What is grief? Well, you know, don’t you? If you have lived a while you’ve probably grieved. Here’s the typical definition: ‘intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death‘. But here’s some other definitions:
‘Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind. Of itself, grief is neither a pathological condition nor a personality disorder.’ Another: ‘Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behaviour.’ Yet another: ‘Grief is a natural response to losing someone you care about.’
There’s some very interesting features to the definitions above.
- There’s the explicit acknowledgement that grief is an emotional response
- There is the emphasis that this is a ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ response
- Notably, in one definition there is the statement that grief is ‘neither a pathological condition nor a personality disorder’
But is it really true that we have to grieve? Why? To what extent is grief ‘natural’? Why should we suffer grief?
Grief is all about emotional loss. We grieve something that has been taken away from us. Although this is typically via a physical death, losing your property, status, money, or health can all be causes for lengthy and painful grieving. Everyone can intuitively understand how this can be.
But is there, looking closely, any real sense in this?
Was there ever any chance at all that we were not going to lose absolutely everything in the end?
Was there ever any possibility that we could take it all with us, when we die?
Was there ever any chance at all that our beloved’s body would not die?
Or that our body would not die?
We do know the answer.
No there was not.
So why do we grieve, when we surely must have already known that we were going to lose whatever we are grieving over?
You may be saying to yourself something like ‘you clod, is it not obvious that this is not a rational decision, it’s an emotional reaction!?’
A Freudian slip, a Freudian curse
It was Freud1 who in his later works identified what has been called “the endlessness of normal grieving.” The belief that grieving is a process without end is not very helpful for those who are stuck in it: indeed, it’s effectively a curse on you.
And it was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five-stage DABDA model in 1969, followed in 1980 by Judy Tatelbaum’s The Courage to Grieve, that set the scene for all this ‘grief-work’ stuff and the concomitant belief that grief is inevitable, natural and finally psychological healthy. But is that actually true?
A whole industry, complete with obligatory sad and sensitive words and complex and of course lengthy and expensive counselling has been built around models of grief and grief recovery. These lead to the most outrageous piffle, such as this gem from a behaviourist:
If people did not grieve in the past, chances are great that they will not grieve in the future. Perhaps they have fallen into this poor behavioural pattern because their parents did not grieve.
Cursed! You are cursed, you poor behaviourally-patterned person, if you do not feel grief! You are deficient!
Grieving as a clue
We call the holding in the hand, or the house, or the pocket, having; but things so held cannot really be had.George Macdonald
Deep grief is evidence that reality is not conforming to expectations. Humans are full of expectations about how things should be. Reality is what reality is. It confounds all expectations, and then you die.
So in essence, grieving is evidence that the one grieving has an unrealistic model of reality. And therein lies the clue.
Reality is what it is. It does not conform to any expectations. The only way to deal with reality is to accept what is, and chuck your expectations out of the window.2
Then you are aligned with reality. And you won’t be caught out so easily by grief, because you will be expecting to lose everything anyway.
This means that you can really enjoy whatever you take joy in while it’s there, rather than taking everything for granted. It stops love going stale.
We are hardly the only species to suffer loss. Animals suffer loss, but do they grieve? It depends on who you ask.
There is much evidence for changed behaviour in many species when another animal dies.
Just as with humans, the level of altered behaviour in response to a loss varies a great deal. In some cases it has apparently led to the death of the afflicted animal. In some cases animal mothers have carried the corpse of their lost offspring with them for very extended periods.3
But more usually, when in an animal species there is a behavioural response to loss, it is limited in time. It may be quite short, but often three days or so seems to be typical, and then normal behaviour resumes.
So, in nature, there will be an instant response to loss. It may last for, say, three days before the equilibrium is re-established. The loss is still there, but integrated.
Perhaps this could be a guide for us human animals?
Perhaps three days of notable sadness may be expected?
Perhaps any grieving response persisting after that is a sign that an emotional attachment has been felt to be severed, and this is causing unnatural suffering?
There are those humans who do not grieve. Oddly enough for the grief-counselling industry, actual research has given the following statistics:
- In bereaved people, mostly widows and widowers, between 26% and 65% (mean 50%) had no significant symptoms (of grief) in the initial years after their loss
- For about 10% the death actually brought relief from preexisting depression, this usually being due to the resolution of an unhappy marriage!
The researcher commented:
Most investigators in the field, I think, would say that people who don’t show grief have something wrong with them — they either are defensive, or cold, or they never cared about the person to begin with, or they weren’t attached. I had argued no, maybe they’re just healthy people.George A. Bonanno
In an interview, the researcher went on to say:
That doesn’t mean that a healthy person won’t (feel) grief also, but it seemed that they [a person who feels no grief] might feel sad, they might miss the person, but they keep functioning. We know that the people who don’t show grief, it’s fair to say, are healthy people.
Advice for those grieving the loss of a beloved
If you are grieving, well, this author knows what it feels like to grieve. But it need not continue, there’s another way, if you want.
If you are suffering from grief then it’s because you feel that you have been cut off from the object of your love. You feel that you have lost something that you loved. And you have put all your experience with what you love and that you believe you have lost into the past tense.
That’s what is causing the pain. You are believing in time, and that time is separating you from your beloved.
We will go into time elsewhere, but here, the cure for your grief is not to let yourself be separated from your love.
Sure, if the bodily form is dead, then you won’t be able to see them and talk with them. But that does not mean that you have to stop loving them.
You can love them just as much as ever before. Keep the love alive, and feel it. Do it now, and do it whenever you are tempted to fall into grief.
The counterpoint to grief: unending love
I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times…Unending Love: Rabindranath Tagore
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs,
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms,
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, its age-old pain,
Its ancient tale of being apart or together.
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge,
Clad in the light of a pole-star piercing the darkness of time:
You become an image of what is remembered forever.
You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount.
At the heart of time, love of one for another.
We have played along side millions of lovers, shared in the same
Shy sweetness of meeting, the same distressful tears of farewell-
Old love but in shapes that renew and renew forever.
Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you
The love of all man’s days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life.
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours –
And the songs of every poet past and forever.