Counselors and therapists once conceptualized grief as a linear process. It was meant to unfold in predictable stages: denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. We used to think grief had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Grief experts think differently now.
The grief model has considerably expanded over the last decade. While the above described experiences depict what many grievers encounter after a loss, we now know that the "areas" of grief are neither linear nor universal. What's more, grief has proven itself to be cyclical, free-flowing, and without an endpoint.
Though our understanding of the grieving process has evolved, many of the grievers I see in therapy judge themselves harshly when their grief does not look or feel the way they think it should. They should feel more of this or less of that. They admonish themselves for moving forward too quickly; flagellate themselves for lagging behind. This happens even when I remind them that grief is both unpredictable and specific to the griever.
Grievers will cling to the idea that, somehow, they are doing grief wrong--even though doing so makes them feel worse than they already do.
It's normal, when faced with uncertainty, to yearn for order and predictability--both are associated with our sense of emotional safety. Yet telling ourselves we should feel something other than what we do feel is akin to tossing a boulder into the middle of a stream. It interrupts what would otherwise naturally flow toward its intended destination. Take Sylvia* for example.
Silvia was 35 when she sought grief counseling to deal with the death of her beloved father. Sylvia and her father were so close everyone, including Sylvia, expected she would fall apart after his death. But that did not happen. In fact, Sylvia sought therapy because she was concerned about what she described as "a disturbing lack of emotion." We explored this together.
When I asked Sylvia to tell me more about her father, her face lit up. She spoke at length about a robust, generous, sharp-witted family man. He was a present and engaged father to Sylvia and a wonderful grandfather to Sylvia’s two children--until he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. The diagnosis was followed by a rapid decline in physical and mental health, which sent the whole family into turmoil.
Sylvia’s demeanor shifted as she described what it was like to watch the disease whittle away at her father. Just before his death, Sylvia's once-independent role model could no longer feed or bathe himself. He was unable to recognize a single member of the family he loved so dearly. Sylvia's dad was alive. But he wasn't really living.
As I listened to Sylvia's story it occurred to me that the issue at hand was not a lack of emotion. It was the belief that her grief was supposed to occur in order. The sadness she expected would come after her father died actually took place long before his physical death.
When death marks the endpoint to prolonged suffering, it is common for family members to feel some degree of relief. Rarely can they admit this without feeling guilty. So they don't talk about it all. This was the case for Sylvia.
Therapy gave Sylvia the one thing she needed most: a safe place to speak her truth, even though it did not sound the way she expected it would. With time and therapy, Sylvia was able to make peace with her grief.
It is when we are vulnerable that we are most worthy of patience and grace yet, for many, this is the time we are least willing to extend it. If you are telling yourself you should be anywhere other than where you are in this moment, I invite you to remember that grief is a natural and organic process that needs only to be witnessed and felt.
It's okay to let go of grief-related expectations--they will only get in your way. Instead, trust your grief and yourself. Both are trustworthy.
*All identifying information has been changed to protect patient confidentiality.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce consultation, co-parenting support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. Having trouble trusting your grief? Schedule a free consultation to see how grief counseling can help you find the forward path.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, grief counselor, and dating coach. Her coaching and therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of North Seattle in Washington.