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New Ways of Looking at Grief 

This blog looks at new ways of looking at grief. My favourite writers who each have their unique take on this are David Kessler, Francis Weller and Stephen Levine – see links below under More Information

Form a new relationship with your loved one

Grief researchers Denis Klass, Phyllis Silverman and Steven Nickman (Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief) suggest that when a loved one dies we go through a process of adjustment and redefine our relationship with that person – our bond with them continues and endures. They say a relationship never ends – grief is not something that we go ‘through’ to ‘let go’ or ‘move on from’ our loved one. Instead, grieving is the process that helps us to form a different relationship with them.

So although our loved one has gone physically, they can continue to live on in our memories and heart. This will mean different things for each person, for example it could mean we continue to say goodnight to them and tell them about our day, we might carry on some of the routines and things that we did together, or go to their favourite place on their birthday.

Life grows around grief

What I think is a really beautiful and very visual metaphor for grief was developed by Dr Lois Tonkin. She suggests that we don’t ‘get over’ grief – it doesn’t ‘go away’. Instead as times goes on, we learn to grow around our grief.

Imagine drawing a circle on a piece of paper. The first one represents you and your life. Shade a section within that circle to represent your grief – soon after your loss it might almost be filling the entire circle of your life. Many people’s intuition is that with time the shaded section of the circle becomes smaller as the grief passes. Tonkin’s theory proposes the opposite – rather than the shaded area growing smaller, the outside circle (you and your life) grows bigger – your life grows around the grief. You will have many ‘firsts’, new experiences, and ups and downs in your life. You might start to reconnect with your family and friends, you may meet new people, start to socialise again and even start to have moments when you feel joyful and happy. As these experiences accumulate, the outer circle grows bigger. As this happens your grief remains but it no longer dominates and so becomes more bearable. In this way your life ‘grows around’ your grief, and you continue to carry your grief with you.

Worden’s Four Tasks of Grief

William Worden’s quite spiritual model of grief I think is also very helpful. He uses an acronym ‘TEAR’ to describe the four ‘tasks’ of grief. There is no order to those tasks, and grieving involves cycling between tasks over and over as we learn to come to terms with our loss.

T = To accept the reality of the loss

Accepting the reality of the loss means accepting that our loved one has died. It is natural in the early days to want to deny what has happened, perhaps wanting to avoid the pain of grief. Sometimes it can be difficult to accept loss when our loved one died in tragic circumstances such as an accident or suicide. We may not want to think about how they died, which can get in the way of accepting the reality of their death. However, denial hinders grieving and in the long term can make you feel worse. Rituals and ceremonies when someone dies can help you to accept that the person you loved has physically gone.

E = Experience the pain of the loss

This task involves working through the pain of grief. We live in a world where many of us have learned to suppress or avoid difficult emotions. Others around us also want us to be OK, and so it can be difficult to find space to work through how we are feeling. However, avoiding our feelings does not make them go away, and can make the grief persist. The way we feel after a loss is different for everyone. There is no formula about which emotions we need to work through. Worden acknowledges that for each person grief is different. It is natural to feel any emotion like sadness, longing, anger, relief, despair, anxiety, numbness, guilt, shame or regret. Whatever we feel, it’s important to find ways to process and deal with our pain, however it affects us. This could mean talking about it with people we trust, or seeking counselling.

A = Adjust to a new life without the lost person

 Adjusting to life without our loved one will take time, and we may even feel guilty for doing so. This process will be different for everyone. It will also depend on the relationship we had and how much of our life we shared together. For example, losing a good friend who was a big support and confidant in our life will involve finding new ways of connecting with others and doing things that perhaps you used to do together. If we have lost our life partner in life, the gap in our lives may be huge from the moment we wake to the moment to fall asleep. On a purely practical level we may need to learn new skills and do things that we had never done before or never done alone.

R = Reinvest in the new reality

By ‘reinvesting in the new reality’ Worden means finding ways to continue an emotional connection with your loved one (as Class, Silverman and Nickman above also suggest). This involves living our new life whilst also holding dear the memories of our loved one and allowing them to live on in our heart and memories. This will mean different things for each person. For many people it involves engaging with new connections and things in our life, that bring pleasure and meaning to our life again.

More Information

Finding Meaning The Sixth Stage of Grief David Kessler 

The Wild Edge of Sorrow Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief Francis Weller   

Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart Stephen Levine

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!

See also: Sadness, loss and grief