Insights on Grieving Well:
What it helps to know
Insight is the most powerful tool we have to offer. It won’t make grieving easy or quick, but can make it less overwhelming. What follows provides confidence and reassurance that you can survive this loss even on the worst days.
It will be too much to digest all of these in one sitting. Perhaps one a day or one a week is best. Come back as many times as is helpful.
Insight #1: There are not really 5 stages of grief
Many of us grew up on the notion that we all can expect to go through five successive stages in our grieving: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
They came from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer physician who wanted her colleagues to become willing to discuss death and dying with their patients.
But these stages were not scientifically tested, and since 1969, much better ideas have emerged, though they haven’t gotten much traction in public awareness.
That’s why, fueled by belief in this idea, well-meaning neighbors, news reporters, family members, and casual bystanders gang up on a grieving person with demands that they grieve according to these stages, and push them toward the alleged final stage of Acceptance.
To recognize that there are a wide variety of ways to grieve that differ by the griever’s personality, beliefs, cultural background, and other factors.
To demand that these individual differences be respected and supported.
To encourage those who are not aware to learn of the vast changes in the understanding of grief, and to be inclusive of us all.
If you would like to know the backstory of The Stages and the better ideas that followed, click below.
Insight #2: You have your own theory of grief, whether you know it or not, and you'll grieve better once you find out what it is
You didn’t get this far in life without some notions about how the world works and how you fit into it, but you may not have been asked to notice them before.
A good place to start is with what metaphor rings true for you. Metaphors serve as image language beyond word language, and the right one strums a particular string in our psyches that is beyond logical explanation. Here are several that I’ve known people to use in their grieving:
Scaling a mountain
Sailing a rough sea
Standing at the beach, a border between two worlds, amid waves that ebb and flow
Taking a journey, going through trials and bringing back a valuable treasure; often called the hero’s journey
Being in labor, each contraction coming but then receding, and the process being natural and inevitable
Your own unique image
Take a moment of quiet and see what springs to mind. And do it again as the days roll on. Your metaphor will find you. This is a chance to let your imagination engage, not to imagine further suffering, but to imagine how you can make this unwanted process fit you the best.
Whatever the metaphor, movement is at the heart of grief. At times it propels you to places you don’t want to go. At others, you are paralyzed and desperate to get moving.
For the physical pain of grief, the movement is from pain toward ease.
For the mind that first cannot bear to take in the reality of the loss, the movement is from resistance toward mindfulness.
For resuming the activities of daily life, the movement is from paralysis to action.
For the emotions, the movement is from fear toward calm.
For the spirit, the movement is from despair toward hope.
But the movement is never tidy or linear. It may circle back and forth, repeat itself, and trick you into thinking it is fading away. It can be erratic and unpredictable, chaotic even. As soon as you figure you are getting over it, here it comes to knock you down. But you get up and proceed, which starts to be the best thing to know – that you will always get up and find your footing and be stronger for it in the end.
Eventually, you reach a new form of normalcy. A significant loss doesn’t allow you to just crawl back across the line and resume what was once familiar and normal.
What is your destination then? You can’t know exactly what it will look like, but can trust that you will be able to reinstall your peace of mind, optimism and wholeness as you incorporate this loss into the story of your life.
Insight #3: You are not going crazy, but this may be as close to crazy as you'll ever feel
Grief sneaks into every corner of your life, and sometimes springs up just when you least want it to. It is this surprise factor that is most infuriating – just when you feel like you are getting on top of it, a kind word, or fleeting image, or overheard song will send you reeling.
Imagine any of the following, which are quite common during grieving, under any other circumstances:
A constant fog over your thinking
Memory and concentration problems
Trouble keeping track of belongings
Fatigue, muscle pain, headaches, stomach trouble, chest pain
Lack of initiative, inability to perform usual functions
Irritability, mood swings, anxiety
Fear of performing even familiar activities
Feeling hyped up, wired; exaggerated startle response
Nightmares, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
Unpredictable bouts of crying
Avoiding friends and family, hiding out
Despair, fears about a desolate future, helplessness
Constant yearning, pining for what you have lost
Feeling visited by a lost loved one
Change in sexual interest
Idealizing or waiting for return of a loved one
And much more
That’s grief for you. Under any other circumstances, you’d be terrified that you were ill or going crazy. Grief captures body, mind, emotion, and spirit, and holds them hostage, lets them go, and then turns around and captures them again. You are left to cope however you can.
Of course, it is crucial to seek help for any potentially harmful signs, and not to just write them off to grieving. This is a time to accept help. Let the professionals help to sort out what will help.
Above all, if you experience thoughts or plans about suicide, call for help at once. Those thoughts may accompany many griefs, but are clear signals that you need some skilled and experienced people in your corner.
