Grief

This site will not ‘cure’ grief. You cannot cure something that is not a disease. If you are grieving, there is nothing wrong with you. Thank you for being here. We welcome you, with sorrow and respect, to the grief family, and we hope you find something in the next pages: companionship, validation, resources, and concrete activities to find some control in a seemingly uncontrollable situation.

To start, get rid of the concept of “normal.” “Normal” is redefined everyday by grief. Feeling crazy is normal. Feeling rapid mood swings between numbness and highly charged reactivity is normal. Worrying that on top of the grief you feel you are doing the grief “wrong” is normal. Wondering if you should be over it by now is normal. Feeling repulsed by the good intentions of others is normal.

In this section you will find a variety of approaches to living with grief from the therapeutic, philosophical, and practical worlds. Fair warning – this is a lot of material. If you are not ready to read all of this, bookmark it and come back to it when you are up for it. Grief is a journey, a path, a trial, and a state we move through and that moves through us. You do not need to force it; you will meet it when it’s time.

Let’s jump in.

Grief, Translated

Like death, grief lends itself to many metaphors, translations, dissections, and explanations. Like love, grief defies neat linguistic packaging. It is illogical and immersive. It makes a home in the pit of the stomach, separated from language by absence, silence, and unconvincing platitudes (“She’s in a better place…”). Meaningful grief companionship is not about an outsider pouring words into the griever’s emptiness and seeing what sticks; it’s about witnessing whatever comes up in the griever and letting them find their own language to describe it – verbal or otherwise.

Below are some noble attempts to translate grief, a distinctly emotional and body-centered rupture, through the linguistic realm:

“The word grief comes from the Old French greve, meaning ‘a heavy burden.’ When you grieve for a loss, you have to carry a heavy burden.” – Steven Hayes

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.” – CS Lewis, A Grief Observed

A loss is like an amputation. If the blood doesn’t stop gushing soon after the operation, then you will die. To survive means, by definition, that the blood has stopped. But the amputation is still there.” – CS Lewis, A Grief Observed

“Grief is essentially an emotion that draws us toward something or something that is missing. It rises from awareness of a discrepancy between the world that is and the world that ‘should be.’” – Richard Gross, The Psychology of Grief

If these are meaningful for you, there are many more to draw from, which we have curated and collected. Click below and see what snippets of wisdom various authors and people have about grief.

Grief: The Paradox

Grief is littered with paradoxes. It is the most painful emotional thing you can experience, yet it can also be the source of powerful transformation. It is intense and it is numbing. It is X and also Y. It is this and that. The confusing nature of these paradoxes is a barrier to having better discussions about grief with ourselves and with others. How can one speak to the depths of a complex human relationship with others if one is supposed to not “speak ill of the dead”? How can one find the good in the worst situation? These are the difficult and ultimately enlightening questions of grief that are only answerable through living it. Here are just a few more of those paradoxes:

Grief is universal and yet individual

This one is so obvious but it is worth repeating: Everyone you know will die. And, since you know yourself (or, are working on it!), that applies to you too. Grief, the lasting companion of death, will come to everyone at some point. This universality is exemplified in the following Buddhist parable.

“The Mustard Seed”

“In the Buddhist story a young woman, Kisa Gotami, follows a rather fairy-tale like path from birth in a poor family to a marriage to the only son of a wealthy family. She was not treated well by the wealthy family of her husband until she bore them a son. Then she was accepted and respected. Things couldn’t be better for her.
But then, tragedy strikes. Her son, at just the age where he had begun to run around on his own, died. Distraught, she took up the child’s body and searched for a doctor with the right medicine to revive him. She was laughed at and mocked by those who saw her until, finally, a man told her to go see the Buddha.
She asked the Buddha if he could help her. To her delight, he said, “yes, I can help you.”
What he would need from her was just a simple mustard seed from the nearby village. In India, mustard seeds would be in practically every house as a common spice. She was elated; this would be easy. “But,” the Buddha told her, “you must get the seed from a house that has not known death.”
“Sure,” she thought, and went quickly on her way. At the first house she asked for the mustard seed and when it was quickly offered to her, she asked, “has there been death in this house?” The kind villager nodded and told the story of a lost uncle or cousin. The same happened at the next house, and the next house, and the next.
As she traveled from house to house and heard story after story, her sense of aloneness in her grief began to subside. “No house is free from death,” she realized. She finally let go of her son, laying him in a forest nearby, and returned to the Buddha.
The Buddha asked her, “Do you have the mustard seed?”
“Dear teacher,” She replied, “I do not, but I saw that the living are few and the dead are many.”

