Conceptualizing Progress in Grief

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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 a 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 from what they 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 say you should be: Sad but true, some people may judge the speed of your grieving.  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, or staying focused on a mythical future-you, keeps only what you haven't accomplished in 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.

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 a 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 getting 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 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.


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28 Comments on "Conceptualizing Progress in Grief"

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  1. RICHARD F SMITH  August 13, 2021 at 2:53 pm Reply

    I am in that stage of life when “the walls come tumbling down”. Everyone close to me is dying en masse. My Dad, age 96, my Mom age 99 started the ball rolling in 2017. In September 2020 my 83 year old sister left us followed by her husband, my brother in law age 81, a few months later.

    Death of those close to us was not new as we had already buried two of our children, Danny, age 29 in 1996 and Creta, age 41 ten years later. Both the wife and I leaned on each other and grieved together through those times of pain and sorrow.

    But May 27, 2021 was far and away, the worst experience of all of the horrible elements of grief that I have had to face. My beloved wife and soul mate of thirty five years, passed away after a five month bout with liver cancer. Her death and the loss of her presence caused a monumental grief experience far exceeding the combined pain of all of the previously mentioned losses combined.

    I found myself without purpose, numb to the world around me. There is a song that we both loved by a group called The Dells, “The Love We Had Stays on My Mind” that says ” I never will forget you, Baby. I wish that you were nearer so I could see you clearer, the love we had stays on my mind”.

    It echoes over and over. But it is getting a little more bearable bit by bit. At first, I could not hear her voice, but now I can hear her whispering to me again. Two nights ago in my dreams, she came and hugged me and I hugged her back and I could “feel” her not just sense her presence. She spoke to me and told me that we were together both in this world and in the world where her spirit now resides. She told me that we would soon be together again completely. It was not a ghostly apparition as I felt her touch and heard her voice and it was real. You may think of me as being crazy but I woke up from this dream at exactly 12 Midnight with a smile on my face and joy in my heart.

    I am adapting to my new life as a widower who continues to cherish the life and the memories he shared with Carolyn for the best years of my life.

  2. Brian C.  February 4, 2019 at 11:05 pm Reply

    I was a “special kind of messed up” for much of the first year (you can ask the facilitators of the grief support group I was involved with for the first time during Fall 2017…) but I have moved out of that. However the grief is very much alive and well as I move into this month, what I called “the death month” when it started, because this is the month my mom died, February 21, 2017 to be exact. It has been a “journey” if you want to call it that, amidst a backdrop of a dozen other losses from Fall 2016 to Summer 2017, some “greater” some “lesser”. Then in late 2017 my mother-in-law started her gradual decline and six months later, April 18, 2018, she passes away, so it was rather like reliving this experience. We survived the holidays and things seemed to settle down going into January, but with my Mom’s birthday on the 24th, then my parent’s anniversary on the 26th (and the 23 year mark of my brother-in-law’s death on the 25th), then the arrival of February,grief has made a bit of a comeback. So the ups and downs continue and it looks to be a looong month as I naturally “relive” the events, beginning with the ER visit/hospital admission on the 7th, the discharge to rehab on the 20th then the sudden cardiac arrests on the 21st leading to her death that day. Thus this “journey” continues for the foreseeable future but I am moving through it little by little.

  3. Denise  October 21, 2018 at 11:21 pm Reply

    For me, I have to hold on to the belief, at this point in time, that I can recover from the grief of losing mom, who died in March of this year. I find no consolation in the assertion that one never really recovers from grief . This is particularly so when I looked at mom’s grief over her mother when she was an adolescent , which was never resolved and had major repercussions throughout her life. This inability to cope was brought to the fore during the last 5 or 10 years of her life when she would call out for her mother and cry after her. I know Alzheimer’s was a part of that, but only a part. Certainly the type of death (expected or sudden, traumatic or natural causes) as well as the relationship to the deceased influences the grief experience. Mom’s death has affected me much more that dad’s death, which occurred in August, 2014. Dad died in a nursing home at the age of 95, and we were informed that he was dying. But mom’s death at 94 was a slow, gradual one through Alzheimer’s. I was the primary, only, caregiver and lived with her at home for almost 20 years, and I was alone when she died. I was initially surprised at how well I took it, but then after the initial shock (even though I knew she was dying), and the funeral, and after life returned to “normal”, that’s when the emptiness, loneliness and sorrow came in waves at various times, mostly when I was alone. Living in the same apartment makes it difficult to move on, with all the memories, mostly of her illness and days/hours leading up to her death. However, I was blessed with a core sense of identity outside of the role of daughter/caregiver, and a life of my own. I believe that these two factors, plus my faith, will eventually lead me to healing. I may be in denial right now, but what keeps me going is the belief that the grief will one day end.

