This series will explore common grief questions and experiences. While we hope this information can be helpful, we know each person experiences grief differently. Please feel free to reach out for additional support and resources.
Last week, we began our series on the relationship between grief and time by defining the stages of grief as emotional states, rather than a linear sequence.
Since grief doesn’t follow a timeline that predicts exactly when we’ll feel better, this leaves us with the question of how we’ll start feeling better.
We’ve all heard the adage before: Time heals everything. However, grief experts like Dr. Alan Wolfelt and Dr. James William Worden believe that active engagement with grief helps us move forward. Before we define their ideas, though, please know that these are only two of many theories, which may or may not be helpful to you. Grief is universal but unique to each person; we are the experts on our own grief needs.
As you can see, there’s a lot of overlap between the two models. These needs and tasks can be clustered around four basic movements: accepting, processing, adjusting, and connecting.
Wolfelt and Worden begin with the necessity of accepting the loss. In the early hours and days following a death, shock and disbelief are common. The permanence of the loss may become more real as family members arrange and attend memorial services, sort through their loved one’s possessions, or experience their loved one’s absence from their daily routines.
As we mentioned last week, our society often makes it hard for us to have conversations about death, dying, and loss, and to sit with uncomfortable feelings. However, the sadness and pain that come with the loss of someone we loved is natural and necessary. Avoiding pain often prolongs our discomfort. It’s important to allow ourselves to miss our loved ones and work through feelings of anger, regret, and guilt if present, while also giving ourselves breaks from this difficult work when needed. Ongoing support from family and friends who understand play an important role, too, by listening without judgment.
Wolfelt describes this need as developing a new self-identity, while Worden describes it as the task of adjusting to a world without the deceased. After the death of a loved one, we often find ourselves taking on new roles and responsibilities, such as additional work in and outside the home. We also consider the changes in how our roles are socially perceived; a bereaved spouse is now defined by many as a widow or widower, for example. As Wolfelt points out, this process of adjusting also requires the search for meaning. It may involve questioning our beliefs and worldviews, and searching for good amidst our loss.
Connection, in these models, is about maintaining a relationship with the person who died. While they are no longer physically present, we can connect with them in spirit through memory and ritual. On significant days like holidays, birthdays, and the anniversary of a death, we could cook their favorite dish and share our favorite memories. We could dedicate the day to random acts of kindness or give to a charity they were passionate about. We move forward with transformed connections to our loved ones.
While all this grief work might sound intimidating, many of us are likely doing it already without even thinking about it. Grief models like Wolfelt’s and Worden’s may not be helpful for everyone, so feel free to set this information aside if it doesn’t fit or feels overwhelming. However, as Dr. Worden says in this video, these models may help someone who’s feeling “stuck” to figure out how and why they’re stuck, and give them a task or need to focus on.
Next week, we’ll discuss whether grief ends and what it can look like later in one’s journey. If you have questions about grief, please feel free to contact us for additional support.