Grief Work

There are many misconceptions about grief, one of the most prevalent is the idea that grief is strictly passive. Grief comes upon us and overwhelms us when we experience loss, its outside of our control. There is truth to this, but there is more to it. Grief is also active, it is work that we can and must take into our own hands as we process through the pain of loss.

Dr. William Worden introduced the concept of “grief work” in his book Grief Counseling and Therapy originally published in the 80’s. His model looks at grief work not as emotions or stages to be experienced but rather, as tasks to be worked through. These tasks are:

  1. To accept the reality of the loss
  2. To experience the pain of grief
  3. To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing
  4. To withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship

Dr. Christina Hibbert, psychologist and grief specialist provides some helpful insights on these four tasks of working through grief.

1) Accept the reality of the loss

Accepting the reality of the loss can come instantaneously for some, but for most, will take time. Telling one’s “story” in a safe environment—letting oneself think, talk about, and process what has happened—can help. Sometimes we have to repeat it over and over to ourselves: “They’re really gone”. But it’s letting ourselves feel the emotions of grief that really solidifies our acceptance of what we have lost.

2) Experience the pain of grief

This is the task people seem to have the hardest time with, and the one most are referring to when they ask me, “How do I grieve?” Many of us fear that if we start feeling the intense mix of emotions inside, we may never get back out of them. Yet, this task is at the core of completing all the others. Letting oneself feel pain is not easy and yet, allowing emotions to arise, to express themselves in healthy ways, is at the core of mourning. As I said before, through is the only way out, “…grief requires us to turn inward, to go deep into the wilderness of our soul…. There is usually no quick way out.”

To encourage this turning inward, and facilitate feeling the emotions of grief, I have created a model I call TEARS. This model shows us how to let ourselves experience grief through 5 different options, each of which is equally helpful in our healing.

 TEARS

  • Talking:  While it is natural to want to isolate oneself during the intense pain of loss, most will find healing in talking or even just being with family, friends or other support people, sharing the burden of grief and knowing they are not alone.
  • Exercise:  Physical activity can be a powerful aid in the release of the difficult emotions that accompany loss. Adults and children will find that exercise “allows for a reduction of aggressive feelings, a release of tension and anxiety and a relief of depression” related to grief.
  • Artistic expression: For many of us, grief is best expressed creatively—through art, music, dance, and so forth. Tapping our creative outlets allows us to process the emotions of grief in a subconscious way that can be powerful and deep. Creativity is particularly valuable for children who are grieving. Encouraging children to express feelings through drawing pictures, creating a collage of photos and written memories, or other creative activities can be a powerful tool for healing.
  • Recording emotions & experiences:  Creative expression and/or recording one’s emotions & experiences through writing or journaling can help release emotions and free the body and soul of them. When we write the things we have seen, heard and feel, we are better able to gain insight and understanding, for it allows us to capture and revisit our experiences, ensuring we do not miss the important lessons being taught.
  • Sobbing: The bible tell us, “Be afflicted and mourn and weep”. There is healing power in allowing our tears to flow for the loss in our lives.  As Washington Irving once said, “There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness—but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of over-whelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

3) Adjust to the environment in which the deceased is missing

Using the TEARS method to experience our emotions is key in helping us adjust to the environment in which the deceased is missing. Adjustment takes time and comes as we continually work through the grief emotions that arise. Eventually, we find that we can talk about the deceased and fondly remember them as we engage in new life routines and experiences. Adjusting involves allowing ourselves to adjust, learning to let go, and being willing to move on when we feel ready.

4) Withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship

Eventually, we will feel ready to reinvest in other relationships. This doesn’t mean we are “replacing” our loved one; rather, it might mean becoming closer to our living family members, bonding in new ways with old friends or making new friends, or creating new intimate relationships that help us feel healthy and healed. We begin to see that life continues after loss, and hopefully we choose to invest in our new life and relationships even while we carry those we have lost in our hearts.

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2 comments

  1. Kory, thanks for this series on Grief. I have found the postings insightful and helpful in the pastoral ministry that we are called to as ministers of the Gospel. As these ministers of the Gospel to those who suffer grief of any kind, we are called to the role of companionship; to accompany them; to draw close to their “Calvary’ so that we can be the presence of Christ in the midst of their grief.

    I am drawn to the Gospel of St. Mark 14:34, where in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus turns to his closest apostles (Peter, James and John) and says that he is troubled and distressed. His “soul is sorrowful even unto death’. Imagine the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal God-head experiencing in his human nature that kind of sorrow! I equate sorrow and grief in the same way here. A sorrow ‘even unto death’. I have met that kind of sorrow in the mother grieving the death of a child.

    So, if Christ experienced grief at the deepest level capable in the human experience, we should draw upon his need to be ministered to at the Garden as our model for ministry. He didn’t ask his closest friends to take his sorrow away, he simply asked them to ‘remain here’. Our Savior needed companionship in his sorrow, He didn’t want to be left alone in his sorrow. Unfortunately, his best friends succumbed to their broken human nature and left Jesus alone as they slept.

    In my broken human nature, when faced with a person whose grief is ‘even unto to death’, I want to FIX IT or in fear of the immensity of the sorrow to FLEE from it. As was the need of Jesus in his darkness hour so too the need of those we minister in their grief, remain with them, assure them that they are not alone, they can count on us to accompany them.

    Just a few thoughts. Thanks for providing a forum for reflection on this important human situation.

    peace, Fr. Michael Dandurand

    1. Father Dandurand,

      Wow friend, such insightful thoughts here…thank you for taking the time to share. I appreciate being pushed to think about the Trinity in relation to sorrow and grief. Your connection of sorrow and companionship is very rich—the fact that even Christ leaned in on others, not for answers, but for someone to shoulder the load with him is very helpful. It is definitely a ministry pattern to be imitated. I resonate with your involuntary Flee or Fix reaction to others in pain—I am with you. Yet, as you have said, the most helpful thing we can provide in the face of others sorrow is presence. Thanks for pushing me toward this text—I need to think more on this theme. What comfort and hope there is in the truth that the Man of Sorrows is our Great High Priest who sympathizes with us in all our weakness and pain—a Savior who knows what it is to lament and grieve understands us completely.

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