Grief: A Template (part 1)

Grief: early 13c., “hardship, suffering, pain, bodily affliction,” from Old French grief “wrong, grievance, injustice, misfortune, calamity” (13c.), from grever “afflict, burden, oppress,” from Latin gravare “make heavy; cause grief,” from gravis “weighty” (from PIE root *gwere- (1) “heavy”). Meaning “mental pain, sorrow” is from c. 1300.

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In 1969 Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross challenged the silencing stigma of talking about death with her book “On Death and Dying”, which helped to reframe conversations about the end of life. It also popularized a model of understanding grief called both the ‘5 Stages of Grief’ or the ‘Kubler-Ross Model’. Over time, this work has unfortunately been both misunderstood and wrongfully applied.

Two very important words have been cut off from the short handed title; the “5 Stages of Grief” should be followed by “in Terminal Illness”. Her book and model were created through her work with terminally ill patients, studying their experience of death and dying. The model was intended to name the emotional states that those facing death commonly experience. It was NOT created for the living; for those left behind by death, but rather for those coming to terms with their own mortality.

Additionally, the use of the word “stages” has led people to believe in a clean linear progression – one that goes from denial, to anger, to bargaining, to depression, and finally acceptance. Dr. Kubler-Ross in her later years spoke of the regret she felt in how she presented these experiences as stages, clarifying that the stages are not experienced as linear for the dying. The stages do not reflect a grieving process, but rather coping strategies used in grieving one’s own life.

I write all this not to dismiss her model, but to clarify it. And I write it to those who have sought out support, or hunted for something tangible to understand their own experience after having lost someone (even many years later) and found something so neat and tidy doesn’t reflect their experience.

I want to tell you –

You’re not doing it wrong.
There is not a right way and there is not a wrong way to grieve.

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Grief is as much personally experienced as it is universally shared. We will all have losses of many kinds in our lives, and we will grieve them. Here, I am writing to and focusing on the pain particular to the of the loss of a loved one, or of a person of significance in one’s life. The best of writers can almost house it, but it is felt beyond words. It is not orderly. It is not clean. It is a shattering, an untethering. It is an abyss of uncontainable howls of aching and longing that reverberate and suck linear time into infinity. After the shock and splintering, it continues, it shifts and changes, but it does not go away, and it does not complete or rest fully in one place.
I find it helpful to think of grief as a relationship, rather than as a systematic process or set of stages. The relationship is organized around your personal history, your history with that person, that person’s history, the histories before us-and-them, the multitudes of connections between you and them, how those connections overlap and interweave, both inside yourself and in the world around you. As time moves forward, parts of you may not. When anniversaries and birthdays arrive, so will grief. It may be felt differently — more soft, a quiet outline, and sometimes loud, palpable, surprising in its magnitude and quake of its presence.

You may hear your loved one in a song, or a phrase that falls from your lips, or in a surprisingly familiar scent. You may see them in a stranger, or your child. Your taste buds may prompt vivid recollections of them. Through the senses of your body’s memory they will come back to you, and so will their absence. You will want them to see things they cannot, you will miss them at your celebrations, you will miss them at their celebrations, and at the celebrations’ of others that you will never get to have with them. You will ache for them at beautiful sunsets, and starry nights, and you will ache for them just because there is a sky. It is paradoxical, what is painful will be comforting, and what is comforting will also be painful. Presence and absence will trade places and intertwine. Your heart and mind will struggle to comprehend it. You will come to know the textures of your loved one’s presence through the textures of their absence. And you will be changed.

Grief often requires that we learn to welcome paradox. Though that person has gone away, our relationship with them will continue. You do not stop longing for them, loving them or wishing that things were different. You will not stop wondering about who or how they’d be, how they might act or how they would respond to the parts of life you encounter without them. This doesn’t look a particular way. Both how you love, and how you grieve are a creation of your own being.

In a letter to a fan, musician Nick Cave wrote, “ It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe.”

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How one experiences grief is said to be a reflection of the capacity and depth of their love for that which was lost. Being with one’s own experience can be a reckoning when those who were lost were flawed in ways that were profoundly hurtful. Or the unique challenges faced by the griever who was young at the time of the loss – who will never get to experience the person in all their complexity – beyond the role of “Mom” or “Grandpa”. Or, the loss of someone when they were young, being left to wonder into an empty space they left behind, who would they have become Or to learn of an estranged parent or family member you never got to know and may never receive a full picture or understanding of. This list contains just a fraction of the multitude of complications that can arise and shape one’s relationship to longing and sorrow; there are countless more.

Continue reading Grief: A Template (Part 2)


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Will S.E Williams is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with the Center for Mindful Psychotherapy. Will offers holistic and depthful therapy that is both affirming and collaborative. To learn more about Will’s practice, please visit http://sewilliamstherapy.com/.

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