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The Grieving Process—Is There Any Such Thing?

If grief truly is a process, then each of us would go through it the same way.

You’ve probably heard someone say, “I’m in the grieving process,” or talk about a friend who has just experienced a loss and is “in the grieving process.” We’d guess that you probably accepted that statement and didn’t ask for something more specific to help you understand exactly what they were going through.

It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to the “grieving process,” as if it had a universal meaning. Yet when someone uses that phrase and we ask them what they mean, the answers vary so widely that there never seems to be a basic explanation that accurately describes what it is.

There are several reasons we struggle with the use of the phrase grieving process. One reason is that in talking with thousands of grievers over the years, we’ve discovered that every griever is unique, as is their individual reaction to the loss events that affect their lives. And within that, the range of emotions and behaviors provoked by their grief is almost infinite, making it nearly impossible to establish what, if any, process exists.

The other major reason that we balk at the phrase grieving process, is the use of the word process, when there doesn’t seem to be an actual process at work. Here’s the dictionary definition of the word process: a natural phenomenon marked by gradual changes that lead toward a particular result <the process of growth> (2) : a continuing natural or biological activity or function <such life processes as breathing> b : a series of actions or operations conducing to an end; especially : a continuous operation or treatment especially in manufacture

As you can see, the definition of process is very clear in indicating that whatever happens within a process, either natural or manmade, leads to a “particular result” or “conducing to an end.”

If grief truly is a process, then each of us would go through it the same way and wind up in a pre-determined place. We doubt we have to tell you that just isn’t the case. In fact, one of the famous expressions about grief is, “Everyone grieves in their own way and pace.” That certainly doesn’t conform to the dictionary definition of a process.

If There’s No Grieving Process—What’s Happening When Someone Grieves?

It’s more than fair of you to ask us, “If grief is not a process, what exactly is it?” There are many ways to describe grief, both intellectually and emotionally, all of which are essentially true, yet none of them will apply to all grieving people.

The most basic and accurate explanation of what grief is for most people, is simply: “Grief is the conflicting emotions caused by an end or a change in a familiar pattern of behavior.”* When you read that you may begin to realize that grief is a reaction to an event and not a process toward a goal or objective.

*The Grief Recovery Handbook [James/Friedman - p3]

That definition also allows the uniqueness and pace that grief is for each of us, and doesn’t compel us to be at any predetermined position or even aimed at a particular result.

While we don’t believe grief is a process, we do believe there is a series of actions that grieving people can take to help themselves deal with the unresolved grief that accrues in all relationships.

We call those actions the Grief Recovery Method, which is process-like in guiding people to the goal of discovering and completing what was left emotionally unfinished for them in their relationship to a person who died, to a divorce, or any other life-impacting loss event.

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