Grief has a purpose and we experience it for good reasons. A former colleague and mentor of mine once told me there is no recipe to follow when grieving. It has always stayed with me, and over time, I have seen the truth in that statement. Grief is one of the most challenging and unique emotional responses humans can experience. Although grief is a common human response to coping with the loss of a loved one, it can look different for every one of us. We have all suffered loss and have processed it in our way, whether it was related to the death of a loved one, the loss of a meaningful relationship, or even perhaps the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In the end, the effects of grief impact our daily functioning and change our overall perspective on our lives.
While working in a hospital setting, I was often surrounded by grief. I witnessed grief in its most raw state. These memories will forever stay in my mind. I often heard people say, “I will never get through this”. In that moment, those words felt true. That is exactly what their emotional pain was expressing to them. Studies show, however, that this statement is statistically not true for most people. Among those who participated in an interesting study completed by WebMD, 58 percent indicated that their most intense feelings of grief declined within 6 months, and 67 percent felt a significant reduction within one year (Koenig, 2019). I share this data to encourage readers to consider that there is light in the darkness, to find hope in despair, and to believe there is a space for relief from the powerful emotions that stem from grief.
Grief Has a Purpose
Grief takes the bereaved individual on a journey that doesn’t make them forget the loved one they lost, but rather facilitates the processing of thoughts, emotions, and beliefs related to the experiences they had with their loved one. I believe grief has a purpose and we experience it for good reasons. The University of Washington (2022) noted that “grieving such losses is important because it allows us to ‘free-up’ energy that is bound to the lost person, object, or experience—so that we might re-invest that energy elsewhere.
Until we grieve effectively, we are likely to find reinvesting difficult; a part of us remains tied to the past” (University of Washington, 2022, para 2) This thought is further supported by an article in the Australian Psychological Society as it highlights “loss and grief are fundamental to human life. Grief can be defined as the response to the loss in all its totality – including its physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioural, and spiritual manifestations – and as a natural and normal reaction to loss. Put simply, grief is the price we pay for love, and a natural consequence of forming emotional bonds to people, projects and possessions.” (Maps, 2011).
Redefining Grief Work
The term “Grief Work”, commonly used in the counselling field, stemming from the teachings of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that ‘grief work’ helped the bereaved recover faster and return to a state of normalcy by building relationships and adjusting to new life changes. We now know that dealing with the impact of grief is not that simple (Maps, 2011).
Grief work can include:
- emotional release
- connect and talk to a therapist
Working Through Grief is Complex
Working through grief is complex, and it is work that takes significant effort, patience, and practice. Grief work can include journaling, self-talk, mindfulness, meditation, emotional release, and/or connecting with a therapist for guided support. It is helpful to remember that grief can also be influenced by societal norms and expectations, so doing grief work can be challenging for some individuals.
For example, in some cultures crying publicly is considered shameful or weak, while others believe that open, public emotional expression honours the dead. Reflecting on your own upbringing, and how your cultural community may have influenced your views on grief and the grieving process can be helpful. This will be a factor to consider when doing your own grief work, as it may change the way things are done.
Grief Work is Relief Work
I would like to share with you now this perspective: Grief Work is Relief Work. What do I mean by that? Relief means the removal or lightening of something painful or distressing. When we do grief work, we allow ourselves to be relieved of the distress we may be feeling during a difficult time.
One of the more valuable goals of grief work is assisting the bereaved to internalize the best elements of the lost person or situation, examples of which include exploring experiences the person had with the deceased, inquiring about what the deceased provided, and what that person meant to the bereaved (Blatner, 2005)
Giving Your Grief Experience Meaning and Purpose
At the end of the day, grieving is brutal. It takes courage and strength to work through the complicated emotions connected to this life experience. You may receive various snippets of advice from those around you about how we should grieve, but only you have the power to determine your own grief experience and to give it more meaning and purpose. Practicing grief work in some capacity can relieve you of the distress. The relief may not be permanent, but it can provide some breathing room.
Seeking Professional Help
The death of a loved one is always a difficult experience, and it can be hard to know how to cope with the grieving process. Many people find comfort in talking to friends and family, but sometimes professional counselling can be beneficial. Counsellors are trained to provide support and guidance to those who are grieving, and they can help you to work through your feelings in a healthy way. If you are struggling to cope with your grief, consider seeking out a counselling session. It could make all the difference in helping you to move on from your loss.
Blatner, D. A. (2005, February 19). Some principles of grief work. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.blatner.com/adam/psyntbk/grief.htm
Koenig, D. (2019, July 11). The grief experience: Survey shows it’s complicated. WebMD. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/special-reports/grief-stages/20190711/the-grief-experience-survey-shows-its-complicated#:~:text=Nearly%20half%20of%20all%20people,had%20recovered%20within%201%20year
Maps, C. H. (n.d.). Christopher Hall Maps, director, Australian Centre for grief and bereavement. APS. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://psychology.org.au/for-members/publications/inpsych/2011/dec/beyond-kubler-ross-recent-developments-in-our-und
University of Washington. (2022). Healthy Grieving. Counseling Center. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.washington.edu/counseling/resources-for-students/healthy-grieving/#:~:text=Grieving%20such%20losses%20is%20important,Grieving%20is%20not%20forgetting
About the Author
Jill Hooiveld is a registered social worker who has provided therapeutic support to clients for over the past 15 years. She has extensive experience with grief and loss due to her work in the health care setting. Jill has a passion for counselling and supports client in reducing distress associated with mental health and emotional pain. For more information visit her website at https://www.