When I first began trying to understand grief in the early 70’s, I read every book I could find. At that time I could only find three books. Prior to that time it seems no one bothered to study the grieving process much less write about it. I guess I started some of the first grief groups without knowing I was doing so. I had never heard about groups or group therapy, I just gathered some folks together who had suffered the loss of a loved one and began to listen to their stories. I am still listening to stories thirty some years later. Most of what I know I know from listening to the stories people are kind enough to share with me. I learn something from every story.
As I began to write about grief, and some others began at about the same time, I began looking for ways to define the grieving process. I needed some analogy to hang my points on. It seemed evident that there was a natural process to the grieving experience, but I had no idea how to outline or define that process. This was about the time that Elizabeth Kubler Ross was doing her remarkable work with the terminally ill. Her research revealed that there was a certain pattern to the way folks approached death. She called the pattern stages and wrote a wonderful book on the subject.
Most of the authors writing about grief at that time including me, just adopted her stages concept and patterns to grief and suddenly there were stages to the grief process; defined patterns that we evidently thought every one followed in their journey. It sounded good and made writing about grief much easier, but there were some problems.
Stages make grief far too structured and inflexible. Stages sound like clear cut lines of demarcation that can be predicted and observed. It is as if someone could say, “I am now in stage two. I passed from stage one at three o’clock yesterday afternoon.” Grief just isn’t that predictable. If there are stages, we vacillate through them. We can be in stage two in the morning and back to one in the afternoon. I think we can even be in two stages at the same time. The grief journey is not a smooth climb up some mountain with no switch backs, rest stops, back tracks or just giving up for a while involved. We call it a journey but it really is more like a maze that sometimes has no pathway out to be found. Sometimes we have to be rescued and lead toward the opening.
Stages seem to suggest that everyone grieves the same way and on the same schedule. I often say that grief is as unique as a fingerprint. Everyone grieves in their own way and on their own schedule. Every grief experience in unique unto itself. If a person suffers the loss of two loved ones the grief journey for each death will differ from the other death. So many things enter into the grieving experience that make each one fit only the person who has died. Even if the two deaths happened at the same time, the grief journey cannot be all inclusive of both losses. They must be grieved separately and the response to each will differ. I remember a woman telling me that she suffered a seizure when her son died, but did not do so when her husband died. She wondered if that meant she did not love her husband as much as she did her son. I tried to assure her that there was no connection between how she reacted to the losses and how much she loved. We react and grieve to each loss totally different from the other.
Since I did not like stages, I looked for some other way to define the journey. Some simple definition that would picture the experience as a natural journey which I call “nature’s way of healing a broken heart” without making the experience some lock step pattern to be followed. Then I heard it. At a hospice meeting in Oklahoma a woman said almost in passing that, “Grief is like peeling and onion. It comes off one layer at a time and your cry a lot.” I almost jumped out of my seat. I could have kissed her and I have thanked her on numerous occasions. I do not know where she found that or who came up with originally, but it became my mantra. I have carried a fake onion around with me for years to illustrate that analogy. It just says it. There is a natural response to grief, and there are some non-definable layers to the journey, but no two onions are the same and no two people peel onions exactly the same. The only constant that applies to everyone is, you cry a lot.
The message for today is, If you are in grief there is no set pattern you must follow. There is no time table you must meet. There is no RIGHT WAY to grieve. You are not failing to do it right even if all of your friends think so. It is like peeling an onion, so peel yours any way you feel like doing it.
Copyright Doug Manning of In-Sight Books, Inc. Doug’s books, CDs and DVDs are available at www.insightbooks.com. Post originally published on Doug’s Blog at The Care Community www.thecarecommunity.com.
Updated: August 8, 2013