Systematizing the “Right” Way to Grieve


When I watched my grandfather die, the weirdest thing to me was that I had no idea what to feel or how to respond. Humans have been dealing with death for hundreds of thousands of years and we still are paralyzed by it. We click into any number of different responses ranging from shutting down to explosively acting out.

For my current class on caring for those at the end of their life, we went over some theoretical models for grieving and bereavement. Going through the history, it was fascinating just how desperately humans have wanted a framework for how we respond to death and dying.

Part of the problem is this: how do you define “successful” or “healthy” grief? Moving on with life while living a joyful, grateful existence full of robust social connections? I think most would agree that’s a good picture of it. But the real difficulty when you’re sitting in front of a grieving person (or are going through it yourself) is: how do we get to that place?

I think many of us believe that you really need to feel the sadness, stare it in the face, deal with it, process it, sit in it for a time. But why? My gut thinks that’s the way it should go, but the research says otherwise.

Plenty of people go through a huge loss, feel a twinge of sadness, and then get up the next morning and move on with life, with no discernible negative impact on the rest of their life or relationships. When people aren’t actively in emotional distress, there is little evidence that forcing someone to do “grief work” is actually helpful.

But still, our human desire to study, categorize, and systematize has created some fascinating results, showing us there’s no right or wrong way people “should” grieve. Though we don’t know how to move someone through the grief process prescriptively, we have learned how to understand some of it descriptively.

We have learned that grief and loss doesn’t happen in linear “stages” or “goals”, but rather as a series of more hazy “phases” that people move in and out of during their grieving process, proceeding in both conscious and unconscious ways.

Overall–though different theorists call the phases different things–grieving is ultimately a (broadly) three phase process (with any of these sliced and diced further depending on who you talk to). First, some sort of anger, defiance, denial, frustration, or disbelief this is happening; second, sadness and pain; and lastly, a type of acceptance, moving on, or reframing of one’s life.

This final “goal” of grief is a redefining of your relationship with the person who died, so you can reconstruct who you are and what your life means without the person in it and then, as one person beautifully put it, withdrawing emotional energy from the past relationship and “reinvesting” it in new ones.

That could sound somewhat cold and detached, but having worked so long in social work and addiction, it reminds me of some 12-step literature on “withdrawal”. In some of those writings, they say that “withdrawal” from something is not simply abstinence from it, but also a “withdrawing” back to yourself the energy you used to expend in the addiction so you can redirect it to new and life-giving things and service.

I’m not saying that grief is addiction, but that can be a helpful lens. Every person in our life causes certain responses in our brains, bodies, and emotions (like a drug), and so we feel it at all those levels when it is pulled away. And though it sounds unloving to disconnect from that prior relationship with the person lost, the addiction framework reminds us that withdrawing our energy from that person/thing is not to deny the role they played in our life or minimize them in any way; it is to honor them while regaining the energy for new living in response to and carrying the effects of that person/thing into the rest of your life.

It is hell to go through: no one can do it for us, and we cannot do it for anyone else. All we can do is be present for however the process plays itself out in our minds, bodies, and souls, while holding fast to the people we still have. This will look different for each of us, and we should neither feel guilt over how we do it, nor force ourselves to do it some other way. All we can do is observe how our souls are grieving, and go with it.

How has grief ever arisen in you? On the spectrum between numbing to being overwhelmed with emotion, where do you fall?

Art Credit: Käthe Kollwitz, “The Survivors”

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