No Timeline for Grief
By Ann Faison
There is a lot of talk about grief these days in books
and magazines about the right way to do it, or about how
there is no right way. Ruth Konigsberg has written a
book called, "The Truth About Grief" in which she talks
about "the new science of grief" and how it shows that
we don't need to do anything special to go through it.
Her recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times cited a
large scale study that proves older widows get through
the grieving process much sooner than was commonly
thought. A flurry of letters to the editor were
published in response, strongly disagreeing with
Konigsberg's theories and her attempt to measure the
grieving process by how well a person functions in
day-to-day life. I am not alone in thinking that
functionality is not the point.
Sure, grief will put a hitch in a person's ability to
function at the same level they are used to at first,
and maybe for some time. A mother who loses a child may
need to stay in bed for a year. On the other hand an
elderly widow may take comfort in her routines and not
slow down at all. Or the opposite could be true. The
widow may need to spend a year in bed and the mother may
need to stick to routines. Grief is not predictable. I
have little use for scientific studies that try to
quantify the grief process. The professionals who work
with bereaved patients every day know that expecting
grief to go a certain way or fit a prescribed model does
not serve a positive outcome for the bereft.
Yes, there are models for grief that can help the grief
specialist or the bereaved person to identify their
grief process as normal. But the favored model as
outlined by J. W. Worden* in grief support, has no
timeline or prescribed outcome. It identifies stages (or
Worden's term: tasks), but has them in no order. And as
those of us who study grief know, those stages can all
occur inside of a day.
"Aren't you over that by now?" is the general cultural
response many face as they struggle to live with grief.
In fact, there is no timeline for grieving. The keys to
grief are patience and permission. The more of each that
we give ourselves, the better off we will be.
As an artist, my approach has always been to explore. I
explore feelings the same way I explore colors, lines or
words on a page. This has served me well in dealing with
my grief. It has allowed me to look at it like a project
that I am working on. Something I take responsibility
for and look forward to seeing how it will come out. And
in my opinion, some grief may last a lifetime. It may
become integrated into the personality in a way that is
comfortable. I like Patti Smith's description, given in
an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2010:
"I think that the idea that time heals all wounds is not
really true. Our wounds aren't ever really healed, we
just learn to walk with them. We learn that some days
we're gonna feel intense pain all over again and we just
have to say "Okay, I know you, ha. You can come along
with me today."
Grief is something we all must handle over and over in
our lifetimes. It is really just the painful reaction to
loss. We will grieve other losses besides death: A limb,
a community, a marriage, a job, a friend...anything we
have come to depend on in our lives will be difficult to
lose. The better we are at acknowledging our feelings
and giving ourselves time to honor them, the better we
can learn to feel through them.
Why? Why not let feelings stay buried? Why dig up old
stories? Pour salt on the wounds? Because grief is not
just something to survive or manage or get through. It
really is an opportunity to know ourselves.
In my own experience of working with grief creatively, I
find that writing or drawing or anything I do in a state
of sadness will allow the feeling to shift. If I let
pain lie dormant, it does not disappear. Instead it gets
murkier and commits slow destructive change. Anger
builds. Patience disappears. I may even develop chronic
If I can get close to my grief, and really open to it,
that is when it amazes me. A dead person's spirit is
suddenly present. Clarity arrives. Love floods my heart.
Anything can happen. In combination with fear, grief can
be isolating. But relaxing into it, we may find that the
relationship to the missing person is still strong
enough to support our needs. Love doesn't die. And we
learn compassion. We learn to ask for help. And we learn
to help others in new ways.
But this kind of processing does not happen quickly or
efficiently. In fact the only way it happens is if we
are patient and allow ourselves to grieve fully and
completely and for as long as it takes. For some that
will be forever. The more we repress grief, or tell
ourselves we need to be done by a certain point in time,
the more it slows us down. And if we can open to it, and
relax into it, the more grief becomes this interesting
place to explore and find ourselves, bigger and better
than we were before.