Grief and Bereavement - Understanding
By Jill Lehman
"There must be something wrong with me."
"What makes you think there's something wrong with you?"
"Because everyone keeps telling me that I should be
feeling better by now, but I don't feel better. I miss
"What do you miss most about him?"
"Well, the way he used to tie his shoes. Double knots
with really big loops. He'd do that every day in exactly
the same way."
"Oh, I see. Something you could count on."
"Yes, something I could count on."
"What can you count on now?"
~ Conversation with "Marian", widow.
The power of grief, in all its intensity, has the
capacity to knock a person flat. Yet, the bereaved are
all too often expected to get right back up again after
a loss - and the quicker, the better. Lest they forget,
they are reminded by well-meaning people who "keep them
in check" with repeated comments to "Move on", Get over
it", or "Buck up". Comments such as these are part of
what I like to call the "fast-track" approach to grief -
that is, the attempt to move the bereaved expediently,
and often prematurely, through their grief so that we
(not they) can feel better. This approach may work for
some, but that's not been my experience. Fast-tracking
puts tremendous pressure on the grieving person and can
leave them feeling as though there is something
fundamentally wrong with them.
Depending on personal circumstance, initiation to the
fast-track occurs at different times for different
people. For some, it happens immediately after the
death. Someone they love has just died and it feels like
their entire world has turned upside-down. Everything
they knew or thought they knew is called into question.
They can't think straight, and yet they are expected to
make clear-headed decisions about organ donation,
funeral services, work, finances, family, and more. It
is a nerve-racking and incomprehensible time, made even
more difficult for those who work outside the home. For
these individuals, they typically have just 3 to 5 days
bereavement leave to "pull it all together" before
having to return back to work.
For others, fast-tracking comes much later, after the
initial support system has disappeared and the "usual"
mourning period is over. The bereaved often feel acutely
aware of just how different they are now from other
people. Life seems to march forward for everyone but
them. They are especially perplexed by the behavior of
those who, though once close to the person who died, now
appear to be unaffected by the loss. People wonder aloud
why the bereaved individual still seems so "down" and
"out of sorts". Comments such as these slowly wear down
the grieving person's sense of identity and self-esteem.
They begin to think there is something wrong with them
or that they are even worse off than they thought.
Friends, family, coworkers, clergy and even therapists
make honest attempts to help by urging the person to go
out more, to "get on with life", to "muscle through"
their grief. These early attempts typically fail,
leaving the grieving person feeling more alone than
So, how then do we help the bereaved? Moving out of
fast-track thinking and behavior is a good start.
Education is key to this process. The more we know about
grief and grief reactions, the more room there is for
the bereaved person to grieve in a way that feels
natural and right for them. Below is a list of short,
but integral, facts about grief. You can also find an
abundance of information on-line and in places such as
your local library, hospice, hospital, place of worship,
and/or grief center.
People who have experienced a loss need to tell their
story again and again, usually in detail. There is no
need to rush them to share happier memories.
There is no timeline for grief. The relationship the
person had with the deceased, the circumstances around
the death, and the quality of their support system after
the loss are all factors that play into the grieving
process. Some people grieve for a few days, others a few
weeks or months. Some take years.
We cannot think our way out of grief; we must feel our
way through it.
Grief comes and goes in waves. Rarely is there a formal
end where the loss is forgotten and the grief stops