Speaking Grief explores the transformative experience of losing a family member in a grief-avoidant society. It validates grief as a normal, healthy part of the human experience rather than a problem that needs to be “fixed.”
What Is Grief?
“Grief is not an illness or a mental health problem. Grief is a natural part of life.”Julie Kaplow
Each person’s grief is unique. Our individual grief experiences are shaped by many factors.
Grief is a set of experiences that involves the perceived loss that someone has around a person, a situation, an event, a happening, that changes the way that they physically, emotionally, spiritually, react and respond to the world around them.
So, if we’re thinking about the way that we’re taught that grief is, we’re taught that it just involves a death event, a death of a loved one. But grief actually encompasses a series of losses, and a series of change, and has to do with how we integrate that change into our day-to-day functioning.
What Does Grief Feel Like?
Grief can be difficult to pin down. We asked grieving people and experts to share an analogy to describe their grief. One account follows:
The best way for me to describe grief is like you’re at a crowded movie theatre. And you’ve bought your tickets for a Rom Com (romantic comedy). And, you’re there and the movie starts and it’s been going for about 15 minutes and then all of the sudden the screen splits in two, and melts, and a horror movie starts in its place.
This isn’t the movie that you showed up for. This isn’t what you bought tickets for.
And everybody else around you is behaving as though this is all perfectly fine. And you’re like, “Wait a minute this isn’t … this isn’t right! This is a horror movie! This is not what I signed up for.” And they’re like, “Meh, it’s just a movie. Just eat the popcorn this is great!” Right?
When you’re inside intense grief like that, you’re no longer watching the same movie everybody else is watching. And because nobody else is watching that movie, they all think everything is fine.
Nothing is fine. Right? And it’s that dissonance between what’s happening in your world versus what’s happening in other people’s world. And the fact that we don’t recognize that everybody is walking around with their own personal movie screen all the time.
Each Grief Experience is Different
How we grieved for past losses is not a predictor of how we will grieve in the future. Read the following account:
We lost Drew on Christmas Eve, 2017. And then, exactly eight months later, on August 24th, I lost my mother. My grief experience with my mother was totally different than that with my son.
He died when he was only 23. My mother had a long, wonderful life. She was 96 years old. Uh. And, and I was able to be with her when she passed. So, while I mourned her passing and, and I, I miss her everyday. Um. It just wasn’t, um, it wasn’t the knife to the gut like Drew’s death was. Your child is a part of you, and it’s just, it felt like a part of me died.
Um. What I found is that, when I, when I, when I tried to grieve for my mother, uh, I would be overcome with grief for Drew. So, it may sound weird, but it made it hard to grieve for my mother, because I was, and I am still grieving for Drew. And, you know, people say, “Oh. Well they’re together now. Isn’t that great?” And, well, yeah, but. (laughs) Doesn’t change the fact that he’s gone.
Types of Grief
There are many different classifications of grief. The ones we most often encounter and least often recognize as grief are:
Stigmatized loss often includes feelings of shame, blame, hopelessness, or distress. Examples can include losses related to suicide, addictions, HIV, LGBTQ+, infidelity, abortion, infertility, and others.
Ambiguous losses are intangible or uncertain losses that are often not acknowledged.
With ambiguous loss, you can be grieving someone who is physically absent but psychologically present in your life. This can happen with a child or parent in a divorce, or losing contact with a loved one due to military deployment, or incarceration. Parents who put a child up for adoption may grieve for the loss of the child.
Ambiguous loss can also mean you are grieving someone who is physically present and alive but psychologically absent in your life. This can happen when there is estrangement in a family, or in breakups or divorce. It can happen when a loved one has Alzheimer’s disease. Or you may grieve when someone you care about has a mental health or other illness, or a substance use disorder.
We usually think of grief as something that happens after a death – but grief can also be felt in anticipation of a death or other kind of loss. As soon as the possibility of the death occurs in our minds, it is possible (and natural) for us to begin to grieve. Anticipatory grief can occur for many reasons, some of which might include when someone is diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness, is battling addiction, or is leaving for a military deployment. Anticipatory grief is just like “regular” grief – a wide range of feelings can be felt, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Disenfranchised grief is defined by grief researcher Ken Doka as “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.” Disenfranchised grief can happen when:
- A relationship is not recognized as a loss (an affair, friendship or relationship ending, estrangement where someone has not died but chose to end the relationship, etc.)
- The loss is not socially recognized or understood (pet loss, abortion, infertility, LGBTQ+ partner, loss of cultural traditions, etc.)
- The griever is not socially recognized as someone who is grieving or people try to protect them by preventing these individuals from their right to grieve (the very old, young children, individuals with a disability, etc.)
How we experience these kinds of losses can impact how we process death-related losses.
We All Grieve in Our Own Way
We all experience grief. It is a universal truth about being human that we can not escape. The tricky thing is that no two people experience grief in the same way. Some of us express our grief by mourning openly and others prefer to mourn in private. Some of us take any opportunity to talk about the person who died and others prefer not to talk at all. Some seek comfort in religion, while others question their faith.
Grief is universal, and yet individual. Our grief is our own, and all of our feelings and expressions of grief are OK. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve.
All of us do it; it is a universal response to change, but we do it differently. It’s unique, as unique as our fingerprints.Alesia Alexander, LCSW, CT
Grief Has No Timeline
When we grieve, we can’t control the process. We can’t control how long it takes or how many times it starts over.
