How does one even being to explain grief? It can often feel so deep and so large that no words seem to accurately depict the process or the experience of grief. John James and Russell Friedman, the authors of The Grief Recovery Handbook describe grief as “the feeling of reaching out for someone who has always been there, only to find that when we need them one more time, they are no longer there.” Or for those grieving relationships that were broken or problematic the feeling could be described as “the feeling of reaching out for someone who has never been there for you, and still isn’t.”
C.S Lewis, in his book A Grief Observed writes “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
If you are reading this, chances are you yourself are grieving or someone you love is grieving. As I have walked through grief in my own life and walked with my clients in their grief, I have come to realize something: grief is a fickle thing. It rarely looks the same and it certainly follows no timeline. My hope in this article is to provide some clarity and insight into two common questions and misconceptions I often hear about grief. 1) Are there stages of grief? and 2) How long does the grief process last? I also hope to provide some tangible advice to those walking with someone who is grieving and to those who are grieving.
Working with my grieving clients, one thing I find us processing through frequently is that grief is not linear. A common perception of grief is there are stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), and we progress through them in some kind of linear, chronological order. This is false. False in the sense that there really are not stages and false in the sense that there is no timeline. The stages of grief were originally created for someone given a terminal diagnosis, someone grappling with the idea of a loss or death to come, not for the those who have gone through a loss. In truth, grief looks profoundly different for each person and each person moves through their grief at a different pace than others. We cannot put grief into stages, and we cannot compare our grieving process to anyone else. The authors of The Grief Recovery Handbook sum this notion up in one quote “There are no absolutes in grief. There are no reactions so universal that all, or even most, people will experience them. There is only one unalterable truth: All relationships are unique.”
Take a second for that last sentence to sink in: All relationships are unique. This means that all grief will be unique. If three siblings were to lose their mom, all three would grieve differently as all three had a different and unique relationship with their mom. So if relationships are unique, and grief is unique, how can we put all grievers into 5 stages? We can’t.
How Long Will I Grieve?
Another question I hear working with grief is “how long will I grieve?” C.S Lewis says, “How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment”? The same leg is cut off time after time.” This quote captures the very question and pain so many people walking through grief ask and experience. The question of “how long?” or the cry of “will I hurt forever?” One common damaging belief that is often used as an answer to these questions is the notion that a griever will never get over a death of a child, a parent, a friend, a sibling, etc. James and Russell provide a healthier and more accurate perception of this and that is, it is impossible to forget your loved one, but entirely possible to find healing and move forward with a fulfilling life. Somewhere along the line an inaccurate and unhealthy line has been drawn between not forgetting and not getting over the grief. This leaves people walking through grief with the idea that their heart will be eternally broken. In truth, we will never forget the ones we have lost, but remembering them does not mean you are not healing, it is quite the opposite. As we heal we are able to remember them with fondness and recall memories with happiness and joy. How long will you grieve? You will always remember your loved one and there will always be periods or days of pain and sadness, but as you heal, whatever that looks like for you and at whatever pace, you may begin to notice more days in between your hard days and more joy in your memories. I know this is not a concrete answer, most people want a number, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years? No one can give you a number, each grieving process, as discussed earlier in this article, is unique and therefore each instance of processing of grief will look different.
For Friends and Family of Grievers:
One of the best things you can do for someone who is grieving is to listen. Understand that they need and want to be heard, not fixed. To a certain degree, effective grief recovery is about being heard. Remember that their grief is unique and so while you have most likely walked through your own grief, it will look and likely feel different than theirs. Know that grief is a matter of the heart, not the head. Lean into the emotions your friend or family member is showing. Meet them there, in their anger, sadness, fear, or any other emotion. Avoid cognitive statements like “they are in a better place.” Or “At least they are no longer hurting and you had the time you did with them.” These statements are cognitively true but miss the mark emotionally.
Grief is a process, and it is important that we tend to ourselves and give ourselves the time and space to grieve. Unresolved grief can compound, making future grief more challenging to navigate. Be gracious with yourself in your grieving process and know that it is okay to grieve. It is okay to feel whatever emotion you feel, and it is okay if your grief looks different than others. What is the most important thing is that you allow yourself to grieve.
Sources: James, John W.. The Grief Recovery Handbook, 20th Anniversary Expanded Edition: (20th Anniversary Edition) (pp. 14-15). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition. Lewis, C. S. (1980). A grief observed. Seabury Press.
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