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Grief

Lessons From "On Grief and Grieving"

Processing grief and loss, with the help of a classic book on the topic.

Key points

  • The popular "five stages of grief" are often presented as linear but are in fact cyclical.
  • Grief is as individual as the person experiencing it; no two grief experiences are alike.
  • Be gentle with yourself as you navigate grief.
  • Grief is a natural and universal human experience, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Valentina Shilkina /istock
Valentina Shilkina /istock

This week, I experienced one of the most profound losses in my life—the sudden and unexpected passing of a dear friend. This kind of loss shakes you to your core, altering not just your world but seemingly your very DNA. It's a grief that extends beyond personal boundaries, touching everyone close to her, particularly her family. Even as a trained professional in psychology, this was uncharted territory.

I found myself venturing into this new landscape of emotions with an explorer's mindset, unsure of what I might encounter yet open to accepting whatever came my way. I am just beginning to move past the initial shock, the disbelief that kept me hoping for some mistake.

With every condolence message shared and every comforting hug given, I half-expected someone to tell me it was all a misunderstanding. But it wasn't. And now, all we have left are faith, memories, and each other—elements that, over time, will aid in the healing process but may never completely erase the pain.

As I navigate this healing journey, I find solace in the writings of one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D. In this article, I will share some of the most impactful insights from her book, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, co-written with David Kessler.

Profound Lessons from "On Grief and Grieving"

Kübler-Ross and Kessler's iconic work, On Grief and Grieving, presents the five stages of grief, which have been widely used to describe the complex journey of loss (sometimes in oversimplified ways). Despite how they're frequently presented in popular media, these stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—are conceptualized by the authors not as linear but cyclical, often revisited in no particular order as one processes grief. A crucial insight from the book is the acknowledgment that grief is as individual as the person experiencing it; no two grief experiences are alike.

Additionally, the authors emphasize the importance of recognizing the difference between grief and mourning; while grief is the internal feeling of loss, mourning is the external expression of that grief. Kübler-Ross and Kessler encourage us to give ourselves the grace to mourn publicly and to seek support.

The book also explores finding meaning after loss—a transformative stage beyond acceptance, allowing individuals to assign significance to their pain and integrate the loss into their life's narrative. This shift doesn't minimize the loss but offers a path to a hopeful future while honoring the past.

Furthermore, Kübler-Ross and Kessler remind us to be gentle with ourselves as we navigate grief. They encourage us to recognize the importance of self-care and incorporate moments of joy into our lives, even during grieving. This serves as a reminder that while grief may feel overwhelming, there is still room for love, happiness, and hope amidst the pain.

On Grief and Grieving offers a comprehensive understanding of the grieving process and provides valuable insights on navigating through it. It reminds us that grief is a natural and universal human experience, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. It also offers a reminder that while grief may feel all-consuming, it is a temporary state, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Supporting Others Through Grief

In addition to guiding individuals experiencing grief, On Grief and Grieving also offers insight for those looking to support a grieving loved one or friend.

The authors emphasize the importance of being present and listening without judgment rather than trying to fix or minimize the pain. When comforting a grieving family, for instance, offering solace and empathy without diminishing their feelings is crucial.

Phrases like, "I'm here for you," "Your feelings are valid," or "I'm so sorry for your loss," acknowledge the pain without offering platitudes. You might also say, "I remember when..." sharing a fond memory of the departed, which can be a way to connect and provide comfort by honoring the person's life and legacy. The authors also highlight the significance of remembering the person who has passed and keeping their memory alive through shared stories and rituals.

Offering specific assistance through statements like, "I'll bring dinner over this weekend," or "I'm here to help with any errands" can provide tangible support to the family during this challenging time. This serves as a reminder that grief is not something to be fixed or avoided but rather a natural process that needs to be acknowledged and supported.

Furthermore, On Grief and Grieving addresses the different types of grief, including anticipatory and disenfranchised grief. It also delves into the impact of societal and cultural norms on the grieving process, highlighting how these can sometimes hinder individuals from fully expressing and processing their grief. The book encourages readers to explore their own unique experiences with grief and find ways to honor their emotions in a way that feels authentic and healing for them.

Individuals can honor their emotions authentically and find healing through various practices tailored to their journey. Some may find solace in creative expression, such as writing, painting, or music, channeling their feelings into art. Others might seek comfort in nature, perhaps through quiet walks or tending to a garden, finding peace in the natural world's rhythms. Some turn to community and shared experiences, joining support groups where stories and empathy are exchanged freely.

Moreover, many find that establishing ritualistic acts of remembrance, like lighting a candle daily or visiting a special place, can provide a structured space and time to reflect and honor their lost loved ones. Each individual's path to authentic healing is profoundly personal and may involve combining these practices or other meaningful actions that resonate with their emotions.

Ultimately, On Grief and Grieving offers a compassionate and practical approach to understanding and navigating the difficult grief journey. It reminds readers that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that everyone's experience with loss is unique. By providing a supportive and validating perspective, this book is a valuable resource for anyone seeking guidance on their grief journey.

In the stillness of our loss, we discover that while grief may seem like a solitary path, it's a journey we need not walk alone. Remember that your feelings—no matter how raw or tumultuous—are valid and should be heard.

As you continue to move through the chapters of your life, remember that it's OK to lean on others, to find moments of joy amidst sorrow, and to allow yourself the grace to heal at your own pace. You are surrounded by love, seen and unseen, and within you lies a strength greater than your pain.

May you find solace in knowing that those we cherish never truly leave us; they live on through the memories we hold dear and the love that never fades.

References

Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2005). On Grief & Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. Simon & Schuster.

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