Friday, May 9, 2014

The grief continuum

We have terrible cultural models for grief. If you turn to movies or television, grief is the wailing and gnashing, the inability to leave bed or otherwise function and the utter devastation. Yes, that is part of grief. Movies and television also tell us about heroic grief, the people who turn their loss into action for the greater good. They found an organization, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. They organize blood drives or volunteer. They act to honor the one they have lost. This, too, is part of grief.

But it's not that black and white.

Someone recently said to me that grief is a continuum, like most things are. Some people lean towards the devastation, others towards action and most of us fall somewhere in the middle, even moving from pole to pole throughout a day. It doesn't mean you're not grieving, even if you can act. Can do the laundry or even smile from time to time. It doesn't mean your grief is any less deep than that of the person who stays in bed for the day.

This past week I have been reasonably functional. I've gone out, I've gotten things done, I've even begun to work a bit again. And I've had literally dozens of people say to me over the last few weeks, "Wow, I can't believe you're doing so much! If it were me I'd still be in bed." I've also heard, "You're so strong. I couldn't do what you're doing." Here's the thing: When someone says that, while I know they are expressing admiration and also expressing their own fears, it doesn't help. We each grieve in our own way. And we don't know what we would do in this kind of situation until we are here. I certainly didn't. I still don't know how I will feel moment by moment.

When someone marvels at how functional I am, I wonder if I'm doing something wrong. If somehow, by taking small steps to move forward in my life, I am honoring my beloved less than if I were still prostrate. I have been prostrate. I will be again. But being in the world, living my life, continuing aspects of the life we built together, should be no less an honor and no less appropriate than crying, even if it is only six weeks since he died.

This isn't to say I don't appreciate the kindness, the company, the sympathy and even the wonder people have expressed. I just struggle with the model of grief that says simply because I am up and moving I must not be grieving. Maybe I'm having a day where my grief is private. Maybe I sobbed earlier and will again. Maybe I just need permission to feel something other than lost for a little while.

We need a new cultural model for grief. One we can talk about before we actually are grieving. Maybe this new model could encompass all the things we feel or do while grieving, and they could all be okay. Howling is okay. Going out to dinner with friends is okay. Starting an organization and staying in bed are both okay. Maybe if we had a new model of grief, workplaces could support grieving employees more. Loving friends would understand what might help more. The strangers who see us crying would more often be compassionate and the relatives who are surprised when we laugh would be more understanding. All of this is grief, and more.

This loss, this grief is the hardest thing I have ever experienced. There is no roadmap. But maybe if we start talking about it, and recognize that grief is as individual as every one who goes through it, that there is no timeline, and that one expression is no less valid than another, we can together begin to chart it out.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. A-freaking-men!!! Laura, you have written brilliantly over the years but none needs to be more publicized than this! All in our own time we will heal as much as we are able! I love you. xoxoxo

  2. When I am grieving, I usually throw myself into some project that keeps me too busy to think. Of course, what I am doing is postponing the inevitable (unhealthy, to say the least). After my mother died I saw a grief counselor, who encouraged me to write and tell stories about her. Good advice.

  3. Laura, when people tell you how they admire what you're doing, I don't think they mean that you must not be grieving. I think they admire what you're doing despite grieving. I'm not sure if this is something that we can talk about before it happens; we might just set ourselves up for thinking that we failed if we don't experience it the way we imagined. Can we create a self-fulfilling prophecy for grieving? I'm just asking -- I don't know the answer. Love you.

  4. Dear Laura, thinking of you ever~ has that book turned up yet? {{{{hugs}}}}}

  5. Yes! When I lost my daughter I experienced emotional paralysis, bout of moaning and sobbing, quiet calm, flurries of activity, enjoyed working, enjoyed a laugh with friends. And so much more. I don't know what people meant when they told me that they would be so much more devastated than they "thought" I was - but I do know how it made me feel. It made me feel as if we were in some contest about who felt more deeply, loved more deeply. I think conversations about grief, about accepting all forms, should be part of our lives so that when the unimaginable happens we can be compassionate with ourselves. So we can be compassionate with others and instead of comparing how we think we'll feel with what we imagine someone else is feeling - we simply offer our love and support. Without comparisons, without judgements. Thank you for this post Laura. Thank you for opening your heart to us.

  6. Laura, I lost my son's father 2 years ago and if there had been a different cultural model I don't think I would have felt as crazy and worried I was losing my mind. Grief is powerful and early on I never knew what to expect, or I would feel like going out but then I would be paralyzed with crying fits. Hell, just yesterday I was at work searching through old emails and I came across ones he had sent years ago, the pain and grief all came back. I had to close my door and cry. Thank you for the post and sharing your space of the world right now. My heart is with you as navigate and learn to live with your loss.
    Regards, Kira

  7. Hello Laura,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I'm sorry for this time of your life. This part of life is very confusing for me. I feel that at this time there isn't anything right that a person can say when your heart is broken. Words of encouragements fall on the ears like water on a rubber duck, it just rolls off.

    I remember when I lost a job it felt the same when I lost my best friend who died. I was sick, I was heartbroken. All I knew was I needed to keep moving to keep things together and not fall apart. When I lost my job, I had to continue to look for another job. Sitting in and being interviewed was very hard because my heart was broken. But I had to continue until I got another job and that feeling went away.

    When I lost my bestfriend, I was heart broken, I continued to move forward going to work, keeping myself busy with family and friends. I went through a state where I didn't believe he was gone. I had crying bouts. Dealing with both occasions I didn't feel the need to stay in bed depressed. I've always kept moving because I just felt that moving was the best thing to do. I loved him/I loved the job that I had, I didn't want to leave when they asked me too. Life goes on. This world is beautiful, I say this because we are all wired differently. We all feel differently when something challenging in life happens to us or not. I agree with you that, just because people are moving it doesn't mean that they are not grieving. As people we handle things differently and we react different to situations. People are only saying what they feel at the moment to be comforting. I wish you love, strength, acceptance, peace and happiness. I'm truly sorry for your loss.
    Best Regards, Alicia


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