Even if your needs are not so acute, talking to a grief therapist or educator can help you navigate and deepen your experience. Grief can feel terrible, but is also temporary, and with work and time can leave you stronger than before.
Insight #4: You can't do it alone. Grieving is a group activity that requires support people, friends, family, co-grievers
The way grief is usually portrayed it sounds like it should be carried out behind closed doors where no one has to see any embarrassing displays of emotion or faltering mind.
In fact, grief is by definition the very essence of connection. Without attachment in the first place, there would be no grief.
And without at least a few people to see you through it and help you process it, it will obstruct you. This does not require you to become a big talker if you are not, or to make a show of emotion that is not natural to you. It does suggest letting some support people walk with you while you do it your way.
Pick those you know you can count on, who won’t discount or marginalize your feelings or try to push their views down your throat. You know who they are because thoughts of them bring comfort.
What does such an invitation sound like? "I’m grieving over Joe leaving. I appreciate your strength and positive outlook and I want you on my team."
Reassure them that you are not looking for platitudes to explain it all to you and make you feel better: "I need to be able to talk about Joe sometimes. I’m not looking for explanations like 'He’s in a better place' or 'God has a grand plan for you.' I just need a listening ear."
Beware of the seductive thought that you can’t grieve openly because you have to remain strong for the others. This will backfire and simply delay your inevitable grief. Better to find a way to grieve side by side, but each in your own way. Trust your loved ones to grieve as they must, and to allow you to do the same.
So, with all of that in place, all you have to do is use your team. Be assured that you are making them wiser and more compassionate as they sit in on your grief, and stronger for their own eventual tangle with it.
It is up to you to keep active with your support people. The longer you stay silent, the harder it will be to speak. When we are in distress, the most healing sound is a compassionate human voice.
And don’t feel that you must discuss your grief every minute. You may get as much out of discussing the Cubs, or next week’s barbeque, or hearing about your friend’s latest escapade.
Insight #5: Hold on, don't get go
This sounds like a radical idea at first. You don’t have to let go of who or what you are grieving for? What about the time-worn advice to let go and get on with your life, to shed your baggage and let go of your past?
You don’t have to. You get to keep the keep the parts you can and transform your relationship with the rest.
How can this work? In between face-to-face visits with loved ones, you carry around your experience with the person, and a deep knowledge that allows you to make predictions about what they would say to you about what is going on in any moment. In fact, you often hear their voices in your head even when you don’t want to!
There is no reason to give this up. When conventional wisdom requires that you cut off your ties with a loved one, it creates what hospice social worker Lorraine Hedtke calls “ritual severance.” How much better to transform the relationship into a new form that allows you to keep the comfort and wisdom it contains. It certainly doesn’t make it pain-free, because you still miss the presence and immediacy, the touch of your loved one, but it allows the substance of the relationship to remain part of your life and experience.
You can suffer and grieve a loss and at the same time that you claim what is still yours.
Anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff developed helpful language to describe this transformation. She talks about each of us having a “club of life” made up of our friends and loved ones. If we pretend that they cannot continue to live on in our minds and hearts, we squander our capacity for attachment.
In watching older folks in one community, she labeled the conventional advice to let go of a lost loved one "dis-membering". She suggested instead holding on to the relationship in a new form called "re-membering", a way of keeping the relationship close.
A concept that I’d like to see fade into obscurity is Closure. It seems to be a combination of Kubler-Ross’s final stage of acceptance and a demand to hurry up and get it over with.
For instance, a news reporter, interviewing survivors of a traumatic event even minutes after it happened, grills them about how they will achieve closure. I can forgive the reporter who is just looking for the best story for the evening news, but I cannot forgive the insistence on a premature tidy, feel-good ending.
There is no switch to pull that will make it all right. The job in grieving is to reassemble a life piece by piece until it starts to make sense. Including the imprint of who and what you have held dear will help provide continuity and meaning.
Insight #6: Grieve like there is no tomorrow, using a deliberate set of daily tools
Every day of grief can be a challenge, but it will be a better day for your effort to engage with it. Creating a set of daily practices will strengthen you to handle it in the best possible way.
For your body, you need to become an expert in self-care. You already know what soothes you, so build it in to each day. Physical exercise can trigger chemicals that increase a sense of well-being, and when will you ever need that more? If it is too much to even get yourself out of the chair, recruit a member of your support team to join you.
For your mind, do what you can to clear and calm it. Embrace mindfulness, or remaining in the present moment, no matter how you are feeling. If you feel sad, or quiet or blah, stay with it and let the present moment be what it is. Zorba the Greek and author Jon Kabot-Zinn call it “full catastrophe” living. No matter what the upheaval, stay with it, feel it. It will move on and so will you. Meditate, spend time in nature or with a pet, garden, listen to music, watch firelight, or visit an art museum.
