Saturday, May 8, 2010

a mini-primer on grief work

Having not yet kept my promise to a reader to post more about the grieving process, I let her know about a book published in 2008 that contains everything I have studied, observed, experienced and know about grief work in the last 25 years.  It is again the work of David Richo, Ph.D.,  "When the Past is Present:  Healing the Emotional Wounds That Sabotage Our Relationships". 

As I took it off my shelf, I opened it to once again enjoy a paragraph or two of his prose.  The book fell open at page 134 to reveal the sub-heading 'How to Grieve and Let Go'.  Perfect!  I took that as a 'nudge' to share it with you here too. 

BTW,  inspite of what the image I posted implies, grief work does not only involve death.  We grieve when we lose a cherished job; we grieve when we are diagnosed with serious illness; we grieve when a belief system or a world view is shattered;  we grieve when our sons and daughters serve in harm's way;  we grieve for the love or attention our parents were not able to give us;  we grieve for dreams that must be relinquished; we grieve for lost youth; etc. etc.  You might want to ask yourself if you have grief work waiting to be done.  Oh, and it does wait.  The grief imbeds itself in our cells and waits for us to address it.

Richo's words are in blue.  I will insert a few of my thoughts here and there in orange.  I have bolded to highlight certain points.  The bolding is mine, not Richo's.

"Grief work involves the same four steps ... regarding working through any psychological issue:  we address, process, resolve, and integrate.
* We address by noticing and naming what grieves us.  (Bring attention and awareness and 'naming' to our situation) 

* We process by expressing our feelings(Expression may involve speaking, writing, crying, 'being with', sitting with and being fully present to our feelings...until one feeling shifts to the next and the next...  This expressing of feelings is an individual process and takes time.  You may find that to be able to 'metabolize' the hurt you may have to express over and over again.)

* We resolve by letting go(Once feelings have been processed, our body/mind/spirit naturally calms down, releases tension, releases pain, releases hopelessness ...)

* We integrate by moving on . . .  (We are able to bring our focus back to our life and away from the wound)

"Grief is irreversible  We cannot cancel or change it, yet we try.  This is not unhealthy, since we are actually thereby respecting our own capacity for grief.  (Your body/mind knows how much grieving you can handle at one time.)  We have to let it come through in its own way and time.  This may mean that we avoid it for a while, let it in little by little, or even attempt to deny it.  We have to be kind to ourselves in our grief, letting it take the lead, not forcing ourselves into a program meant to release it as soon as possible. 

(If you feel afraid of the feelings and grief that can emerge, trust your body/mind to know what to do.  Over and over I have seen that intense emotional states rarely last longer than 10 to 15 minutes before they begin to abate.  You may have more work yet to do, however in one piece of grief work involving strong feeling states - you will become aware that the intense part does not last long.  It may take a few rounds or sessions of work.  A sense of immense relief will be experienced afterward.  You may also expect to be somewhat fatigued after processing and releasing all the feelings you have been carrying.)

".....Grief is composed of three feelings:

1.  Sadness that something was lost
2.  Anger that it was taken away
3.  Fear that it will never be replaced

"These three feelings can be experienced simultaneously or in any order.  Grieving about our unfulfilled needs in childhood means expressing the same three feelings:
* sadness that our needs were neglected or unfulfilled,
* anger at those who did not fulfill them,
* fear that we might never....have our needs fulfilled. 

(All intense expressions of emotion should be done appropriately.  Grief work is not a license to intimidate, scare or traumatize others.  Doing this work accompanied by a therapist is valuable ... but not essential.  Recent studies have shown, btw, that acting out anger by punching pillows or screaming actually seems only to produce more anger.  If you have anger to express, talking about it to someone who can hear it non-judgmentally seems to be the best approach.  You can also write about it in a journal.) 

"The three feelings that comprise grief are like technologies built into us so we can deal with the implacable truths of impermanance, loss, betrayal, and suffering.  We have the capacity to be sad because of the given of losses, changes, and endings;  we have the capacity to be angry because of the given of betrayal and injustice;  we have the capacity to be afraid because it is a given that threat and danger sometimes beset us.

"Grief work grants us access to our deepest feelings and to our healthy vulnerability...  Vulnerability is healthy when it is combined with stability.  We feel weak, but our powerlessness does not throw us off course.  We are vulnerable, but not as victims.

