Understanding Grief

Understanding Grief

After the loss of a loved one, we each experience grief in our own unique way. Grief is what we think and feel on the inside, and mourning is our outward expression of those thoughts and feelings. Grief takes many forms and occurs in stages; it ebbs and flows. When we have a loved one who is seriously ill and death is probable, our grief can begin then before the death occurs. After a death, grief continues individually and may become more pronounced on special days or even months or years after a loss.


Whatever and whenever you experience your grief, we are here for you. With books on grief and loss, available support groups, programs on coping with loss, other community resources and decades of experience, Lensing's promises that you are not alone in this journey.

Understanding Grief
By Chris Klug

I’ve been working with those who are grieving for over 20 years now, and  I can honestly say that most of what I now know and believe about the grieving process I have learned from those who have shared their grief with me, and from paying close attention to my own grief experiences. Here are some pieces of information about grieving and loss that, in my experience, seem to be the most helpful to those who are grieving.


First, the simple, though often difficult understanding that grief is not an illness to recover from, but rather a normal, healthy experience that all humans share, which can be worked through in a way that the whole experience of loss and grief can ultimately contribute to the person’s wholeness and well being, rather than be disabling or debilitating. Grieving is something right with us, not something wrong with us!


Second, the understanding that the hurt and pain of grief do not indicate that there is anything wrong with the person who is grieving. In fact the hurt is good news, as strange as that may seem, because it indicates that our hearts have been open and tender enough to connect deeply with another.


Third, that grieving, though unique to each individual, involves experiencing things that do not feel normal and do, often, feel like illness.  I call these characteristics (not symptoms) of grieving and a few of the most common are:  short term memory loss, inability to pay attention, lack of motivation, huge mood swings, change of appetite, change of sleep pattern, a tendency toward isolation, questions about the loss event itself (Why us?  Why now?) and about the meaning and purpose of life.  The good news is these characteristics are not permanent, and will diminish as one moves out of the time of acute grieving, though they may re-occur at times like birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc.  Of course, these things don’t feel normal to us, but they are normal given the situation of loss and grief that we are going through.


Fourth, the importance for grievers to give themselves permission to cooperate with the grieving process, i.e., feel what you are feeling, think what you are thinking, and to accept that their process will unfold on an emotional timetable rather than a chronological one. Days and weeks and months and hours (chronological or calendar time) can seem like moments or years or both at the same time (emotional time), as in the case of someone who says on the first anniversary of their loved one’s death that it seems like much longer than a year and it seems just like yesterday at the same time. This is OK, they are not going crazy, they’re on emotional time.


            And last, the critical importance for many of knowing that someone “gets it” about their grief, that someone understands that they’re not sick and they’re not going crazy, and that they need as much time as they need to work with and through their grief, and that there’s no going back to normal, but, rather, a living into a new normal that holds out the possibility of a reasonably happy and healthy life that has not left their deceased loved one behind, but, rather, has integrated them and the loss event into the wholeness of their newly normal life.


Grieving and Time

By Chris Klug


In my work as a grief counselor, I’m often asked questions like, “How long is this going to take,” or “How soon will this be over?” When we are distressed and in pain, it’s normal to want to know how soon the ordeal will end.   Will it take weeks, or months, or years?


Chronological Time

hese questions are asked within the understanding of time that might be called chronological time, i.e., time measured in minutes, hours, days, months, years, etc., which is also sometimes called calendar time.


Emotional Time

Our actual experience of time, however, often does not match with calendar time.  For example, though it has been 23 years – chronological time -- since my dad’s death, there are moments when it seems like it just happened last month and when it seems like it was much longer than 23 years ago.  This “seems like” experience of time can be called emotional time, or experiential time.  Recall the difference between what 60 seconds in the dentist chair with the drill going seems like, and what 60 seconds with your best friend seems like. Though they are the same measured or chronological amount time, they are two very different experiences of time.

When we are grieving, we need to give ourselves permission to be on emotional time. Even though we want to know how soon the ordeal will be over, at the same time we need to be reassured that it’s OK for it to seem to take as long as it seems to take.


Acute or Active Grieving

The time when grief is experienced most intensely is called the acute or active time of grieving. It may last for months or even years depending on a number of factors including the relationship the griever had to the deceased, the circumstances of the death, and the griever’s personality which includes their history of past losses.

What’s it like during the acute or active time of grieving?  Some days sadness will dominate, other days, anger or fear or guilt or regret; some days numbness, or confusion or simply feeling terribly overwhelmed; some days it may be like depression with a lack of motivation, an experience of “just not caring,” or exhaustion and feeling like it takes every ounce of energy just to put one foot in front of the other. This time may be marked by huge mood swings, the inability to pay attention and short-term memory loss, change of appetite and sleep pattern, and the mental agitation that comes with going over and over again questions like: Why? Why us?  Why now? How could this happen? What does this mean?

Though it is very difficult to predict exactly how long the acute time of grieving will last, this time of grieving will come to an end and the above mentioned characteristics like mood swings and short term memory loss will diminish or go away entirely.  And it may recur, usually for a brief period, at times of birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc. However, there are times when these characteristics of grief become chronic, as when the grief is complicated and/or there are multiple significant losses in a short period of time.

For this acute time of grieving to unfold in a healthy, healing way, it is important to give ourselves permission to take as much time as is needed to experience the grief deeply in all its manifestations and to give expression to our feelings.


Grieving as a Life-Long Process

Even though the acute time of grief will pass, the important task of integrating the loss event and its meaning into our lives continues until the day we die. 

For instance, though my Dad died over 23 years ago, I often find myself reflecting on what it would be like if he were alive today. My life has changed in some dramatic ways since his death: I’m married now and a grandfather, and have an entirely different career.  What would he think of me now? What would we talk about?

These wonderings are normal and an important part of the ongoing grief work of continually integrating the loss.  We don’t leave our losses behind.  We integrate them and their meaning into the wholeness of our lives now, primarily through remembering.  Acknowledging that our significant losses will forever be with us is an important step in the grieving process.


Chris Klug is a grief counselor, educator and consultant in private practice in Iowa City. He has over 13 years experience working with individuals, couples, and families following the death of a family member or friend. He is Certified in Thanatology: Death, Dying and Bereavement by the Association for Death Education and Counseling, and can be reached at 319-471-0832 or cklug.7384@yahoo.com.  Website: www.chriskluggriefcounseling.com.

Never hesitate to reach out for help. If you are in need of additional support, such as counseling or reading materials, know that you can always turn to Lensing’s for referrals and ideas.

Grieving is as natural as crying when you are hurt,
sleeping when you are tired, 
eating when you are hungry, 
or sneezing when your nose itches.
It is nature's way of healing a broken heart.

Doug Manning


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