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What is grief? How to grieve well, with personal stories

AlethiaBy CandyRetriever @iStock.com

Tragically, everyone faces hardships, breakups, death, and suffering. So, grieving is a necessary part of life. While everyone grieves differently, it always feels frightening and foreign; so it’s helpful to discuss a few common issues. As a professional counselor, pastor, and human who’s suffered a tragedy, I hope my insights will help you through your grieving. I’ll consider why we grieve and give personal stories of my own grief, the stages of grieving, and the pitfalls of healthy grieving.

Why do we grieve? The definition of grief

The root of grief, in my estimation, is the way time travels in one direction. Humans move through our lives at a rate of one second per second, and we can never reverse it. The hourglass in my office, with its falling of sand, one grain at a time, reminds me of this truth. Here’s my personal and therapeutic definition of grief: Grieving is the emotional effect of having an event (decision, relationship, etc.) in the past, and we wish something about it had been different.

This definition encompasses quite a bit. Consider three kinds of grief:

  1. Small grief is when you wish you had ordered something different upon seeing your lunch partner’s far tastier-looking meal.
  2. Massive grief occurs when a beloved family member or friend dies.
  3. Transcendent grief is when a fundamental trust is broken, we’re wrongly accused of injustice, or we doubt our religious faith.

In this way, all grief seems to draw on lost potentiality, like when someone is cheated out of an opportunity. To explain what I mean, consider a few stories of tragedy from my personal life.

A personal story of grief

Nearly two decades ago, our family dog, Montana, died on Christmas day. What makes the death of this dog particularly sad is the loss of what could have been. We adopted the Golden Retriever around the time my oldest son came into the world. Montana lived (or should I say, suffered) through the infancy and toddlerhood years. Toddlers like to poke eyes, bop noses, step on tails, and ride on the backs of dogs, all in good fun, of course. And Montana was angelically long-suffering.

There comes a time when kids become the perfect playmates for dogs, around five years old to the teen years. My son would soon pay endless attention to Montana. They would have rough-housed in the dirt and adventured out into the neighborhood. Except that joyous relationship never happened.

Instead, Montana died on Christmas Eve, jogging with me, hit by the only car we saw. Though I was sad at his death, it was the injustice of it all, the sense of this dog being cheated out of his reward for putting up with the tough times, that triggered the intensity of the grieving.

Now, when a person we love dies, we multiply that emotion a thousand times. It’s why younger deaths feel so much more tragic; they had so much potential in their lives ahead of them. In truth, though, every death carries with it the loss of potential.

My grandfather never met the great-grandson named after him.

A friend’s parents will not be at his graduation or wedding.

My best friend is not here to build a tree house with my kids—something he and I built dozens of.

It is part of the human condition, at least while here on Earth, to live with lost potentiality and, therefore, grieving.

Grief versus grieving

People talk about grief as something we “get over” and want to know things like, “Should I be over it by now?” Many clients want to know if they are “normal” since they are still thinking, dreaming, or struggling through something that they grieve. The truth is more complicated—we don’t “get over” grief; we grieve and get used to the tragedy’s reality.

Like big balls of double-sided tape, rolling through the medium we call “time,” we collect every regret, lament, remorse, etc. Sometimes, the older tragedies get buried under new ones. For years, I suffered serious lower back pain. When my orthopedic massage therapist cured me, I began to notice shoulder pain. It had hurt all along, but my more serious back pain essentially covered it up. In the same way, we get used to tragedies. Older pains get covered up by newer pains. This build of grieving is somewhat inevitable, but if we take time to process the hurts as we go, we won’t compound all the junk. We process lost potential in life by grieving.

Some people, however, seem to be stuck in a perpetual state of grief. If the tragedy becomes solidified without proper feeling and consideration, it just sits in our bodies. By actively grieving, we progress in a healthier way of responding to the experience. Someone who isn’t moving or getting progressively healthier would be said to have grief but not be grieving.

Some seem to naturally grieve well. Others grit their teeth and bottle it up. Still others have their lives shattered by tragedy. Whether a bad financial investment, a highschool break up, or the dissolution of a decades-long marriage, we all will face lost potential. So, everyone must learn to grieve well.

The five stages of grieving

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, from the 1969 book On Death and Dying, is the most famous way to process grief. These five stages help frame the grieving conversation, as many people go through these steps in the grieving process.

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Even these time-tested stages of grieving aren’t one-size-fits-all. To simplify something so complex as grief would be foolish. For every one hundred encounters of the same tragic event, there will be one hundred different experiences of grief, but these five are a good starting point. Next, I’ll fill in between the lines and give more examples of what you might face.

What happens during grieving?