"...Healthy vulnerability is shown in the same three ways as grief:

1.  I am sad that I was hurt.
2.  I am angry that I was insulted.
3.  I am afraid that I will not be able to get over it.

"...As we express our feelings and let go, we gradually forgive ourselves and others and can get on with life.  This happens because our opening to grief, paradoxically, leads to self-comforting.  That stabilizes us and we can finally say yes to a world that is bound to deal us gains and losses.  We can say to ourselves, "Living through the challenges of life in relationship, I learn to self-soothe.  Now my regrets about losses or failures become the building blocks of my sense of personal completeness."

"This completeness/wholeness results from the automatic shifts that follow our release of feelings.  We notice we can let go of the charge surrounding what we grieved.  Secondly, we let go of blame, grudge, grievance, and the need for revenge -- that is, we forgive.  Grief and compassion are not meant to be simultaneous but sequential.  We cannot easily forgive while we are angry.  But once we work through our grief, forgiveness and compassion follow as graces."

So what exactly is the grief work, you ask?  It is in allowing your feelings about the loss, betrayal, hurt or abuse to move through your body/mind/spirit system.  In allowing their expression, they are released.  You move then from having a gaping, oozing emotional wound, to have a closed scar, that may be tender, that remains a part of your reality, but does not dominate your thinking, behaviours or life. 

There is magic in allowing your feelings to move through you.  This is what your system requires.  The word emotion  (e-motion) tells us that the feelings must move - move through you to completion.  Once this is accomplished you are able to look for the gifts that may be hidden in the grief.  No, you may never forget the loss or the hurt, you may have moments when you revisit the sorrow, but it will no longer govern your life.

Since our system knows how much grief we can safely process at one time, we may find that an issue already dealt with can arise again.  It is not because the previous processing/expressing did not work, or we did not do it right, or we are weak.  In actual fact, it usually revisits us when our psyche senses we are stronger and can bear the next level of work on the issue.  Yes, our grief work can proceed in levels or stages.  Our body/mind/spirit is an amazing instrument of unfathomable intelligence.  Trust it.  We are wired to grieve and bear losses.  We are wired to feel, release and continue to live and love.  


  1. Thank you for this. I know you will help a lot of people by providing a framework of reference. Grief work is highly individual, and we sometimes get caught up in thinking it has a finite amount of time it should take or an idealized look of the process. I already know I will come back here to read through this time and time again.

    Your wisdom and experience, not to mention your compassion are priceless Bonnie! Thank you.

  2. Vicky, Thank you. Thank you as well for mentionning that grief work varies with each individual. It does not always fit into a predictable framework or timetable. However, if you keep putting it off, it is probably not because of your unique individual process - but more likely due to your resistance and fear about confronting it. An essential point Vicky - thanks again.

  3. Very important message, Bonnie. I am especially drawn to your last paragraph because it is so affirming.

  4. A nice posting, Bonnie, and one that can be so helpful to so many people. Learning to deal with loss is a vital skill, I believe, because loss is such a recurring theme in life. Thanks for such a nice contribution to everyone's ongoing healing process.

  5. You know, I have been grieving the loss of belief. Really. I have been an ardent believer in political action and I am sad to say I believe something has been lost. I've had a sense of sadness, which is leading to apathy. I'm going to reread this when I have the time to process it better.

  6. Great advice. Hope it helps someone!

  7. some great stuff here bonnie...definitely helpful in working witht eh kids i do...

  8. Meri - thanks - I'm glad you found it affirming.

  9. Sandra: It has been a demoralizing time for someone who cares so much and sees what could be. Perhaps once you process your disappointment in the system, you will find renewed vigor and passion .... I think we all go through periods of disillusionment. Good that you have found a forum where you can express.

  10. Six Feet Under: Should we be grieving for you - since you are six feet under? :0)

  11. Brian: Happy if it can be of help to you.

  12. I appreciate your post today...It really spoke to me...i'ts amazing acutally - I've been trying to stifle or "cancel" my recent grief all the while knowing I shouldn't...thanks for referencing this today.

