6 Things I Know About Grief

A few months ago my friend Bruce Barber asked me to write a response to the question "How do you cope with the loss of a love one?" for his website, Real Life Survival Guide. Here is what I wrote:

My first real life up close experience with grief was when my dearest friend and her brother were killed in a car accident. We were just twenty-three years old and had known each other since kindergarten. Her death, and the death of her brother, had a profound impact on how I came to view life and life's loss. Nine years ago my mother died of pancreatic cancer and two years later, my father quietly died in his sleep. While each death is unique and tells its own story, the process of grief followed the same path.

Here's what I know about grief.

1) Grief is natural, even though it doesn't feel like it.

2) Grief is not depression, even though it puts you in the deepest sadness.

3) Grief cannot be hurried, even if others say it is time to 'move on'.

4) Grief is not linear; sometimes it feels like a quiet, cloudy day, the next a battering hurricane and back again.

5) Grief is sneaky, be prepared to be surprised by it.

6) Grief is necessary; even though it is our instinct to avoid pain, allow it.

In my practice I've seen people who have suffered horrible loss – a child, a spouse. They come because they are having trouble 'getting over it'. There are rare cases when grief does get stuck and morphs into major depression or dysthymia. Years after the death of a loved one, carrying on healthy relationships with the living, work or caring for their family is too great a burden. People who find themselves in this kind of situation do need professional help and I am glad they come to me.

But in many cases, the bereaved just needs time and the assurance that their pain is natural. There is a reason most cultures set aside an entire year for mourning. In a year we experience all those 'firsts'. The first Mother's Day without my mother was brutal. My first birthday. After a year, it still hurt. But each subsequent year hurts less and less until they are dull echos of the first.

If you are grieving or know someone who is, please do not tell them to 'move on' or 'get over it,' even if it is the family dog they've lost. Respect the pain, connect with the  deceased loved one through shared memories. With time and love, the one who has passed, will live again within those who survive. And those who survive will embrace life even more fully than before.

Please share your thoughts on grief and loss in the comments below.

For more on this subject, here is an excellent article by Cheryl Dyrness: Six Things I have Learned Since Dad Died.


  • Great article! The thing that strikes me about this piece is that grief is something that most be common across cultures, faith, race etc.
    Perhaps you can explain sometime the difference between grief and depression?

  • Mary Cimiluca

    I know a lot about grief, in the past 10 years, I have lost my Grandmother, College Best Friend, Father, Mother, Husband and most recently my best friend of 36 years and her husband were tragically murdered. My Aunt and cousin are currently in the terminal phases of cancer. Even as I write this, I cannot even believe it!
    Through all this, I have learned one very important fact about grief…you cannot go around it, you must go through it! And, in any way that you can without listening to what I call all the “normal” people who live without these nightmares.

  • Dear Mary, So much tragic loss and yet you took the time to share your experience and thoughts. Thank you. Yes, of course you are right. Avoiding grief only prolongs the painful process, because the pain has a way of getting expressed no matter what we do to run away from it. Thank you again for writing.

  • That’s a tricky one, Steve, because they do look so similar. When I say depression I am talking about diagnosable major depression which can have many causes, medical, physical and psychological but is a criterion based mental illness nonetheless. The biggest, most important difference between grief and depression, in my book, is that depression is a pathology, something that is not healthy, that needs appropriate treatment. Grief on the other hand, brought on by the death of a loved one, is a natural, human, universal process. It is healthy to grieve after such a loss; the absence of it would be of concern.
    Recently there is talk that the new edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for psychiatry includes bereavement as a diagnosable condition. That baffles me. I will look into it and write a post on my findings.

  • Cheryl

    This is a very interesting conversation to read only one month after my father’s death. I appreciate your insights, and that you featured my post! I especially understand how grief can be confused with depression, since I have noticed in these days similar “symptoms”–or what I have always heard spoken of as symptoms– in myself. Things like lack of motivation or energy, deep fatigue, listlessness… It’s good to know these things are normal and will fade with time.
    Thanks again for these thoughts.


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