Many of us are walking through a season of grief. In this journey, On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler has been extremely helpful. Special thanks to Duane Grobman for helping me face my grief and to Garrett Dickens for recommending this book to me.
In this essay, I share eighteen of the insights that this process and this book have taught me. Some of these insights may be meaningful to you; some may not.
I hope reading this is useful for you in understanding and embracing your own grieving process and/or walking with a loved one in grief towards healing. I will not offer commentary on the quotations, but many of them are worth extended reflection.
- Many of us are “grief-illiterate” (xi).
I have discovered my own grief-illiteracy and the truth of these words: “We live in a new death-denying, grief-dismissing world now” (205).
In the Foreword, Maria Shriver brilliantly defines grief: “[Grief] is the opening up to the exquisite pain of absence. It’s the moment when you stop trying to move on or change how much it hurts, and just let it in” (xiii).
Kübler-Ross outlines five typical stages of grief. Not everyone experiences every stage or in the same order, but I found them helpful for making sense of my experience of grief: (1) denial, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, (4) depression, and (5) acceptance.
“To love is ultimately to lose what we have had the privilege of loving” (89).
“Mourning is the external part of loss. It is the actions we take, the rituals and the customs. Grief is the internal part of loss, how we feel” (115).
“Grief is the reflection of the connection that has been lost” (203).
“Disenfranchised grief…is grief that is unacknowledged and unvalued” (222).
“Grief is the intense emotional response to the pain of a loss” (227).
“PTSD is an emotional disorder in which a person suffers from re-experiencing the horrific event through hyperarousal and extreme anxiety; intrusive thoughts and memories, or flashbacks; and emotional numbing… When trauma occurs, there are often blank spaces, thing you can’t recall, parts of the story that are too painful for the conscious mind to remember” (176, 177).
“We are more resilient than we know… Trauma invites us to learn about our strength, endurance, and hope after it visits” (180).
- You have permission to grieve.
We don’t need to be stronger or better than grief. The best response to grief is gentleness and patience with ourselves.
We don’t need to justify or defend our grief, especially to spiritual people who want us to be magically “better” or to experience “closure.” Many times, people say things like that because they are afraid of their own grief.
“We are not accustomed to the emotional upheaval that accompanies a loss” (33).
“Figure out what rests your emotions and do it without judgment” (36).
“Today, in our ‘shut up, get over it, and move on’ mentality, our society misses so much, it’s no wonder we are a generation that longs to tell our stories” (65).
“We need to honor our loss… Take the time to live with the question of ‘Why me?’” (80).
“Take time to feel your feelings and to experience them. Let your friends help, and do not turn down offers of support. And take a moment to be real. When someone asks you how you are, don’t automatically say, ‘Fine.’ Instead, you could say, ‘I’m having a tough time, so thank you for checking on me.’ Or ‘I need help but I don’t know what to ask for’” (131).
- There is no need to compare grief.
Grief is grief. We don’t need to dismiss our grief as “small” or “insignificant” in comparison to someone else’s grief.
“Losses are very personal and comparisons never apply. No loss counts more than another. It is your loss that counts for you. It is your loss that affects you. Your loss is deep and deserves your personal attention without comparison” (30).
- “Grief is a healing process” (21).
Grief is not a mental illness, and it won’t kill us, even if it feels that way (see 23). We need to grieve, and grief leads to healing.
“Healing looks like remembering, recollecting, and reorganizing… We learn to live with the loved one we lost… Your task in your own mourning and grieving is to fully recognize your own loss, to see it as only you can. In paying the respect and taking the time it deserves, you bring integrity to the deep loss that is yours” (25, 31).
“When you surrender to grief, you will discover that you are so much stronger than you ever imagined. Peace lies at the center of the pain, and although it will hurt, you will move through it a lot faster than if you distracted yourself” (104).
“If you do not take the time to grieve, you cannot find a future in which loss is remembered and honored without pain” (207).
“Grief transforms the broken, wounded soul, a soul that no longer wants to get up in the morning, a soul that can find no reason for living, a soul that has suffered an unbelievable loss. Grief alone has the power to heal… Grief always works. Grief always heals. Many problems in our lives stem from grief unresolved and unhealed. When we do not work through our grief, we lose an opportunity to heal our soul, psyche, and heart” (227).
“Why grieve? For two reasons. First, those who grieve well, live well. Second, and most important, grief is the healing process of the heart, soul, and mind; it is the path that returns us to wholeness. It shouldn’t be a matter of if you will grief; the question is when will you grieve. And until we do, we suffer from the effects of that unfinished business.” (229)
- Grief is hard.
Grief makes us feel like we are losing meaning and going crazy. It swirls together conflicting emotions like anger and sorrow, affection and hate, fullness and emptiness, composure and chaos, regret and gratitude.
