Life Lessons on Grief

Bramble branch covered in frost

By Antoinette Tate, PhD

I thought I knew grief. I’ve said goodbye to grandparents and classmates. I’ve helped clients process their grief. I realize now that I never truly knew what grief was until I lost my best friend. It’s been almost 2 years since she died from complications related to cancer. Her passing was sudden and shocking, and also slow and expected, and the loss hit me differently than any other.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified 5 stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She provided us with a language to understand the universal experience of grief. Though her model identifies these states as “stages”, the experience is not linear. We do not experience them in order. In fact, we commonly shift through the different stages randomly and for varying lengths. Sometimes we shift quickly from denial to anger for example; and sometimes we experience acceptance and later feel depressed. It’s all “normal”; and when we understand our emotions then we can put them into words, helping us to process our emotions. My personal experience with loss taught me a few things about grief that aren’t covered in the textbooks.

Grieving is personal and unique. Everyone grieves in their own way. My experience of grief may resemble your experience or may be totally different, and that’s okay. Some people turn to the support they find on social media after experiencing a loss. Some find comfort in solitude. Some people appreciate having reminders around them of the person who is gone, while for others those reminders may be too painful to see until more time has passed.   Whether you cry or don’t, you take time off from work or throw yourself into work, there is no “wrong” way to grieve. Respect for the uniqueness of this process for us and for others is important.

Grief can and will surprise you. Through my clinical training, I learned about how the body “remembers” grief – that clients might experience sadness for example around dates such as the anniversary of a death without having conscious awareness about the meaning of that date. As a therapist, I might help someone who is grieving to develop a ritual around important dates to facilitate a conscious grieving process. Such a ritual may be having a dinner with loved ones to “honor” someone who has passed on their birthday, for example. Day to day, I have found grief to be surprising in how it can arise without warning. A song on the radio, a familiar place, a repeated task that was once completed with the loved one – any or all of these can trigger that same gut-wrenching grief as though the loss is fresh; but these are also the reminders that keep someone in our thoughts and honor the lasting impact they had on us.

Life goes on. It’s a cliché; but the reality is that time keeps moving whether we want it to or not. Time passing takes us further and further from the time that we had with a loved one, which is a blessing in the way time can be healing, as well as loss because our memories inevitably degrade. Our routines and relationships change to adjust to the gap left by the loss. I think of my friend every day and remember how she touched my life and influenced who I am. When I feel weak, I remember her strength. When I feel down, I remember her smile and her humor. We don’t get to make new memories and that hurts, but I am grateful for the old memories.

During one of my externships, I worked with a family whose loved one committed suicide. My training partner advised me that time was the true healing force in grief, more so than any counseling we could offer. I believe that is true to an extent. However, seeking support from friends, loved ones, a support group, or a therapist is important when the experience of grief interferes with your day-to-day functioning. If you know a friend or relative (or yourself!) is grieving and he or she is drinking excessively, isolating themselves, talking about their own death, or missing school or work, that’s when it may be time to help your loved one to seek professional support. We are not alone when we grieve; and that’s a lesson to remember.