Is There a Right Way to Grieve?

The hardest part about losing a loved one is not that they’re gone.

Posted Aug 31, 2015

Someone once told me: The hardest part about losing a loved one is not that they’re gone, but that you’re still here.

In a few weeks, it’ll be one year since my father passed away. It has been a surreal 12 months. There have been long stretches of time where I have completely forgotten that he is no longer around. And then there are those dark, heavy days where I feel nothing but despair, realizing that my dad will never walk me d

Thomas8047/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Thomas8047/Flickr Creative Commons

own the aisle, never meet his grand kids, and most importantly, never have the chance to repair our complicated relationship.

I always believed the death of others changed us in drastic ways. You see it in movies all the time. It’s a cinematic effect wherein a loved one’s demise is usually accompanied by some major epiphany, life change or moment of poignant self-discovery for the protagonist. Suddenly, our hero discovers his life’s purpose. She will finish college. He will commit to the girl. She will go on the adventure of a lifetime.

In the aftermath of my father’s death, I had no such epiphanies. In many ways, my life has not changed at all. Real life, even real grief, it seems – is still not as exciting as the movies.

Instead, everything has remained the same: my job, my home, my relationship with my family and friends. The things that were nagging me before continue to nag me today. I am not more patient. I am still lazy. I still question whether I am a good person. I still question my life’s path.

In other words, there was no climax or turning point in this tragic story, which is perhaps, the most tragic thing about it. I wish that I could report to my father all the great accomplishments of my life, or how I learned a major life lesson, or revitalized my conviction for something. Something that would make him proud of me. Something that would make me proud of me.  

For writer and actress Mindy Kaling, the day her television show, The Mindy Project, was picked up, her mother died.

She writes:

“It was like a gift from God or my mom. I think she was giving me something so I didn’t have to get crushed under the weight of my grief.”

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion recounts the year following the sudden death of her husband and her daughter’s illness. She uses this terrible tragedy to write a beautiful tribute to her marriage – and her profound confrontation with grief. (She so eloquently writes: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”)

Shortly after the sudden death of his four-and-a-half-year-old son, Connor, singer Eric Clapton threw himself into his work to cope with his grief. He wrote three songs for a film soundtrack, including the hit “Tears in Heaven” – which was directly inspired by Connor’s death.

Not everyone can shape grief into something extraordinary, however.

In my case, sometimes just getting through the day seems like victory, so it seems silly to compare my grief to others.

Alex / Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Alex / Flickr Creative Commons

But, I still wonder -- is there a right way to deal with death?

In her book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross pioneered the widely recognized five stages of grief, which are:

Most people are familiar with this model. Still, there are also those who disagree, finding it does more harm than help.

In a Skeptic Magazine article, researchers aimed to debunk the theory behind the stages:

“The fact is, no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are defined as such can’t be called stages. Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss… No matter how much people want to create simple, iron clad guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit every person or relationship.”

Which makes me wonder, perhaps, grieving is like falling in love – no two people experience it in the same way. There is no doing it right. There is simply doing it.

What do you think?

Follow me on Twitter @thisjenkim

Want to get an update when I write a new post? Sign up here. 

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers: