Kenneth J. Doka Ph.D.

Good Mourning

The Choice We Make About Grief

While we don't choose our grief, we have choices within grief.

Posted Dec 03, 2020

When I commended my client Felicia on seeking counseling, she commented that “she had no choice.” In some ways, she was, of course, right. We have no choice about loss. No one asks if we wish to experience the death of someone we love. Nor do we have any choice about whether to feel the grief that inevitably follows.

But in one way, she was mistaken. While we have no choice about whether to experience loss and grief, we do have choices within grief. We can decide how we will choose to cope with our loss.

Dr. Catherine Sanders, one of the pioneers in the study of grief, realized that. Her research noted that individuals often experienced very intense pain as the shock of the loss wore off and they experienced an awareness of their loss. As this initial pain receded, bereaved individuals often moved into a period that Dr. Sanders called “conservation and withdrawal.” 

During this phase, people returned to the demands of life—work, school, or home. Yet while their life looked like it had returned to some sense of normal, they shared with Dr. Sanders that it took all their energy just to keep up with it. They did what they needed to do to get through the day. But they felt little joy.

Here is where the issue of choice comes in. To Dr. Sanders, when we are in this phase, we ultimately have three choices.

The first is to die. What Dr. Sanders means is that many individuals are so disturbed by the loss that they cease to care anymore. They neglect their health—eating poorly, failing to exercise, and even missing medication. Dr. Colin Murray Parkes, another pioneer, labeled this “Broken Heart Syndrome.”

Another choice is to simply stay in this phase of conservation and withdrawal. One of my clients was a good example of this. After her husband died, she entered counseling. We were beginning to make progress when she decided to terminate counseling. She told me that I enabled her to cope with her loss. She described her life before his death as full of color and joy. When he died, it was like the world went dark. Now, she said, the lights were back on—but she could only see the world in black and white. When I said we could get the color back, she said that would be a betrayal of her husband. She was content to live a diminished life—mourning her loss.

Yet there is another choice we can make. Dr. Sanders called it renewal. Here, over time and with work, we find a renewed sense of purpose and joy in life. We understand we will always retain a continuing bond with the individual who died—that love lives on. We acknowledge that we have occasional surges of grief throughout our life—perhaps on holidays or special events—where we feel the loss deeply. Yet we realize the legacy we want to retain is gratitude rather than grief.

Choose to live!