The popular idea that “grief is a journey” is very poetic, but what exactly does it mean?

That’s a tough question since every griever and every relationship is unique. And as lovely as that “journey” phrase might be, it does nothing to point a grieving person in the direction of recovery or completion about the loss that has affected them. Worse, it indicates that there’s nothing the griever can do but go along for the ride.

“Grief is a journey,” along with a host of other phrases relative to grief, has become common in our language. Unfortunately, it and most of the others are either totally incorrect, misleading, or both. They sound good, and even seem like they make sense, but they don’t.

Case in point: Grievers are constantly told they must, “Let go and move on.” It’s a perfect example of something that sounds great but has no helpful meaning or value for grieving people. Grievers don’t understand the instruction to let go and move on, and even if it could be done, it doesn’t tell them how to accomplish it.

 Here are the questions grievers ask: “Let go of what?” “Move on to where?” “How do I do that?”

When people tell grievers to “let go,” do they mean they should let go of the pain and any unfinished business they associate with the person who died, and at the same time hold onto the fond memories they have of their relationship with that person? If so, how are they supposed to let go of the one and hold onto the other?

As you can guess, those questions are unanswerable, because the instruction is false and dangerous to begin with.

You might well ask, “If that’s true, then what do grieving people need to do?”

That’s a much better question, and one that can be answered. But first we need to define grief. “Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of, or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.“ That definition applies to death, divorce, and to the 40 other life events that produce feelings of grief.

The answer: Grieving people need to discover and complete what was left emotionally unfinished between them and the person who died; or in the case of a divorce, between them and their former spouse. That definition, and the actions to discover and complete apply to all grief producing events.

What surprises many people is that positive life events that aren’t usually considered to be losses, are among the most powerful grieving events. For example, people who get major career advancements or come into a large amount of money suddenly are subject to the grief that is the by-product of change.

Recovery from, or completion of what a loss has left unfinished cannot happen if you believe that you’re on a journey which has no destination and over which you have no control.

Once you realize that grief is not a journey, and that recovery from grief is a series of actions with the goal of discovering and completing what is emotionally unfinished for you, you now have a destination, a purpose, and a sense of control.

About the Author

Russell Friedman

Russell Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute, and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook, When Children Grieve, and Moving On.

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