  13. Excellent post.I've read other books that address the "sadness, anger and fear" stages of grief. Our human brains may be wired to care too much sometimes, but it seems to be part of our quest for survival--live and learn, or maybe learn to live. I think the hardest part of grief is learning or at least trying to "let it go." I don't mean that in terms of the loss of people, but grief about other things you named such as job loss, etc. I like the suggestions for dealing with grief. Personally, I like the walk-it-off approach, and replacing it by opening new doors. The last picture is so cheerful--balloons,stones,bubbles?

  14. 'Address, process, resolve, integrate...'; there is not a quick fix for grieving and moving on. Thanks for this comprehensive introduction.

  15. I'm sure this will be helpful to a lot of people. One thing I know is that grief is different for everybody - how they express it, how long it takes them to get over it, how they want to share it - if at all.

    Another interesting post!

  16. Bonnie, I read this the day you posted it, but I had to come back and read it again now, after the talk I had with Katie yesterday. So much of what you've described here is exactly the process she's been going through for almost four years now. Little by little, she processes what she can and then moves on until later, when she's able to process more of it. It's the constant back and forth between the grieving and the moving on that she finds so hard to handle, I think.

    And I still worry that she'll grow up being afraid to ever love anyone because, in her own words, "everyone I love keeps dying."

    Anyway, thanks for this post. I'm going to pick up a copy of Richo's book - it sounds like it might be a good guide for me to help her through this long journey of grief.

  17. Noelle: Yes, if it is 'present', it is asking to be felt (processed). None of us like to feel the depth of these feelings - but that is how we grieve. Don't add to the hurt, by abandoning yourself by not grieving your losses.

  18. R.J. Walking is a great help - walking is a form of bilateral stimulation for the brain which allows both sides of your brain to contribute to the processing. The physical, bilateral movements really help - it is not only the fresh air and change of scenery that does it. Good point!!

  19. PaulC: So true. No quick fixes. However it is a simple, basic, human process. Simple, but not always easy.

  20. Pat: So true. Grieving is a uniquely individual thing. My husband may have a very different way of grieving than I. However, neither of us, no matter what our style or preference must feel the feelings.

  21. Jeff: Katie is so fortunate that she has parents now like you and Jenny, who make room for her to process and express her feelings - with no 'tut-tuts, or there-there' type responses.

    Katie has to process not only the loss of both parents, but also:
    * her early confrontation with human mortality (she is dealing with this knowledge at a very deep level way before most children ever do)
    * her perhaps feeling vulnerable, ungrounded, unsafe in the world (not in your home but on a larger scale) due to the deaths of her parents.
    * the loss of a carefree childhood
    * the aloneness of knowing no one else of her age has had this particular experience

    She has much to process. She needs to know that although the wound will close - she will always be sad to have lost her parents - it does not have to run her life, but it will always be there.

    Katie will also need to be taught that to love and to serve are the prime purposes of a human life. She has learned too early that we can lose those we love. She needs to know that we will all lose or leave those whom we love - AND we MUST take the risk anyway if we want a well-rounded life.

    She must also learn that she has internalized much love already received from both sets of parents - and that no one can ever take that away. That cannot die.

    You are doing such an amazing job Jeff. Cudos!!

  22. I read your post on grieving. I think it will help many people. Bonnie, je ne sais pas comment traduire le mot “grieve” en français. Je comprends que cela veut dire “J’ai de la peine” non? Moi, j’ai de la peine d’avoir quitté ma ville de Paris. Enfin je le regrette maintenant, et j’ai aussi de la peine d’être dans un pays ou il m’est difficile de comprendre ou même d’aimer leur culture. Est-ce que je peux dire “grieve” pour ces sentiments la?

  23. I think the word is 'la deuil', but I have probably spelled it wrong. I never studied French - I learned it as a child does, by ear. I would love to respond to you in French but you would be horrified by my written spelling and grammar - then again - you wouldn't be bothered by my English accent!

    Yes, of course, we need to grieve losses such as these - our homeland, our friends/family, etc. Feel the emotions around it, let them move through you, notice what emotions arise next, feel them ..... etc. etc. Eventually it should become more of a wistful longing than active grieve. And then when we have made a choice that cuts off something that is dear to us - because we have chosen something even more dear - we have to come to terms with our choice and say, "Given that I am not in my precious homeland, and that I choose to stay with my partner, how shall I proceed with my life?


Comments are always read and appreciated.

(I am grateful for all awards received. However, I ask that this be an "award-free zone" and meme-free zone. Thanks for understanding!)