Seasons of Grief
Grief often parallels the seasons and can return unexpectedly. It is so important to continue the work of grief, even when the loss experienced feels small or far removed and especially when the healing feels delayed.
Our environments impact us profoundly. In the modern digital age, there are a multitude of ways to disconnect from our environment and our reactions to it. If you are like me and familiar seasons or holidays trigger a grief reaction, you are not alone. Many people experience a resurfacing of emotion at various points in life. Rather than pushing those uncomfortable sensations away, connecting to them can become a source of renewed meaning and purpose in life.
Grief, like the four seasons, is cyclical but the process is commonly misunderstood. Our ideas of how grief should work sometimes leave us thinking of where we should be or how we shouldn’t still be feeling this or that we should be over it by now. There is a widely held belief that there are set stages to move through to achieve complete healing from a loss. Much of contemporary thought about grief, which popular culture confirms, centers upon the classical five stages of grief. The linear stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance serve as the gold standard of the grieving process. This model, developed by Elisabeth Kubler Ross, is largely misunderstood as a series of phases a person moves through in response to a loss. This model, in actuality, emerged from her research and reflection on how patients with terminal conditions coped with illness and dying, not the loved ones left behind.
Maybe a more helpful way to look at grief is through the lens of William Worden’s Task of Mourning, where a bereaved person moves through several tasks that begin with the person’s acceptance of the reality of the loss and end with connecting to life as it is in the present. Sometimes, people can become stuck on a certain task in the grieving process, especially if the grief experienced is complicated by factors that inhibit the ability to process the pain of the loss or adjust to a new normal. The tasks presented by the model are:
To accept the reality of the loss
To process the pain of grief
To adjust to a world with the loved one missing
To find an enduring connection with the loved one while embarking on a new life
There are a few other important things to consider when thinking about grief.
Grief can be simple or complex. Simply, it may be experienced as intense feelings of sadness following a clearly defined loss. Complex, or complicated, grief may be experienced more like intense and unresolved feelings of sadness, confusion, anger, guilt, and shame in response to an ambiguous loss. This might be a loss of a loved one to suicide or the loss of a family member with whom the relationship was strained or non-existent. If there is trauma surrounding a loss, like a fatal accident or a violent death, it can be even more difficult to process the loss. Our bodies and souls are wired to grieve but a complicated loss can muddle the natural process of moving forward through the aforementioned tasks.
Grief is not necessarily a death loss. People experience a myriad of losses throughout their lifespan, often disguised as transition. Whenever life changes- and it is always changing- there is often something or someone left behind. A move to a new city can be exciting and full of opportunity but can also mean the loss of familiarity or a trusted support system. A new job or career advancement can be a long awaited change but might also accompany a loss of simplicity or flexibility in lifestyle. Marriage, though cause for celebration, can also mean an end to previously enjoyed freedoms in exchange for longterm, stable commitments. A long awaited pregnancy or a new baby may bring immense joy and meaning but can also cause a shift in identity or loss of certain lifestyle. Grief takes up space, even when the loss seems small or insignificant.
Grief can look different in children and adolescents. The bereavement process takes a different form in children for several developmentally important reasons. Children communicate with their whole being, not just their words, which is why play therapy can be so effective for working through difficult emotions or life situations. Grieving children often exhibit psychological symptoms like irritability or behavioral problems like aggression, which can be related to their inability to process a loss. Other manifestations can be physical ailments with little or no biological basis- headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, or fatigue. It is important to monitor and understand these signs in children who have experienced a death loss or any other significant loss so that the grief at the center of their experience can be addressed rather than the symptoms they are presenting.
Grief is not always invited into public spaces in the community or integrated into social support systems. At times, grief can seem like a large, looming reality in our lives that feels inappropriate to bring up or speak about in public, but it does not have to be this way. Grief is a normal part of the human experience, which is defined by a series of triumphs and losses, small and large, over the course of life. Our culture often does a poor job bringing grief into public spaces where people can support one another and share common life. Many societies, especially those with communal values, have rituals that help bereaved individuals cope with loss. It is so important to find ways to accept the reality of a loss, process the pain of grief, adjust to a new way of being in the world after the loss, and find an enduring connection to the person or way of life that has passed on.
Seasons come and go, bringing with them familiar memories of love and loss. Moments of remembrance can be powerful and healing. It is important to be reminded of what has been meaningful throughout life and recognize what has been lost and what still remains. While not a series of clearly defined stages, grief is a process that requires revisiting at times. If we choose to bypass the tasks of grief, unexpressed emotions will continue to find their way into our present experience in ways we might not anticipate. Allowing space for grief to do its work can help us grow towards a more whole life. Have grace for yourself for what you have yet to learn or work through when it comes to losses in your life. The work of grief does not lead to a destination but parallels our unique journeys towards health and wholeness.