Good Grief: The Four Tasks of Mourning

“Society teaches us that having feelings and crying is bad and wrong. Well, that’s baloney, because grief isn’t wrong. There’s such a thing as good grief. Just ask Charlie Brown.”

So said Michael Scott, and as 2016 draws to a close and it becomes more and more apparent that Ashton Kutcher isn’t going to jump out and tell us this whole year has just been a really elaborate episode of Punk’d, it seems like a good time to talk about grief.

According to grief specialist William Worden, “good grief” is characterized by the completion of four tasks: accepting the reality of the loss, working through the pain of grief, adapting to life after the loss, and finding an enduring connection to the person who was lost, while embarking on a new life.

Accepting the reality of the loss

Loss defies logic. One moment someone or something is there, and the next they are not — and your entire world has been turned upside down. Disorientation and disbelief are totally normal and unavoidable at the beginning of the grieving process. As time goes by, you can gradually come to accept the reality of loss through any activity that involves acknowledging it: participating in rituals, talking about it, writing in a journal, working with a therapist, and/or making art. It will take time, but slowly the sad reality will sink in — and you can begin to heal.

Working through the pain of grief

Grief devastates our hearts, our minds and our bodies. Sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, confusion, yearning and even relief are the most common emotional consequences of grief. Our thinking is impacted by grief through disbelief, confusion, preoccupation and hallucinations. The effects of grief on our bodies are most commonly fatigue, shock, numbness and sleep and appetite disturbances.

All of this is normal. Understandable as it is to try and avoid it, doing so only makes it worse. Grief is like a storm: trying to outrun it will only preoccupy and exhaust you, but if you stop and let it pass you over, the pain will gradually subside on its own.

Adapting to life after the loss

Whether it involves finding a new apartment, learning to cook for one, or abstaining from social media, life after loss requires a new way of living. Slowly but surely, we need to learn to live in a world unlike the one we used to know.

Finding an enduring connection to the person who was lost, while embarking on a new life

When someone or something is no longer physically present, we must find a way to carry them with us — while we affirm that there remains life to be lived. Spiritual traditions have lots of language and practices for this, but it’s certainly possible to complete this task without them. Gratitude, forgiveness and intentional times of remembrance often play an important part in completing this task. As does continuing to live life.

As Shane Koyczan wrote, “Grief is the price we pay for being able to smile once in a while.” Rather than being a failure, grief is a badge that shows we decided to show up and give a shit, knowing full well that doing so would eventually leave us wounded and scarred. In a world where everything is impermanent, that kind of decision is courageous indeed.

John is a therapist who practices in Waterloo.