    • Zivile  May 22, 2019 at 12:35 pm Reply

      Hi Denise

      It is refreshing to hear your view that you believe you can overcome grief. You’re right.

      Not cope, live with, accept, reduce, move with it…

      Instead – dissolve, transform, be free, appreciate and love.

      With the right method, you can achieve this quickly.

      Where are you at now?

  4. Barb  October 16, 2018 at 10:35 am Reply

    My “end point” is being reunited with my husband. Many, many days, I sit. I DO wear the same clothes, often. My hair IS a birds nest, often. I.Just.don’ No one else does. Why should I?

    • Donna Foulds  February 5, 2019 at 3:36 am Reply

      I’m sorry. I understand. I’m you many days myself.

  5. Jane hughes  October 15, 2018 at 3:48 pm Reply

    I can relate to much of what is said but am afraid I switch off at buzz words like ‘journey’ and ‘good job’. The grief of traumatic child loss is too deep to be trivialised and it makes me feel more isolated when people use cliches like this.

  6. David  October 15, 2018 at 2:38 pm Reply

    Thank you. It’s so important to realise that grief is not something to defeat or get rid of; grief is just love. And that will never end. Learning to live with a different kind of love is a huge, daunting challenge – and you’re right: it’s up and down, back and forth, and some days feel like too much while others seem more bearable. But, for sure, it is something we live with for the rest of our lives…

  7. Deb Hazama  March 1, 2018 at 7:45 am Reply

    Excellent. Have been immersed in this grief … journey, sojourn, pilgrimage … since 2005 when we unexpectedly lost my 14 year old son to VEDS. Other significant losses – my grandparents, my father, aunts, uncles – had occurred prior – but this loss immersed me/us. I became a MFT with emphasis in ‘loss’ in the first years of my grieving (2008). I, like you, have learned that loss / death, grief & grieving is as much a part of Life and fully Living as birth / new beginnings are. … God bless you bith for all you are doing and will do. Congratulations on your ‘space’. Love the early morning light!

  8. Deb Hazama  March 1, 2018 at 7:45 am Reply

    Excellent. Have been immersed in this grief … journey, sojourn, pilgrimage … since 2005 when we unexpectedly lost my 14 year old son to VEDS. Other significant losses – my grandparents, my father, aunts, uncles – had occurred prior – but this loss immersed me/us. I became a MFT with emphasis in ‘loss’ in the first years of my grieving (2008). I, like you, have learned that loss / death, grief & grieving is as much a part of Life and fully Living as birth / new beginnings are. … God bless you bith for all you are doing and will do. Congratulations on your ‘space’. Love the early morning light!

  9. Lyndie Dawson-Clarke  June 3, 2017 at 4:47 pm Reply

    Sitting here on a Sunday morning thinking that it is 21 months today since my beautiful 24 year old son died and wondering how I will move forward and this site comes up. It reminds me that I am not alone, that there are survivors and people that understand, that some days it is hard to breathe but yet we move forward one step at a time. Thankyou

  10. Mike  November 14, 2016 at 1:00 pm Reply

    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:
    Thanks again.

    • Ron  June 2, 2017 at 2:41 am Reply

      Pilgrimage best describes our walk since our son died last March 2016. One step, one second, one minute at a time.

  11. Lou  October 6, 2016 at 3:55 pm Reply

    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.

  12. Maree  September 27, 2016 at 5:24 am Reply

    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.

  13. gloria  September 18, 2016 at 6:57 pm Reply

    “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…?

  14. Terri  September 8, 2016 at 6:27 am Reply

    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.

  15. Danny  September 7, 2016 at 10:54 pm Reply

    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.

  16. Eileen  September 7, 2016 at 5:15 pm Reply

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

  17. krista toups  September 7, 2016 at 2:42 pm Reply

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

  18. krista toups  September 7, 2016 at 2:39 pm Reply

    Very true

  19. Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC  September 7, 2016 at 11:39 am Reply

    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,

  20. Bob  September 7, 2016 at 11:33 am Reply

    All I want is to be with my kids

  21. Helen Lofties  September 7, 2016 at 10:37 am Reply

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

  22. Diane Sapp, Widows Ring  September 7, 2016 at 9:45 am Reply

    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.

  23. Michelle Lopez  September 7, 2016 at 7:42 am Reply

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

  24. Donna Neale  September 6, 2016 at 10:34 pm Reply

    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.

  25. Bethany Hutson  September 6, 2016 at 10:16 pm Reply

    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

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