you can learn.