“The world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on… At first grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything” (10, 15).
When grieving, it is okay to feel meaningless and angry at God. We are small creatures and don’t fully understand or control our lives. Meaning will return in its own time through grief. But grief is hard.
“To feel loss is to feel a sorrow beyond lifting” (56).
“You have entered an abnormal, lonely, and unwelcome new world where you are nothing but an island of sadness” (82).
Some of the madness we feel is a desperate desire for coherence between our inner and outer worlds. If you feel like killing yourself, perhaps it is not because you want to commit suicide but because you feel like you are dying inside. And that unbearable feeling becomes a little more coherent, a little more real and graspable if you think about ending your life. As humans, we crave a coherence between our inner and outer lives. When our inner lives feel unbearable, it is normal that our outer life paradoxically seeks the unbearable, if only to feel like there is some wholeness and meaning to life in pain that is out of control.
“The time after a significant loss is full of the feelings that we usually have spent a lifetime trying not to feel. Sadness, anger, and emotional pain sit on our doorstep with a deeper range than we have ever felt. Their intensity is beyond our normal range of human emotions. Our defenses are no match for the power of loss. We stand alone with no precedent or emotional repertoire for this kind of loss” (230).
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal, and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to” (230).
- Grief is sacred.
Grief painfully and powerfully proves that our lives are precious, that loss is not a meaningless fact but something that causes us pain because what we lost was worthy of love. If we didn’t grieve, our losses would be meaningless. But we do grieve because life is precious. The Bible is full of expressions of excruciating pain and sorrow.
“That pain and our love are forever connected. To avoid the pain of loss would be to avoid the love and the life we shared. C.S. Lewis said, ‘The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal’” (203-204).
- Grief can be anticipatory.
We can start grieving before the loss we fear happens – “the limbo of loss” (4). This is not imaginary grief but real grief and should not be ignored or suppressed. I have been experiencing this for years now as I watch my beloved parents age and grow weaker. It was a revelation to me that some of my most devastating grief is still in the future but experienced now. After a friend’s wife suddenly died, I slowly discovered that I was terrified of Lily dying and filled with grief by that possibility.
“Anticipation can also magnify the possibility or reality of a loss… We now operate in two worlds, the safe world that we are used to and the unsafe world in which a loved one might die. We feel that sadness and the unconscious need to prepare our psyche” (1-2). S
- Tears are important in the grieving process.
My therapist John McPherson told me that many people fear crying because they are afraid that if they start crying, they will never stop. This helped me understand why I was so afraid of crying. It is normal to fear that if you begin crying, you will never stop. But you will; let your tears out.
“Tears are one of the many ways we release our sadness, one of our many wondrous built-in healing mechanisms” (42).
“The worst thing you can do is to stop short of really letting it out. Uncried tears have a way of filling the well of sadness even more deeply. If you have a half hour of crying to do, don’t stop at twenty minutes. Let yourself cry it all out. It will stop on its own. If you cry till your last tear, you will feel released” (42).
Tears are not weakness; they are honesty and strength.
“Unexpressed tears do not go away… The truth is that tears are a symbol of life and can be trusted” (45, 46).
“Cry whenever and wherever you want” (132).
- We don’t betray the one we love when we let them go and entrust them to God.
We honor our loved ones and the love they had for us when we grieve them and entrust them to God. Healing is not betrayal; they want us to be well.
- “Grief must be witnessed to be healed” (63).
We must weep and tell our story in the hearing of others. We need to talk about our grief and let loved ones see us fall apart.
“Telling the story is part of the healing of a traumatic event, no different from the trauma of a large-scale disaster… Telling the story helps to dissipate the pain. Telling your story often and in detail is primal to the grieving process. You must get it out. Grief must be witnessed to be healed. Grief shared is grief abated” (62-63).
In my experience, this was probably the most profound insight: “Grief must be witnessed to be healed.” The witness allows our grief to be named, to come to the surface and be acknowledged as real, rather than remaining a haunting but nebulous feeling. Yes, Matt’s death did crush me. Yes, I am still crushed.
“When someone is telling you their story over and over, they are trying to figure something out. There has to be a missing piece or they too would be bored. Rather than rolling your eyes and saying ‘there she goes again,’ ask questions about parts that don’t connect. Be the witness and even the guide” (66).
“In loss we are looking and longing for connection” (110).
“Grief must be externalized. Our pain and sadness can be fully realized only when we release them.” (143).
“Writing is a wonderful companion to our loneliness in a world where we stand alone” (144).
- Ungrieved grief is stored in the body.
Grief doesn’t automatically dissolve or disappear, even with time. It remains with us until we acknowledge and embrace it.
