Monday, November 21, 2016

Grief is the NORMAL and NATURAL reaction to loss

My wonderful sister-in-law sent me a link to an article in The Atlantic magazine that I found quite interesting partially because it confirmed many things I already knew about grief, and partially because of its main premise. The key question is "is grief a disease?"  Now before we get too started here, let me give you the link to the original article which was taken from Mosaic Science.  Note the title is "How Should You Grieve?" unlike The Atlantic's title, "Is Grief a Disease?"

That completed now, let's talk about the elephant in the room with this article.  Is grief normal?  I think we would all say that grief is normal.  Is grief complicated?  Again, having been through it several times, I find some grief periods more complicated than others.  The most complicated is the death of my 29 year old son four summers ago.  Is having grief for an extended period of time that includes the inability to cope a disease? Well, we certainly know that grief can cause disease, like most extremely stressful and life altering events.  We don't gulp down Tums for nothing in corporate America.  But can grief really be classified as a disease, a mental illness, a sickness with distinct symptoms like the flu?

On the one hand, I am glad the question exists because many people do not seek help for grief events because grief is not technically an illness therefore the insurance companies will not pay for services from grief counselors or grief groups.  I would be more than happy if grief could be seen in a light that helped people into recovery programs through insurance payments.

On the other however, grief is completely natural and normal.  Normal does not equal disease.  Grief is the measure of love we had for the lost relationship (or whatever was lost - there are over 40 losses that can create a grief experience).  What is even more interesting is that every grief experience is unique.  That is because every relationship is unique.  If they are all unique, then they all have unique symptoms.  Some of those symptoms are learned behaviors based upon what was modeled to us as we watched others experience grief, and some are because of the nature of the relationship itself.  Two siblings that lose a parent will process the loss differently, have different "symptomatology" and grieve differently.

Grief is so very misunderstood by the common person.  I often hear from my clients "no one understands me", or "people expect me to be over this by now."  I have even heard people tell me that they cannot cry amongst the family because it make everyone "uncomfortable."  We are trained by this mixed up society to say the most harsh things to grievers. "At least you have two other children." or "Don't feel bad, at least you are young enough to marry again."  I wish it were required reading by all high schools in America and beyond to read the Grief Recovery Handbook in an attempt to retrain Americans for grief experiences.

As for the rest of the article, I found the research findings, in many cases, in tune with The Grief Recovery Institute.  Some of those findings are that people who go for extended periods in grief without help lose direction, lose hope, and lose their own way.  I was one of those people.  I also liked the idea of confronting grief head on and not shrinking away from it.  We do not like pain and we typically avoid situations that cause it.  I too avoided the hospitals my son was in. For grief, however, we need to lean into it much like walking into hurricane force winds.  We need to go on the journey set before us, even though it hurts and was thrust on us.  Grief is supposed to hurt.  As a friend of a friend Mar Feder says "Every loss deserves to be honored with grief."

I liked that the researchers didn't agree with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' 5 stages of grief when it comes to the griever, and that there are no defined stages that every person goes through.  I liked some of the methods that were developed for confronting grief.  These steps remind me of the steps in the programs of GRI where we examine our belief about grief, then we take small distinct steps towards an understanding of what is unsaid, undone, incomplete, and lost though the death or loss of a relationship.  A person needs to have two things to accomplish grief recovery, the will to do it (not everyone wants to get better), and the right steps/program.

I do appreciate the research done with grieving people and the efforts of wonderful people to find ways to help people in grief.  While this was a long article, it was quite interesting.  Is grief a disease?  No, it is natural.  Do grieving people need help?  Yes, many do and should seek it.  Are there existing programs that address many of the aspects of the research findings? Yes, please see the links above.  Is everyone worthy of help?  By all means.

Let me know what you think!


  1. Leaning into grief is one of the hardest things to do but a step in traveling to a place where grief lives and building a relationship with it. At least that is how I look at it. I have found I have never been finished with grief - nor has grief been finished with me. Some things still make me immeasurably sad but in contrast I also find joy in thinking about that person, remembering the little things - the things that made me laugh and yes, even some of the regrets. For me there have never been stages - just waves of emotions. Sometimes the waves rise up but as it subsides peace and memories take over. I guess a part of me doesn't want the pain to go away, but to know that it is there and that something I loved dearly is missing. As long as I remember, they are still with me. I can't speak for others but I don't think I will ever be over grieving but I have learned how to be in a relationship with grief and be at peace.

  2. Hey Reilly! Thanks for the response! There are two sides to grief: pain and sadness. You are right that not much can be done for the sadness other than finding good healthy coping mechanisms and do things like my friend Laura Jack ( recommends. Those things are to honor your loss in good ways and allow yourself to be sad when sadness floods over you. No need to apologise for sadness and missing those who have been lost. Be weak and allow sadness to have its course.

    The pain however can be addressed. Pain is caused by unfinished and unsaid things (sometimes things you said that you wish you had not said). There are lost hopes, dreams and expectations for the future. There are also things you wish you would have done differently, better or more often before the loss (e.g. called more frequently). For those that have pain associated with loss, I recommend the Grief Recovery Handbook by John James and Russell Friedman. There are also grief groups that use this text in dealing with the pain associated with loss. I run groups like this in the NW Houston area.

    Thanks again for your comments. They are beautifully said.