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"How We Grieve"

“Most of what I am is what I’ve lost.”
- from Animals Out of Paper, by Rajiv Joseph


It is a truism that we can’t go through life without loss; none of us will escape it. And yet, as common as loss is, it is no less painful.


For many, loss — death — is akin to trauma.  After a loss, as with trauma, we experience the event over and over again.  A word, a sound, a scent, an object, or a tune can trigger its recollection and its deep emotional impact.  We may avoid the places our loved ones frequented for fear of being overwhelmed by their absence.  If we nursed the dying, scenes of the last days of tubes and ventilators come to mind, along with the suffering and pain.  The memories come unbidden, intruding on our daily routine and sending us to our grief yet again.


But there is a crucial difference between trauma and loss.  With trauma, we want desperately to forget.  With loss, we wish – oh, how we wish! – we could turn back the clock and be with our loved one once again.


It used to be widely believed that grieving a death involved a sequence of stages:  first denial, then anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance.


But today, those who study the psychological and social aspects of death and dying reject any sequential stages in the mourning process.  Instead, they say there are four “tasks’” that must be accomplished.  These are:


  1. Finding a way to accept the loss, which can be particularly difficult when death involved suicide, a drug overdose, or a medical error.

  2. Adjusting to a life where our loved one is no longer present — a mom who supported us through every downturn, a spouse who handled the bills or shared in parenting, a friend who was a ready companion and confidante. In the aftermath of death, we are on new ground.  We may need to devise a new role for ourselves, redefining who we are, what we care about, what we value, and what we want out of life.  Loss may even challenge our faith.

  3. Finding a way to honor, love, remember the parent, sibling, friend, or mentor we lost while still finding meaning in living. We don’t have to forget those who have died; indeed, we are unable to.  But we can’t diminish our own lives. 

  4. Grieving the loss, no matter how long or what form that grief takes. It is not just sadness that overcomes us.  It’s a range of emotions: fear, loneliness, emptiness, hopelessness, anger, guilt, shame, relief, to name a few.  These emotions need to be acknowledged, understood, and accepted, not avoided out of fear of facing them.


Talking about these feelings with friends or family members can be enormously beneficial.   Or we can seek out a spiritual advisor or therapist who can empathically engage, listen without judging, and help us work through the painful experiences.


So often, we bottle up grief inside because others are telling us, society tells us, and we tell ourselves to just let go and move on.  But as William Shakespeare wrote centuries ago, the opposite is what the human soul requires:


“Give sorrow words; [for] the grief that does not speak

Whispers the o-er fraught heart and bids it break.”

Originally published March 1, 2017


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