“We may feel all the grief we did not attend to before but still needs attention. What is left ungrieved remains stored in our body, heart, and soul. It can come out each time we experience loss anew” (73).
We all have a “storehouse of grief” (74). Looking at pictures is one way to process grief and face the depths of our loss.
I experienced this in the death of my friend Matt Powers. I was only seventeen and didn’t have the emotional maturity to face the personal catastrophe that was his death. Nineteen years later, I sat in the office of my therapist, weeping and asking him, “Do you think I’m still grieving the death of Matt?” John gently replied, “You’re answering your own question.”
Grief remains stored in the body. This is a blessing in disguise: as we age and mature, “we develop new tools to work with the grief… The truth about loss is that the resurgence of old pain and grief has an important purpose. As the pain emerges, we find new ways of healing ourselves that may not have existed before. Return visits to old hurts are an exercise in completion, as we return to wholeness and reintegration” (75, 75).
“Grief travels with you, wherever you go” (97).
“The only way out is through it, so you can put it off but you can’t skip it. To delay it is to live with grief sitting mildly in the background, or for some, not so mildly” (103).
“Our bodies remember our feelings” (116).
“Grief has a fail-safe mechanism that will hold the loss intact until a child is old enough or psychologically prepared enough to deal with it” (166).
“Unfinished business from old wounds and previous losses can resurface in our current grief. It makes our present grief feel overwhelming, bigger than the loss we are currently experiencing” (229).
- We always grieve ourselves.
This does not mean that grief is selfish. It means that when we grieve the loss of someone we love, we also grieve the loss of that part of ourselves that they made alive. We are telling the truth when we say, “Their death killed me.”
“Another loss is the old ‘you,’ the person you were before this loss occurred, the person you will never be again. Up till now, you didn’t know this kind of sadness. You couldn’t even have imagined anything could feel this bad. Now that you are inconsolable, it feels like the new ‘you’ is forever changed, crushed, broken, and irreparable. These temporary feelings will pass, but you will never be restored to that old person. What is left is a new you, a different you, one who will never be the same again or see the world as you once did. A terrible loss of innocence has occurred, only to be replaced with vulnerability, sadness, and a new reality where something like this can happen to you and has happened” (76).
- “You cannot grieve only one loss” (73).
Grief is compounding and interconnected. We may experience a new grief that opens an old grief that we didn’t even know we had, which produces feelings of confusion and paralysis inside of us. Something that seems “small” wrecks us, because it taps into and intensifies previous losses.
“You may have lost your beloved, but the grief brings into your awareness all the losses that have occurred in your life, past and present. The past losses are the deaths that came before. The present losses are all the changes you have to accommodate in your life to fill the void left behind by your most current loss.” (73).
- Grief can be intangible.
We may grieve the loss of a loved one. But we may also grieve the loss of a hope, a possibility, a vision of the future, a memory, a belief, an ideal. I experienced this when it was revealed that one of my heroes, Jean Vanier, had sexually abused women.
“When a loss hits us, we have not only the particular loss to mourn but also the shattered beliefs and assumptions of what life should be… Your belief system needs to heal and regroup as much as your soul does. You must start to rebuild a new belief system from the foundation up, one that has room for the realities of life and still offers safety and hope for a different life: a belief system that will ultimately have a beauty of its own to be discovered with life and loss” (79, 80).
- Grief is not punishment.
Grief is an experience we all share, regardless of who we are. It is not reserved for “bad people” or “sinners.” Everyone grieves.
“Do what you need to release him [God] as the punisher and you as the one who is punished” (92).
- Grief has no ethnicity, religion, or political party.
Our grief unites us in the fragile bond of vulnerability and our universal need for gentleness, kindness, and care. No one is exempt. Grief exposes the superficiality of the hardened walls that we build between ourselves. We all share the identity of griever. The one we see as an enemy also grieves; our enemy can become our healer.
“If you are old enough to love, you are old enough to grieve” (84).
“[Grief] is one of life’s equalizers, a shared experience for every man and woman who lives” (229).
- There is hope; you will survive grief.
Grief can feel all-consuming and endless. This is part of what makes grief so terrifying and disorienting. But as we grieve, we will begin to experience new orientation and a deeper meaning in life.
“You will come out the other end” (16).
Our tears and the grief we feel indicate that life is infinitely precious and that we were meant to be together. We shall overcome and be reunited in the new world of the resurrection.
- Until then, we all need angels.
“Angels are the extraordinary coming through the ordinary” (51).
In my experience, “angels” are the people who care and listen without trying to fix me or solve my grief. They are a soothing, loving presence.
Let us be “wounded healers” (Nouwen) with and for one another as we grieve, heal, and hope.