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Grief and Bereavement - Understanding Grief Reactions
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 him."

"What do you miss most about him?"

"His shoes."

"His shoes?"

"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 ever.

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 completely.


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