To tend your emotions, which may be all over the map day to day, or even minute to minute, talk with someone on your team regularly, just to stay in touch. If you can manage at least one conversation each day, even just a brief check in, you will keep your connections open for the times when you most need them. There are great benefits to putting your feeling into words. For starters, your friend can listen and truly hear you, and you can hear yourself.
CLICK HERE to learn more about such benefits from research by James W. Pennebaker.
For your spirit, practice expression each day, through writing, storytelling, drawing, painting or scribbling, or other activities that you might lose yourself in for a while. If you have religious practices that comfort you, set aside time for them.
Resilience is a choice, and daily actions put it in motion. The more you can manage to take positive action, the more imagination, creativity and optimism you will unleash. Some days the initiative you need won’t seem to be there, and you may have to strong-arm yourself to act, or borrow the energy from someone else. Chances are you will feel better for the effort, and better connected to your own eventual outcome. Over the long haul, the rewards grow and you begin to feel more in charge.
Insight #7: Each loss has its own weight
There is a formula you can use to explain your grief:
Your grief history + this loss = this grief journey
First, your history with grief includes your own actual experience, whether you are a veteran griever who has already worked out your theory of grief and your spiritual underpinnings, or whether you are a rookie, new to all this, who needs to invent your process.
It also includes your own grief style. Researcher Kenneth Doka describes a continuum of grievers, and it can be very helpful to find where you and your loved ones fall. On one end are intuitive grievers who are emotionally oriented and expressive. On the other are instrumental grievers, who take a more rational non-emotional approach. In between are blended grievers who display aspects of each style.
This viewpoint eliminates a source of considerable pain within grieving families – the idea that people who don’t wear their heart on their sleeves are not grieving, or not grieving properly. While an intuitive griever might go to the cemetery and weep, an instrumental griever might tend the grave, or build a fence around it. They each grieve, but in their own way.
This loss itself is like no other. It helps to define what exactly you have lost. The company and companionship of a loved one? The hopes for the future for a relationship that just ended? The security and identity of a long-time job, now gone? The noise and life around the house before your last child took off for college, as well as the role it provided for you as chief caretaker? You are grieving the primary loss and also the secondary ones underneath it, and recognizing all of them helps keep you in balance.
Each grief comes with its own weight, and may reveal that earlier losses are still waiting to be grieved.
Timing matters too. No loss occurs in a vacuum. The best you can do is realize that the events that collide with your loss may weigh heavily, but are beyond your control. Give yourself a chance to take extra time and care to get on your feet.
Certain losses bring special complications that are rarely discussed. For information about such complications, click below.
The combination of your own grief history and the particular issues of the current loss create a unique grief journey. The more you recognize the features of each, the better you will get through it.
Insight #8: A loss is a spine-jangling experience that can act like an earthquake to shake loose all the things you thought you believed
It can leave you having to recast your whole belief system and settle a score with the Universe. How did the God you tipped your hat to all your life let this happen to you? In fact, where did God go just when you needed him? This is often described by others as “being mad at God,” but that doesn’t begin to cover it.
A loss serves as a touchstone experience that takes you down to fundamentals. What do you believe is the source of tragedy? How do you make sense of a universe in which such an unwanted thing can happen to you?
Whether or not you practice a particular religion, juggling the questions that grief raises is an inevitable part of the process. Not to question at a time like this is like trying to keep a lid on a geyser. It won’t work and you’ll get burned trying. Let the questions flow and gather answers as you can, without guilt or criticism. You can’t contain what grief unleashes.
If you are more comfortable outside of formal religion, you can explore the spiritual side of things independently. Give yourself permission to figure out what you believe in right now, today, given what’s happened, and see where this takes you.
In a way, we have all been standing in the tragedy line, right next each other, all our lives. The question is not, “Why me, God?” but, “When will it be my turn?”
Now you know the answer – it’s right now. And once you work this one out, maybe sooner, you will be getting back in line waiting for another. Nobody gets a pass, nobody can earn their way out of reality by being pious or virtuous. This reality will need to inform your revised spiritual contract.
Spiritually, you need what you need at the time. Once life raises the stakes, you need more. That doesn’t mean that you failed or that your God failed. You just got sent up to the big leagues, to stretch for a sports analogy, where the pitches whiz by at 100 mph and you need to step up your game.
Many people I’ve worked with have transformed their notion of a higher power from a security guard standing at the gate into a master comforter and provider of perspective. And a teacher of how to combine the jarring reality that tragedy comes into every life, with the opportunity to greet every day with hope and appreciation anyway.
If you are reading this soon after a loss, this may all seem too theoretical and not immediately helpful, as you may still be sorting out the reality of what has happened and trying to figure out how to make it through the next hour or so.
