Conceptualizing Progress in Grief

We often use the simile that grief is like a journey and while grief is a little bit like a journey, it’s not the perfect comparison.  The word ‘journey’ is not quite right because (1) I think it makes grief sound way more exciting than it is and (2) journeys are usually direct and typically have an endpoint.

Grieving is anything but direct and, contrary to what many people believe, it doesn’t follow a specific path or end after an arbitrary amount of time. Grief happens in fits and starts; it’s full of ups and downs; and it requires you to try and try again. Some days, when you’re well rested and confident, you feel as though you have a handle on things and you say to yourself…

“I can do this. I am capable and in control.” 

Other days, when you are weary and tired of the fight, you stumble backward, you stand still, or you manage to move just a few feet in the right direction.  When this happens you say to yourself…

“I’m lost. I don’t know how to find my way. I’m not making much progress. I feel broken. I’ll never be whole again.”

When something evolves as clumsily and slowly as grief, it can be really hard to visualize progress.  On a day-to-day basis you don’t feel any different, “better”, or “normal” and this perceived lack of improvement can feel very frustrating and defeating. But could it be that you aren’t giving yourself enough credit for the strides you’ve made?

How you measure up, depends on how you measure.

Something we often caution grieving people to be mindful of is their perspective.  It seems like such a small thing, but the way you conceptualize yourself, the world, and others in the context of life after loss can have a big impact on how you feel.  This is true in many instances, but particularly when thinking about personal progress in grief. Why? Because when thinking about adjustment and progress in grief, people often make the mistake of  comparing themselves to their “best” or “ideal selves”.

In this instance, your “best” or “ideal self” may be based on a number of things:

1. The person you were before the loss: Even though you might intellectually know you will never be the “same”, it’s hard not to think back and idealize the person you were before your loved one died and before you felt ravaged by the effects of grief.

In your mind’s eye the person you were “before” may seem more whole, unbroken, radiant, happy, and fulfilled. This person is such a far cry from the one you’ve become since you stopped showering and wearing real clothes, and also since you allowed that bird to build a nest in your hair.  Okay so this is a complete exaggeration, but sometimes we (as people) are truly that unkind to our self-perception.

2. How you believe you should feel based on assumptions and expectations you hold: Before experiencing grief you likely had at least a few assumptions about (1) what grief looks and feels like and (2) your ability to handle emotional distress and hardship. But as we’ve heard many people say about the experience of grief: “Nothing prepares you for it”. 

Many people find themselves blindsided by how different grief is than expected. It would be great if everyone responded to this unanticipated reality by saying to themselves,“Grief is harder than I thought.” Sadly though, many people continue to put stock in their expectations and instead say to themselves, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I handle this? Why am I not coping better?”

3. How people literally tell you you should be: Sad but true, some people will tell you you should pick up the grief pace. Comments and expectations from others can cause you to question yourself and can make you feel confused, ashamed, embarrassed, alienated, and many other things.  Even though grieving at your own pace is okay, regardless of whether that pace is ‘head on’ or ‘slow and steady’, pressure from others can make you question the progress you’ve made.

Needless to say, comparing yourself to your “best” or “ideal self” works against you.

Looking towards a non-existent endpoint and staying focused on a mythical future-you, keeps only what you haven’t accomplished in your view.  It’s good to have realistic goals and hopes for the future, but be careful not to compare yourself to unrealistic ideals and ignore the many gains (I’m certain) you’ve made. 12-e1473171171808-1024x553

Instead, if you truly want to gauge your progress, you should compare yourself to your start point (i.e. your worst) rather than your best. This is the only way to have proper perspective on what you’ve accomplished and to accurately see how far you’ve come. Even on days when you feel completely lost in your grief, if you look back to the beginning you will likely see that you are doing better than you were (unless some overlapping or subsequent setback has gotten in the way).

Grief is something you learn to live with day by day. Every time you push yourself to do something like get out of bed, face something you fear, sit with a painful emotion, engage in self-care, actively cope with your loss, honor your loved one…and the list goes on…you should say to yourself “good job”.  You should feel proud of yourself for every small step you make, because healing from grief isn’t the result of smoothly navigating a journey. Healing from grief is what happens when you get up each day and decide to keep walking.