There is a togetherness that comes from entering the grief family. After cycling through increasingly erratic emotions, it can be comforting to hear the stories of others who share your pain. But, belonging in this loss-world is cold comfort when a griever’s sole wish is to be with the one person who is gone. This belonging is overwrought with isolation. This is where the flip side of the universality of grief emerges: the individuality of loss. Every grief exists separately from every other grief, as grief resides within each griever, in the same spaces where the relationship used to reside. Each loss is as unique as the relationship. This is why it is so common to feel alone during communal gatherings like funerals or wakes. Seeking isolation is not a “symptom” of “bad grieving,” it is a sign of an individual assessing the wreckage of the present moment. And, considering the insensitivity of so many well-wishers, it is completely understandable why someone would retreat from the social world to get in touch with their individual manifestation of universal grief.

“It is true; no one has ever grieved exactly as we are grieving because no two people face even the same kind of loss in the same way. But the awful experience of being utterly depressed and isolated is a universal phenomenon.” – Granger Westberg, Good Grief

Grief is common yet denied

Grief is common because loss is common. Any crowded street features people carrying all kinds of grief, processing and dormant alike: an esteemed and elderly mentor whose personality is dissolving with dementia; a recent report of infertility; a brother fighting and losing to conquer an opioid addiction. There are memories, secrets, physical aches and pains, regrets, anger, and pockets of love.

Despite the prevalence of grief, grief literacy and expression is conspicuously absent from daily life. If it is present, it looks like something else: road rage, binge eating, a wistful social media post hinting at something gone. Death and grief are frequently mentioned in the news, but they rarely stay beyond a news segment. .

Denial of grief (and death) is a time-honored tradition in Western culture. The contrite advice of “grin and bear it” may be applicable to a stubbed toe or a winter cold, but it doesn’t support the natural response that comes from a loss. Grief is energy, and energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed. Long-term suppression of grief can transform into anger, depression, disconnection, indifference, isolation, etc.

The  common responses to grief:

“You’ll get through it.”
“Smile and you’ll feel better.”
“Time heals all wounds.”
“At least you’ve got your health.”

These platitudes indicate how uncomfortable it can be to be in the presence of grief. This discomfort points to the lack of grief literacy in Western culture and the tendency to sweep monsters under the rug rather than greet them. Grief is an opportunity to educate how we can support each other in the grieving process. Grief is sad, confusing, dark, ridiculous, enraging, joyous, and hard. You can grieve and be happy. You can be devastated and relieved by someone’s passing. You can appear to have it “together” and be falling apart. You can know, intellectually, grieving is normal, but you can also be humbled by its messiness.

 Grief deserves to be spoken of, cared for, and honored, even if it’s ugly, loud, dark, inconvenient or awkward.  The experience of grief is a rare window into the ephemerality of life and it deserves attention.

“Everyday grief arises when we remember how the carelessness of our actions has caused harm to others. It comes in moments of not being recognized, at times when our expectations aren’t met. Sometimes our grief is about what we’ve had and lost, and sometimes it is about what we never got to have in the first place… Our fear of this lack of control leads up to ideas about managing our grief or getting over our grief. It is curious to me that we never speak about “managing” our joy or “getting over” our happiness. Grief is like a stream running through our lives, and it is important to understand that loss doesn’t go away. It lasts a lifetime. It is our relationship to a particular loss that changes.” (Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations).

Finding a way to live with the pain of grief is what enables the integration of grief and life.

Stepping into the hurt, the devastation, and the pain of grief is what allows for grief to become manageable. By assessing the full extent of a loss, including the life that preceded it and the life that remains after, grief takes on more roles than “existential buzzkill.” It becomes a magnifying glass that amplifies the sheer outlandish, contradictory, nature of living as a human being on this Earth. We are capable of loving, losing, changing a diaper, wrapping a gift, climbing a tree, baking a pie – all while shouldering an unpredictable litany of grief that rains on everyone.

“Feel the pain” is counter-intuitive to society’s message of “pain is bad and avoid it at all costs.” As discussed, this creates a pain- and grief-avoidant culture that leaves us alone and without skills or language to approach this experience.

There are many approaches to stepping into grief. Some are listed on the How to Deal with Grief page. Each has some aspect of wrestling with grief and the space left behind. The point of confronting such pain is not to destabilize the griever to the point of reaching “rock bottom” and having some kind of glorious revelation about how we are all one and death is an illusion (cue “Kumbaya” riffs). Grief, besides being a feeling, is a state and a set of skills. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Except it’s not even a marathon because at least marathons end after 26.2 miles and you get a t-shirt. Grief is something humbler and longer – it is life itself.

Here are other snippets of the paradox of grief:

  • Even after someone has died, they can feel alive around us.
  • Death steals the future we anticipated and hoped for, but it can’t take away the relationship we had.
  • New losses do not get easier to process; each one feels like the first.
  • Peoples’ legacies continue to influence those around them after they’re gone.
  • “Smaller” losses (losing a scrap of paper with a loved one’s handwriting on it) can feel bigger than more significant losses (watching a coffin go in the ground).
  • Laughter and sadness often look the same – like crying!