A common misconception about grief is that there is a linear timeline that one must pass through in order to come to terms with the death of a loved one. Generally, pain is tempered as time passes, but there is no timeline with grief.
While we may eventually adapt to life without our loved ones, grief never fully goes away.
So, we have this idea that grief should be over and done with within 6-8 weeks. So, if you are still sad six months after your mom died, you’re failing. For some people, grief should be over by the time the funeral is over. Right? Depending on how close you were to the impact zone—and impact zone, I mean your daily personal involvement with the person who’s died—the further you get out from the center of that circle the less tolerance you have for somebody’s emotions.
If you have a life to go back to it can seem like, “You should be good by now.” But, for those whose intimate, daily lives are affected by the death of somebody, you’re not even out of the initial fog at six weeks or six months. You have to live without that person on a day-to-day basis for the rest of this life. That’s going to take more than six weeks or six months.
And, again, because we don’t talk about this—we don’t talk about the lived reality of grief—even grieving people think, “It’s been six months, why am I still so sad? What’s wrong with me?” Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re human.
There Is No Step-By-Step Process
The stages of grief were never intended to be a roadmap.
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief may help us to name our feelings and experiences inside of grief, but they were never meant to be a step-by-step prescription for how to move forward.
The “stages” originated from Dr. Ross’ observations of the experiences of terminally ill patients. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance reflect how people tend to cope with the reality of death and dying. They were never intended to offer a roadmap for grief.
There are really only two stages of grief, … who you were before and who you are after.Ted Rynearson
The phases that we have around what grief has been described to us as, may or may not fit. Your experience may be very different, and that’s okay, and we have to give each other permission around that, so we can really present ourselves as supportive and safe.
Because we can make it unsafe for each other with having an expectation around what’s someone else’s grief journey is. And I think that’s important, um, for parents, I think it’s important for peers; I think it’s important for communities to throw away their expectations around what they think grief is.
Grief Is Not One Emotion
Grief is the container that holds all of the emotions felt as a result of loss.
Many people equate grief with sadness, but grief is much, much more than sadness. We can feel any combination of emotions inside of grief, and all of them are OK.
Whether you are grieving or learning more about grief to support someone else, remember:
Anything a person feels inside of their own personal grief is correct.Megan Devine
Grief Is Physical
Grief is a whole-body experience.Christina Chipriano
Grief can really take a toll physically on people. We hear all the time from people that grief can make you feel exhausted, like you really can’t get out of bed. Grief can change your appetite, so people often talk about not wanting to eat for weeks at a time after the death of a loved one. Grief can also cause inflammation in the body, so you often hear of individuals having health issues after the death of a loved one, and we believe there may actually be a biological cause to that.
Grief Impacts Our Brains
Grief can impact our ability to concentrate, make decisions, find things, or think clearly.
You may have heard of “baby brain,” where new parents experience memory lapses and absent-mindedness during early parenthood. Cognitive effects of grief are sometimes referred to as “grief brain” or “grief fog.” Grief can impact our ability to concentrate and make decisions. It can be difficult to think clearly and remember things. Items might be misplaced more often. Names forgotten. Tasks undone.
Whether you are grieving or supporting someone who is grieving, understand that cognitive effects are normal in grief.
If you think of the mind as having 100 circuits of energy, grief takes up 99 of those. Grief is like your brain turning this information over and over and over and trying to find a place where it fits. It’s not going to fit, but your mind is trying to make it so. It’s trying to make this story work out in a way that is acceptable. How do you make this death acceptable? You can’t, but your brain’s working on it, which means that you have one unit of energy left for everything else.Megan Devine, Psychotherapist and author of It’s OK that You’re Not OK
Read the following account:
I definitely felt like, that, the stress and the shock, especially initially, impacted my ability to focus, my ability to get things done. Um, it felt like I had always an insurmountable pile of trivial things to do.
I didn’t have time to think deeply, uh, about … I think that was part of why the future seemed so emorphous. I, I couldn’t think that abstractly or that deeply about anything. There was too many, uh, little things like are there diapers in the house (laughs).
Um, I couldn’t believe it when I had the realization that you could go in the grocery store and buy two gallons of milk at one time and they wouldn’t stop you – like that’s okay. (Laughs). I didn’t have to go to the store every other day. I could buy two gallons of milk at one time. Wow. Uh, there of the- those kinds of moments. Um, even after it got easier, I have experienced attention and focus issues specifically when I’m at work.
Where the death of a loved one is considered the primary loss, experiences that flow from that death are called secondary losses.
“Secondary” means that these losses come as a result of the death, not that they are any less impactful or less difficult. They can unfold over time or become apparent in the immediate aftermath of the death. Secondary losses are a normal part of grief, and identifying and acknowledging them can often be the first step in grieving them.
Secondary losses are kind of the double whammy of grief. Which is, there’s a death event, and then there may be a change in financial resources of the family. The father or the mother was the main breadwinner, and the loss of that income causes homelessness or food instability or creates a space where the family has to move out of the home. And, typically, because we’ve been taught to think about grief just as death-oriented, we don’t factor in the impact that those secondary losses can have on a young person or on a family. And oftentimes, when a family does come into support services, they actually spend more time talking about those secondary losses than they do about the actual death event or the loss of their loved one, because those become the emergent needs. “We don’t have food,” or “we’re losing our home because of the loss of our loved one,” and that’s actually the crisis.”