Moving through Grief

Woman looking through a rain-spattered window - grief

by Barbara Stevens

Stages and Phases of Grief

Different practitioners have devised different stages or phases of grief. Generally developed for those who’ve lost a loved one to death, they’re also relevant for other losses. When we get divorced, for example, or a child leaves home, or we lose a job, or we give up our addiction, we feel grief. Whenever we become emotionally attached to something – a part of our body, a person, a job, an object, a belief – uncomfortable emotions arise when that thing is lost.

At such times, our task is not to ignore the emotions, but to work through them. That moving through is the grief process.

Everyone grieves in his or her own way. According to authors such as Kübler-Ross and Colin Murray Parkes, we go through stages or phases when we grieve. These can include:

  • shock and numbness;
  • denial;
  • anger and blame;
  • bargaining, as when we promise to be good if God will return our loved one;
  • guilt;
  • fatigue, loneliness, depression.

Eventually, the pain starts to subside. We work through the pain and memories, rebuild our lives, and find hope. This is the last phase, that of acceptance.

Woman looking through a rain-spattered window - grief

We Grieve in Our Own Way

While it can help to know that other people go through the same things we do, not everyone gets angry, bargains with God, cries, feels numb, or gets depressed when they face loss. Different people experience different emotions. Our response to loss is individual.

Thus, to heal, we need different things. Some people need to talk a lot about what they experienced. Others prefer taking quiet walks to process the loss by themselves. Although some people wail and rage at God, others channel their grief into community service. Just as there are types of loss, and many ways to respond to those losses, there are many healthy ways to recover from our shock and pain.

That said, some general truths about grief do exist.

For instance, grieving does not mean we let go of our attachment to the person or thing we have lost. It does mean we adjust to its absence. Though we know we can no longer have that person or thing in our lives, we find a new way to be in relationship with that person or thing. Then we find a way re-engage with the world.

Tasks of Grief

To help us understand what happens when we grieve, William Worden, a professor of psychiatry, developed four tasks of grieving that allow us to heal from a significant loss.

First, we have to accept the reality of the loss. It hurts to admit that a person we love is gone, whether he’s died or left us. We don’t like letting go of objects or ideas we’re attached to, either. Initially, numbness or disbelief can be helpful, but as time goes on, we need to face our loss, or pain, anger, and anxiety will control us.

The depth of our sadness reminds us of how much a person or animal or idea means to us. That can be nice to remember when the pain wracks our body and drains our strength.

Once we accept the loss, we can begin to experience the pain of that loss. We may feel this pain as a deep sadness, but as we saw in the list above, loss bring up many other emotions, as well. To heal, we must experience those emotions and express them, whether through tears, physical activity, conversation, creativity, silence. Major losses continue to affect us throughout our lives, so we may find we need to re-process the grief in a year, five years, or even ten. Typically, the power of the emotions lessen as time goes on.

Starting to Move On

After we do some of the processing, we begin to adjust to a world in which the loved one or object no longer exists for us. We may have to create new roles for ourselves, develop a different world view, make new meaning, or physically restructure our lives. Again, we continue to adjust in great or small ways throughout our lives.

Therefore, when we complete the final task, it doesn’t mean we’re all finished grieving that loss. However, the fourth task does free us to move on with our lives. In this last stage, we “emotionally relocate the deceased,” [1] which allows us to move on with our lives. This means, for example, that we find a way to hold a deceased person in our hearts, or we allow someone else to own the home we once loved, or we send silent blessings to someone who betrayed us, or honor the person we once were and who is now gone, while at the same time loving our present self.

By this time, the loss doesn’t hurt as much. We don’t think about the person or object as much as we used to. We build a life without her. Our new home, our new way of thinking, our new body feels comfortable.

How We Move through Grief

But how do we get there? Should we worry about the mourner who wails and whimpers? What about the one who never cries and won’t talk about the loss? What’s the right way to grieve?

Of course not. Just as there’s not one sequence of emotions everyone experiences, so there’s not one way to process those emotions.

Kenneth Doka, a professor of gerontology and Lutheran minister, and Terry Martin, devised the concepts of “intuitive” and “instrumental” to describe two distinct grieving styles. When I explain this to people, they sometimes feel great relief to know that, even if their friends don’t like it, the way they’re grieving may be okay.

Intuitive and Instrumental Grieving

Intuitive grievers easily access and express their emotions. They also do a good job of empathizing with the emotions of others. This can be a healthy way to grieve, although the intuitive is less able to rationalize the grief process or intellectually understand his experience. Sometimes, the intuitive griever feels overwhelmed by his emotions.

Instrumental grievers, on the other hand, tend to use their intellect to analyze and seek information about their loss and the grieving process. More rational in their approach to grief, they tend to be stoic and strong. They focus on making decisions and taking action. Some instrumental mourners have set up foundations to help others who are experiencing similar losses. Others express themselves through art. Both activities can be quite healing. The danger is that sometimes what looks like instrumental grieving can, instead, be denial.

When the grieving person’s style is different from that of their culture, friends, family, dissonance occurs. Intuitive mourners may be labeled histrionic, so they’ll try to hide their feelings. People may think instrumental mourners are cold and uncaring. This can be especially difficult for instrumental women and intuitive men, because we expect women to be more intuitive and men more instrumental. Our expectations can get in the way of healthy grieving, for us and for those around us.

Activities that Help with Grieving

  • Talk to friends or family;
  • Talk with a counselor or spiritual advisor;
  • Journal about the loss;
  • Draw, play music, write poeor otherwise express the emotions and experiences of your loss;
  • Read about the grieving process;
  • Attend bereavement and other relevant support groups;
  • Develop rituals to release the loved one or object/idea;
  • Develop rituals to commemorate the loss;
  • Find time alone to process and grieve in your own way;
  • Take solitary walks or spend time in nature;
  • Find a spiritual practice that helps you cope;
  • Use meditation and mindfulness skills to help you focus on the present moment;
  • Ask for help with concrete tasks.

When we’re grieving, we need to reach out for help, yet sometimes we feel rebuffed or discounted. Remember that just as we all grieve in different ways, so our friends and family members have different strengths. Consider your need, then figure out who’s the best person to call.

For instance, identify who among your friends are good listeners, who are problem solvers, who like to help with concrete tasks, and who will distract you in healthy ways. Then ask for what you want when you need it from the person who can best give you what you’re looking for.

Over time, if you allow yourself to grieve in a healthy manner, you will find peace, freedom, and wholeness. You will be a new person, and you will come to like that new you.

Credits

  1. Worden, William, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 3rd ed., New York: Springer Publishing, 2002, 35.