Everyone Grieves Differently: "Grief, A Journey Not An Event"
When someone we love dies, we know that grief is inevitable. Why do we feel such pain, such loss? We are mostly never ready for death; whether the person is old or young, or if the death is due to prolonged illness or a sudden accident. Somehow, it always seems abrupt, and we find ourselves asking, Why them? Why now?
Some people respond by weeping uncontrollably, others by staying busy – distracted, others cannot cry. It would be wonderful to feel the release of letting go and giving into a physical release, but the tears won’t come. Then there is the uncomfortableness of others not knowing what to do or say. Our friends, neighbors, and colleagues offer to help, but all you really want is for the person to still be alive, and no one can give you that. In a daze, you take care of the body, perhaps have a memorial service and allow others to pay their respects. Those friends who have already lost a loved one, particularly the same relationship that you have just lost, can be the most helpful because they have gone before you on this journey of grief. You recognize in their eyes that they know a similar pain that you feel.
Grief comes in waves, like a roller coaster, we call them “grief attacks.” The emotion floods you and washes over you sometimes triggered by an unidentifiable force. Was it seeing the back of someone who looked like them? Going past their favorite restaurant or library? Seeing their favorite make of car? We often don’t have a clue why we are doubled over in pain – the pain of longing for the person to still be here with us.
We wonder if the pain will ever go away. How can we transform it? What can we do to get past it? We think that we want it to end, and at the same time we feel that it would not be respectful or show how much we loved the person if the pain did go away quickly. We are in a double bind. No matter what we think and feel, we feel pain.
Grief is a process, not an event. The evolution of the grief journey starts with disbelief and the understanding that the person is truly gone forever. This phase is usually a shorter one (a couple of months) though the expectation that the person will walk in the door at night, or be sitting in the TV room when you get home can take a while to go away. These are memories of habit.
The next phase is the longest and often the most difficult phase of grief – the pain of missing the person. There are so many reminders – things you need help with, the daily customary interactions, birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. This pain often extends beyond the one year anniversary of the death. This is the phase that people feel most stuck. Unable to move forward and unable to think back before the death.
The third phase is adjusting to the new environment without the deceased. There appears to be no magic key to get to unlock this phase, but people feel like they are searching in this phase. Searching to adapt, to adjust to the new normal without the presence of the deceased.
Lastly, you start to look toward the future and live your life in your new reality without the person. You begin to get involved with new activities, new people. A key to this phase is beginning to help others in some capacity by volunteering, getting involved in new activities and new friend groups.
Grief is a life transition. Is therapy necessary? Will it even help? Most people come to therapy because their pain is so great, and their feeling of “stuckness” and the inability to get out of that feeling seems overwhelming. As with most therapy, the benefit is in having a relationship with a therapist in which you can share your most secret or shameful thoughts and feelings. For grief, it may be that in some ways you are relieved that the person is dead. They were already starting to suffer and feel frustrated with their physical condition or they did not want to be a burden to others. These are not uncommon thoughts or feelings, and therapy can help to normalize what you are feeling and provide a roadmap of the emotional journey that you are on. In addition, family therapy can be helpful to those in grief because every family member may be in a different phase or showing their grief in a different way. Allowing a therapist to lead the family in identifying their feelings and responses to the death of a family member can be helpful to the healing process and family relations. Support and resources are available to those in grief, and a therapist can help you identify the ones most helpful to you in healing.
If you find you have questions about the grief process, please feel free to contact us, we would be honored to answer any you may have, and provide referrals if desired.
Katie Militello, LMFT
Coherence Associates, Inc.
Based upon Worden’s (1991) tasks of mourning
Worden, J.W. (1991). Grief Counselling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (2nd edition). London: Springer.