Grieving can include feelings of disconnectedness, nightmarishness, depersonalization, and flat-out craziness. Here are a few observations of grieving. Some of these may help constitute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which I suspect is a particular form of grief. Others, especially in mild forms, you shouldn’t be surprised to face:

  • Dreams and flashbacks. Don’t ascribe them too much meaning. Often, our subconscious is just working on things, processing grief in the background, and it bubbles up to the surface during sleep.
  • Sudden moments of denial, even long after the event. It may strike you suddenly. It may suddenly make more sense that they’ve somehow faked their death, or gotten amnesia and disappeared, or aliens abducted them. Anything to avoid facing the unreasonableness of reality.
  • Seeing, hearing, or feeling something illusory of what you’ve lost. For example, you might hear your dead loved one in a crowd of people.
  • Sudden bursts of emotions that don’t fit the context. Outbursts of seemingly random anxiety, despair, and anger are common.
  • Fear, odd logical connections, and predictions of doom may arise.
  • The temptation to find non-prescription ways to medicate. This can be through drugs, sex, alcohol, shopping, sleeping, or obsessively researching explanations. Carefully avoid these and seek help quickly as they come up.
  • Rumination, the process of constantly thinking (literally, chewing) over things. As we ruminate, the thoughts become worse and worse. Soon, we experience emotions out of proportion to the facts.
  • Strong desires to isolate yourself from others—even to the point of suicidal thoughts. If this becomes uncontrollable, you should seek help from a counselor and trusted family and friends.
  • Trying to put your grief into a simple, concise box and tuck it away. Obsessing about moving past it and handling it can feel like a necessity.

Other reactions certainly exist, and, as I’ve stressed, each person’s experience is unique. When these features I’ve outlined become exceedingly dysfunctional, out of proportion, or calcified, you should consider confiding in a therapist. While everyone will go through some of these features of grieving, if movement stops, it’s time to get help.

Another personal story of grief

Many years ago, I officiated my best friend’s funeral. We scarcely spent a day apart during my childhood. Tough as nails and wicked smart, Jason was a Navy Seal and had a beautiful family. He died suddenly and tragically (not in the line of duty).

During the grieving process, I felt entirely disconnected from reality. I had the strange, crazy feeling I wouldn’t make it through the day—an intuition that I would die very soon. I wrote letters to my wife and kids in case I didn’t make it past the funeral and even left my life insurance information on my desk, out in the open. Not because I was considering ending my own life but because an irrational fear of dying suddenly sprung up in my grieving.

Because of the pervasive experience of craziness, people often ask, “Is this normal?” or “How do you think I’m doing?” By now, hopefully you can see it will look different for each person. There is no “normal” in grieving.

However, I can give cautions and general topics to wrestle with.

How to grieve well

In saying we shouldn’t over generalize, I’m not saying that everyone should mope all the time or get mired indefinitely by something in the past. I’m saying we should actively moving in the midst of grief. It may be backward or forward day by day, but movement is crucial. Some topics will help us consider how to actively grieve. Here are some topics I go through with people struggling with grief, in no particular order.

1.    Don’t compare yourself to others

I believe in chaos theory when dealing with people. Chaos theory is most famously applied to weather patterns. They are so massively complex with so many impacting variables that they are nearly impossible to predict with any accuracy. A butterfly flapping its wings in Peking can affect the US weather. Chaos theory, applied in psychology, is the idea that humans are so complex and interconnected that we can never accurately measure or predict their identity, personality, thoughts, or choices.

There are few more complex systems than human personality and identity. Our genetics and our experiences are so vastly different that predictions and measurements, though interesting to study, are impossible to get correct.

So something so complex as grieving, compounded with the complexity of each human, makes comparisons mostly pointless. You might as well compare the number of grains of sand that one wave washes out to sea on a beach in California to the same in Africa. What does it tell you?

2.    Avoiding wishful thinking (or “magical thinking”)

Magical thinking is the vain and possibly even prideful thought that if we had just done or said something different, the outcome would have been different.

We can’t know that.

We can’t even know if the difference would have been better or worse.

I call this thinking magical thinking because we’re delusional if we think that if we had only spoken the “magic” words or performed the “magic” action, then our tragedy would have been avoided. As such, we shouldn’t dwell on the “If only I had been nicer to them…” or “If only I hadn’t gone to work that day…”

There is no reparo spell for the tragedy. If there were, we would use it.

If I drive recklessly and nothing bad seems to happen, then I am equally responsible for my immoral behavior as if my reckless driving had led to someone’s death. Sometimes, we do something foolish or wrong, and the consequences are terrible. Other times, we do something foolish or wrong, and no one ever knows, and no one seems to suffer (as far as we can see). But if we knew what the consequences would be, would we have done it in those cases?