 

13-e1473171227602-1024x537

Step on over to the sidebar on the right and subscribe to receive posts straight to your email in box.

March 28, 2017

16 responses on "Conceptualizing Progress in Grief"

  1. I agree 100 % with your article. Journey sounds like fun and it rarely is. Maybe I can give you something in return. I noticed your website isn’t mobile-friendly yet. You can check out, what that means and test for yourself here: https://seo-optimiert.net/ist-meine-webseite-mobile-friendly/.
    Thanks again.

  2. This post resonates with me a great deal. Thank you for posting it. I lost my mom in June.
    If I’ve learned one thing about grief, it’s anything but a linear path. It’s much more encouraging to notice how far I’ve come because I have no clue as to how much further I have to go. I haven’t liked to call it a journey so much as an evolution because grief changes a person permanently. In essence, it’s really an evolving process versus a finite one.

  3. Thank you for posting this. I unexpectedly lost my little brother just over 12 months ago. I can relate to so much that was written here. It was particularly helpful to read the part around remembering how far I’ve come from the worst day. Thank you.

  4. “Healing from grief is when you get up each day & decide to keep walking ” #bestwordsever when I think I haven’t gone forward, I need to remember this. 454 days…?

  5. As I read this post, I caught myself nodding my head in agreement! Yes, this speaks to me and the crazy “grief journey” I’ve been on since I lost my husband of 42 years on April 4th. Thank you for this article and helping me to recognize my progress and for validating that it is not linear.

  6. This is my first time to the site. I’m trying to find my way somehow someway to something. I suffered two seismic losses. My father two years ago (which has left me with PTSD short-term memory loss issues) and my mother 5 months ago. Both losses were sudden/unexpected and I was the last person to see them before they passed. I had devoted my entire life to their care forsaking relationships, a life outside the home and all of that jazz… something I’d do again in a heartbeat. I break down daily as I relive those moments where their lives ended and my life became what feels like a broken mirror. I wish more than anything I could feel an inkling of their love or presence but I feel nothing other than loss and emptiness. Everything feels like rain. Raised Catholic I pray daily but as of late I honestly am questioning God’s grace and love. I’m sorry to toss all of this here, I’m seeking solace and hope.

  7. I’m so grateful to What’s Your Grief, for somehow normalizing and explaining the complexities of the grieving process.

  8. Very true and very helpful. It is good to have some guidance…

  9. Very true

  10. Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCCSeptember 7, 2016 at 11:39 amReply

    Well done, Eleanor! Unless we’re aware of the clues to healing and their significance, our progress through grief may be so subtle and so gradual that we won’g notice it at all. Readers may find this checklist helpful: Recognizing Your Own Progress through Grief, http://j.mp/1cn8Mjw

  11. All I want is to be with my kids

  12. This is so spot on! Thanks for explaining how I feel. Going to share it.

  13. Diane Sapp, Widows RingSeptember 7, 2016 at 9:45 amReply

    Insightful. Hopeful. Supportive and Informative. Your artful post resonates with almost everyone in almost any stage of grief. Your article brings us “together” in heart mind and soul and lets us know we are not alone in our “crazy”. One of the best articles I have read in the last ten years. Thank you.

  14. A wonderful post that I am sharing in other grief groups.

  15. I liked this post…. many good points in how we manage our grief and make the choice to keep moving on. This site has helped me cope with my loss. I lost my daughter last Oct and today would have been her 50th birthday. Most days, now, I can keep moving forward, but there are always a few times when the forward progress stalls, and I have to pick myself up and start forward, once again.

  16. I so greatly appreciate this post, especially the last paragraph. Having just lost my daughter in May, all of this resonated with me. Sometimes this journey feels like treading water in an ocean of despair, without knowing which direction will provide any sense of relief. Looking at where we used to be, not where we think we should be, is a much better perspective. Thanks for this post. It reminded me a little of this article http://alllthethings.com/despair/

Leave a Message

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *