When someone we love dies, we go through a grief process that was best described by Elizabeth Kublar-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. This process is made up of five stages—denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages can happen in any order and are not predictable . You can be experiencing the anger phase today, fall into depression tomorrow, and jump back to denial by the weekend. There is no rhyme or reason, no way to predict how long a phase will last—only what feels right for each individual at the time. If a well-meaning family member, friend or colleague suggests you shouldn’t be feeling what you are feeling, kindly thank them for their concern but know that you are exactly where you need to be.
However, it’s possible you will become aware of something not feeling right. You may think, “I should be over this by now,” or, “I don’t like feeling this way.” When you recognize on your own that it is time to move on, then trust that feeling as well.
Choice Theory tells us that everything we do at any point in time is our best attempt to get something we want, some picture we have in our Quality World that will meet one or more of our needs in some way. Grief is no exception—from a Choice Theory perspective, it is just a purposeful behavior.
Once you understand that all behavior is purposeful, it becomes easier to know what to do about it. What do we want that we could get by grieving? Most people would say that there isn’t a choice; when someone we love dies, we have to grieve. I say it is natural that we will miss the person’s presence in our life, but grief isn’t inevitable—at least, not in the way most people think of grieving.
The first thing I believe we try to get with our grief is the person who died; it is our best attempt to keep that person alive. We know they no longer exist in the physical world, but if we continue to think about them, pine for them, and grieve their presence, it keeps the thought of that person active in our perception. As painful as that if, it feels better than his or her total absence.
Many people use grief to represent just how much they cared for and loved the person who died. This is not to say it’s a form of manipulation, since people are unaware this is what they are doing. It’s easy to feel like we owe a loved one a period of grief due to how much we cared. If a person were to get over their grief too quickly, it would bring into question, what kind of a husband/wife/father/mother/boyfriend/girlfriend/brother/sister/son/daughter, etc. am I? This subconscious thought is typically responsible for when people are unable to let go of their grief.
Grief is also instrumental in encouraging others to reach out with support we may need, though possibly unable to ask for, during our time of bereavement. People do things for us that we would normally be expected to do ourselves. I’m not saying a grieving person wakes up and decides to grieve just so someone will stop by the house with a meal; I’m merely pointing out the beneficial responses to your genuine grief.
The hard part comes once we become totally conscious and aware of what our grief does and doesn’t do for us. We need to make some decisions about how we want to live.
In every situation, there are always at least three options: leave it, change it, or accept it. With death, you may wonder how someone could leave it. It comes in the form of a major denial of the loss, abusing drugs or alcohol, suicide, or slipping deep into mental illness.
When we want to change things, we may continue in our grief as our best attempt to get the person back. That might look like constant trips to the cemetery, frequent conversations with the deceased, refusing to believe he or she is truly gone, constantly talking about the one who’s gone, or bargaining with your Higher Power. There are many things we can do to attempt to change the reality of the loss.
If and when we come to accept it, we can experience some measure of peace and rejoin the living. A healthy step in this process is finding a way to somehow maintain that person’s presence in our lives. Now, this is a very individual thing and you must be very careful not to judge the choices of the bereaved.
Many people decide to keep the cremated remains of their loved ones nearby, somewhere in their homes. Others place some ashes in a necklace and wear it around their neck. Some will set up scholarships or memorials. When my husband died, his family and I created a wrestling scholarship fund for a local high school wrestler. When my friend lost her eight-year-old son, she had the Houston Zoo name the frog exhibit after him.
There are all kinds of creative ways to maintain the person’s presence—there is no wrong way. Whatever brings comfort to the bereaved should be supported by those around them. Remember, just because a person is choosing something that may be distasteful or wrong to you, doesn’t make it wrong for that person.
When acceptance occurs, then the grieving person can begin to assimilate back into their life and the lives of those around them, but it won’t happen overnight. We need patience and loving understanding for those coming back from grief.
When a person doesn’t appear to be grieving at all, there are a variety of possible explanations. It’s possible the person is very private and won’t grieve where others can see. It’s also possible this person is trying to appear strong for the benefit of everyone else. When my husband passed, I wanted my children to fully understand I was going to be okay; I didn’t want them to think they would have to take care of me. To some, it seemed that I wasn’t grieving enough.
If you are grieving, or you are involved in the life of someone who is grieving, please don’t judge yourself or them. Understand that all behavior is purposeful and the person is getting something out of what they are doing. When they understand that there is a choice, then they can make a conscious decision about which of the three choices they want to make. Once they know the direction they want to go in, they have to flesh out the details of their plan.
Be patient, be tolerant, and be supportive. Perhaps you are worried about someone who is grieving and would like to ask a question.
If you are interested in learning about Choice Theory and grief, or are perhaps seeking help for yourself or someone you know who is experiencing grief at this time, then take a look at the eBook, Prepare to Love Again, on special this month in October or visit The Relationship Center.