Please take my word for it – the universe still can sustain you and help you through even if it may not be in the way you’d imagined. You haven’t been abandoned. You have been thrust into the crucible where you will create new ways to understand the universe and how you fit into it.
For now, grab onto people, beliefs, practices that soothe and comfort you. There will be ample time later to sort out the rest.
Insight #9: For all the sadness and suffering accompanying grief, there is also much joy and many gifts, however unexpected, to be found, too
Whether it is embracing a long-time friend and knowing they will be there for you for as long as you need them, or taking a few bites of the casserole your friend brought over when you cannot interest yourself in cooking or eating, or laughter with a co-griever about the quirks of a lost loved one, or rereading a letter, or staring out the window at a sunset your loved one would have loved too, there are moments of transcendent connection that overcome the sadness and suffering for a time. Embracing this good side of grieving is rarely spoken of, but should be. It can be a source of energy, hope, and will.
Relief has been a taboo subject for grievers. Those who have ushered a loved one through a difficult illness and watched them suffer know that the end may not be the worst thing, but probably do not feel free to talk about it.
Research has revealed that from 50 to 85% of subjects reported feeling relief without guilt, reporting that they had paid their dues while the relative was alive. They cited positive outcomes like patience, appreciation for life, personal strength, increased closeness, not guilt.
Humor is an inevitable part of grieving and has even found its way into some funerals as mourners chuckle about the foibles of the deceased. Many families make sure that the first holiday dinner without a loved one includes story-telling that recalls the special place the deceased held in the family. Even after a catastrophic loss, eventually the affection and longing for the lost person allows stories to be recalled that bring humor and comfort along with them.
Conversations with members of your team frequently bring warm and intimate moments of closeness and comfort. Hearing the phone ring with good wishes and loved ones who check in on you become proof that you count.
The grand prize that comes with grieving is wisdom. Given the choice, you would never have traded what you had for more wisdom, but as long as it is about to land on your doorstep, you’d be crazy to refuse it.
It is as if the grief experience sets up a Lost and Found for you. As time goes on, you rummage around in what you are left with, and discover some treasures.
your loved one new appreciation for life
marriage, relationship strength you didn’t know you had
job new direction, new mission
health loving self-care
Capturing these gifts creates a little light when the world looks pretty dark. If you can end a day with a list, however short, of moments when you were graced by a loving memory, or shared a chuckle, saw your new strengths, felt heard and understood, that day was a good one at least in part.
Insight #10: As grief leaves you gifts, you can pay them forward
Grief forms a natural legacy that can take many forms and creates a way to put into action all the energy you’ve invested in this journey. This legacy may involve carrying on the mission of a deceased loved one, or one of your own in honor of a special person. Like a hand-off at a track meet, the race goes on.
Grief shines a bright light on your life that may show the way to goals that occur to you for the first time, as well as goals that you had long been meaning to get around to. While wisdom suggests that you not embrace radical plans for a life change immediately after a loss, many people do change course in meaningful ways as their grief journey proceeds.
Less dramatic but just as crucial are the many learnings that result from loss. Each of us knows far more about life once we weather a loss, and that knowledge informs our life from then on and causes us to carry out new ways of living day to day.
The familiar message of people who develop a serious illness often sounds like this: "Treat each day as if it is your last. Stay in the moment and you will recognize the beauty and joy to be found there." They meditate, pray, laugh, talk, whatever form it takes for them. But they live differently than before – more fully and more mindfully.
Many who survive a relationship breakup form new habits and practices – daily journaling, regular contact with friends, pursuing interests that were crowded out by the relationship, for instance. This recasting of daily life is a powerful tool to reclaim the territory of your own life.
A profound loss also brings a new attention to the arc of your life. Depending on which stage of life you are in, this will be expressed in different ways. Young people find direction. Those in midlife are moved to examine how they have lived while they can still make adjustments. Older people take the opportunity to look back and make sense of their lives. All find that there are rich veins to mine in times of grief.
Finally, once you have weathered grief, facing your own eventual demise can become less fearsome. One tool that helps you build a bridge between what you’ve learned and your loved ones is the ethical will, or legacy letter. Just as your will disperses your belongings and funds to your heirs, you have much wisdom and life experience that also needs to be carefully transferred from you to them.
The ethical will, which gives you a chance to leave them the thoughts and principles, values and priorities that you hold most dear, what you want them to know, the way you hope to be remembered, is an exciting and sobering and, believe it or not, fun and stimulating project. It does not require great literary skills, just deciding what you want to leave in your wake. Many people write it in the form of a letter, sometimes to the whole family or group of friends, sometimes separately to each person.
A final word
Whatever form it takes for you, your grief and what you learn from it flows into your life to enrich your own and the lives of others. It can make you more you, more unique, more aware of your special place on earth and in the universe, and move you to make sure that you leave the imprint you mean to when it is your time to go.