Life is about change. This is a cliché; yet as unsettling as it is, it is an incontrovertible truth about existence. It is normal to become attached to all in life we love, especially those whose closeness we cherish, even though we are aware at the same we will someday suffer their loss. Some of us have suffered the misfortunate of losing a loved one early in life which in some cases, such as the loss of a parent, sibling, close friend, or pet, can be a traumatic experience. Eventually, however, we will all share the pain and sorrow of this profound aspect of existence. As much as we might dread this fact, we must ask ourselves then how do we manage to reconcile this reality so it doesn’t become a tragedy in our lives.
Is There a Normal Way to Grieve?
The answer is yes and no. There is no one way to grieve that applies to everyone. The grieving process depends on how we as individuals deal with stress and change as well as the nature of our relationships with those whose lives we’ve lost. Joan Didion in her award-winning book, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), described in detail how by revisiting the loss of her husband each time unveiled more questions about his death, what could have been done to prevent it, the distortions in her thinking designed to deny the reality of it, and how it was complicated by crises she and her daughter had to confront occurring at the same time. In Helen MacDonald’s award-winning memoir, H is For Hawk (2014), the author recounts how she coped with the sudden death of her father by raising a goshawk and how through this experience she gained a relationship, qualities such as patience she learned from her father, and a sense of mastery that enabled her to recover from her grief.
There is no one way to grieve and the course of grieving does not follow a linear path. In the late 1960’s the famous psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the idea that grieving takes place in five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While this model has been generally understood as applying to the natural progression of grieving the loss of a loved one, they actually were intended to describe the experiences of those who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Kubler-Ross herself later observed that her model was not intended to apply to everyone because grief is an individual process that follows no set pattern.
Are There Different Kinds of Grief?
Freud, in his monograph, Mourning and Melancholia (1917), identified two kinds of grieving processes that are specific to the nature of loss. Mourning, which is less complicated, entails the actual loss of a loved one and for which a period of grieving naturally follows. By comparison, melancholia involves a complicated relationship with the lost object as would more likely be found in situations such as a breakup of a relationship or more vague losses of a personal nature not so easily identified. In these instances, grieving is complicated by the narcissistic wound or rejection that results in self-loathing, what might likely be rage toward the lost object turned inward.
While this distinction is clinically valid it belies how complicated and individual the grief process actually can be in either case. Notwithstanding it is important to identify qualitative differences in how one grieves that can point to distinctions between grieving that unfolds toward recovery and that which deteriorates into a clinical state of depression. Those distinctions are listed on the Hospice Red River Valley website entitled, “Grief vs. Depression: What you need to know and when to seek help.” In normal grief, for the bereaved person, closeness to others is comforting, self-esteem is likely to remain intact, and thoughts of death are related to wanting to reunite with the deceased loved one. Those suffering from depression, on the other hand, are more self-focused, less capable of enjoying life and engaging with others, and more inclined to feel worthless and guilt-ridden.
How Can We Overcome the Anguish of Grief?
We must first acknowledge that bereavement is a process that cannot be hurried in a deliberate fashion. Letting go unfolds naturally and in its own time if we take the necessary steps to allow it to do so. In her blog, psychologist and motivational writer, Michelle Roya Rad, lists “7 Steps for Dealing with Loss and Grief.” They include:
Bereavement support groups often are sponsored by churches and synagogues in most communities. You may also find resources and lists of both local and online community support groups from the following websites: https://hospiceandcommunitycare.org, https://debra.org, and https://grief.com
Grief is a complicated process; it is also a natural part of life. Losing a loved one, whether it is a spouse, a friend, a parent or child, or a pet, carries with it the weight of the suffering we must inevitably bear to confront and eventually come to terms with its harsh reality. It may also serve as an opportunity for us to grow in ways that can bring a deeper understanding of the meaning and purpose that life has to offer.
Robert Hamm Ph.D