Likely not.

Don’t hear me relieving anyone of the responsibility for their actions—quite the opposite. But so often, what we grieve are the consequences we did not and could not possibly foresee. Accept that you could not foresee. Accept whatever genuine responsibility exists, but try your very best not to obsess over what you would’ve done differently if you had known because, as a matter of fact, you did not know.

3.    Other People’s Words

I’ve seen many clients dealing with grief. For many, the most difficult part of grieving is other people’s comments. Grieving is a vulnerable state, and words can become daggers.

Here are a few examples:

  • “This must have happened because of something bad you did.” (False karmic thinking.)
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “You just need to forgive and move on.”
  • “God must have needed your daddy in heaven with Him.”

Somehow, we need to let such foolish, simple things drop. Try to forget them. The person saying things like this is either deluded, malicious, or struggling with pain themselves.

4.    Underspiritualization

Sometimes, we under-spiritualize tragedy, meaning we see all events as entirely chaotic, random, and meaningless. In this view, there’s nothing to learn, no way to grow, and nothing more to believe in. Generally, I disagree. While we shouldn’t cleanly categorize why something tragic happened, we can grow through the experience. As a Christian, I see God as directing this growth.

Through suffering, we can become more compassionate and merciful to others going through the same thing. For example, my wife and I can love other couples with miscarriages especially well because we’ve faced three in our lives. We need others in our life to make it through grieving. When we’ve grieved, we can be that person to others.

We can become stronger and more resilient through grieving. Consider a well-known example. If my office were to burn down, what would survive? The books, furniture, papers, art, etc., would all burn. Anything ceramic will last. It was created in fire, so it can survive the fire.

While we shouldn’t comfort ourselves or others with platitudes, we can take comfort in knowing that we can find meaning in suffering and grieving. The bottom line is we shouldn’t stop growing, moving, and learning.

5.    Overspiritualization

Conversely, we can become too focused on looking for a reason or a simple “God does everything for a purpose.” God is a God of comfort, but not one who settles on the bumper sticker answers. The truth is, even though God is sovereign, we don’t always know why he does what he does. To claim we know for certain misses the point of humbly growing, moving, and learning.

We’re in this together

Hopefully, this conversation at least shows that you’re not alone. Each person grieves radically differently, but everyone needs others to lean on. Hearing other people’s experiences can bring solidarity. Receiving compassion and kindness from others fills the soul. Having someone who loves you just sit with you, not saying a single word, can go miles.

Instead of bottling up grief, grieve (actively) by allowing the reality to wash over you. Accept the closed-off possibilities as closed-off.  If your childhood was stolen by abuse, grieve what could have been your childhood—safe, idyllic, and fun. Accept the memories of reality to deal with them. Even if it’s painful to admit, grieve rather than avoid reality.

We have many ways of approaching grief in therapy. For example, in seriously traumatic cases, we can employ EMDR therapy, which helps the client process difficult memories.

Regardless of the method, what we should not do is avoid grieving. If we bottle up grief, pretending like it doesn’t exist, the grief will cause dysfunction in our lives, and we’ll be living in a lie. While regret can be healthy, resentment is not. Lifelong bitterness can kill us. Grieving is a healthy alternative to resentment, bitterness, and unprocessed tragedy.

Why grieving feels so wrong: We’re not “meant” to grieve

As a Christian, I believe this earth is not our final home. Grieving can remind followers of Christ to long for a better place. For this reason, I appreciate doing funerals as a pastor. It’s a reminder that my time here is limited, which helps make the main things the main things. Grief can put our lives into a much-needed perspective. Our lives are short and fleeting, we should “seize the day” for the things of God, living for Christ in truth, goodness, and beauty. Grieving helps us oust the distracting and destructive things from our lives.

If someone you know is grieving, be with them. Sit with them. Cry with them. If you say anything, say you love them, that you’re there for them, and even maybe that you’re praying for them (if you genuinely are praying for them).

When my grandfather died, a maintenance man at my workplace named Rod Spelbring wrote to me, “Remember, our hope was never in this life, but always in the resurrection.” The resurrection is our final hope, a firm hope and trust we can put in Jesus.

We’re not meant to “get over it.” We process the tragedy and integrate it into our lives. You may never stop missing your loved one or the lost opportunity—but you can move on.

I miss my grandad Hop, my three never-born children, and Jason.

I miss you all and look forward to seeing you all again someday.

To everyone else reading this article, I hope it’s been uplifting. The storm will pass. You’ll need help weathering it from friends and family. If you need additional help, consider coming to counseling for grief and trauma therapy.

Book recommendations

These have helped me in my personal grieving:

alethia