Is There a Right Way to Grieve?

No one gets through life without experiencing a significant loss. Death is a universal human condition. And grief is a normal human experience. When we are knocked off center with intense grief, we want a roadmap. We want guidance on the process. How long will it last? What is the best way to cope? Am I doing it right? There is no handbook. But learning about grief theory may be good for grievers.

Many people are familiar with the stages of grief developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross over 30 years ago. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Some people have interpreted this to mean that grief progresses from one stage to the next in a linear fashion, and that there is a right and wrong way to grieve. But Kubler-Ross did not mean to tell you what you should be feeling and when you should be feeling it. The stages were simply a way to help the griever understand a complex experience. There are many models of grief.

William Worden, PhD, developed a model of grief in which he describes four tasks of mourning. These are to accept the reality of the loss; experience the pain of grief; adjust to an environment with the deceased missing; and withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in other relationships. This last task “is not dishonoring the memory of the deceased and doesn’t mean that you love him or her any less. It simply recognizes that there are other people and things to be loved and you are capable of loving.”

Another model is the Dual Process Model of Grief by Stroebe and Schut. This model identifies two types of stressors we face with loss; loss oriented stressors and restoration oriented stressors. We are loss oriented when we are looking at old photos, yearning, remembering, thinking of what that person would say or do in a situation and reminiscing. We are restoration oriented when stressed with tasks that need to be accomplished without the person who died (like house chores, managing finances, etc.), or when feeling isolated and lonely. This model states that we will oscillate between these orientations and that doing so is a part of a healthy grief process. Coping with our grief at times and seeking respite from grief at times is healthy. It’s okay to experience grief in doses. It’s okay to avoid, deny and repress aspects of grief at times. Go ahead and lose yourself in work, a good book, movies, vacations.

We can’t rush the grief process, but poor choices can complicate our lives further. If grief becomes overwhelming, some people may choose to avoid thoughts and feelings associated with grief by using excess amounts of alcohol or substances. Or, perhaps food will subdue intense emotions. Others will avoid grief emotions with risky behaviors like gambling and spending. These behaviors will create hardship in your life rather than be helpful.

Grief is the natural response when someone you love is taken from your life. Grief cares nothing for order or stages. The truth is, you can’t force an order on pain. You can’t make it tidy or predictable. Remember that grief is as unique as you are.

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