We’ve written extensively about grief over the years. We’ve expanded and clarified; we’ve waxed poetic; and, yes, perhaps we’ve even pontificated a little on the subject. Though our hope is always to explain and simplify, I sometimes worry that with 555 articles averaging around 1,000 words apiece we’ve achieved the opposite. At this point, has our conceptualization become so specific that one would have to be paying very close attention to know what we mean when we talk about ‘grief’ and ‘loss’?
That’s is not to say that our outlook is so refined and nuanced that it’s over anyone’s head – not at all! On the contrary, we find that we’ve come to the same place in our understanding where many of our readers naturally arrive. But, on the other hand, we’ve also found that our specific conceptualization differs from that of many of our readers as well. Of course, it’s okay for people to understand grief differently based on their own experiences. The problem is that it’s difficult to converse and communicate about concepts (in this instance, grief and loss) when you and your discussion partner are using the same terminology to mean two different things.
When psychologists examine certain concepts in writing, research, and conversation, one of the first things they do is define the concept, so everyone knows they are on the same page. For example, there are many ways of understanding a term like ‘intelligence,’ so before having a conversation about this construct, psychologists must establish whether they’re discussing intelligence as it relates to “street smarts,” IQ, aptitude, or any other way of looking at it. Six years into writing for WYG, we think it’s probably time to have a similar conversation about how we define some of the basic terms that we use on a day-to-day basis.
It isn’t our intent to force our definition of grief on anyone else. However, we think it’s crucial that we establish what we mean and what we don’t mean when we talk about grief. Especially because, over time, our conceptualization has expanded beyond some of the parameters typically drawn around the grief experience.
What is NOT a part of our definition:
A categorization of what is and is not loss:
Though people commonly believe that grief relates only to the death of a loved one, grief can be experienced in response to all types of losses. Losses can also relate to living people, objects, animals, places, or experiences (like job loss or a loss of faith).
To quote grief theorist and researcher Kenneth Doka:
“I think it’s probably important to acknowledge and recognize that grief is a reaction to loss. We often confuse it as a reaction to death. It’s really just a very natural reaction to loss and so we can experience grief obviously when someone we’re attached to dies, but we can also experience it when we lose any significant form of attachment.”
Will some loss experiences cause more pain and suffering than others? Absolutely! But grief and loss exist on a continuum. Some losses will result in a grief experience that is relatively easy to cope with and integrate, while others will cause earth-shattering and ongoing grief.
A uniform or predictable pattern:
Many people look at the grief experience as something fixed and rigid. In our Western society, we haven’t helped matters by allowing task/stage models to shape our beliefs and attitudes about grief. Though caveat and nuance do often exist within these models, these important distinctions aren’t often understood by the wider public.
What those of you who have been through grief know is that it’s not predictable and it doesn’t follow a pattern. Though it’s tempting to try and boil down something as overwhelming as grief into a simple pattern, we think it would do everyone a world of good to try and be more flexible in their understanding of what it means to live life after loss.
A process with a conclusion:
One of the most commonly searched terms related to grief is “grief process.” There are several definitions for the word ‘process,’ and most refer to a series of steps or changes that lead to a specific end.
You could make the argument that we go through the grief process in the same way that we go through the aging process – things change – we change – and we end up somewhere different than where we started. However, it’s more likely that people are looking for someone to describe the series of steps and changes that lead to the resolution of grief. Which – good luck.
Okay, so, what is WYG’s grief definition:
Now before anyone nitpicks this definition I have to give a big giant caveat that I do not work for Websters. Brevity and summarization are not talents that the authors at WYG possess. So, I’m very sorry to say, our grief definition hovers somewhere between a definition and an incomplete description. I told you defining grief is a difficult task!
With that said, here is WYG’s definition of grief:
Grief is an ongoing and evolving experience involving cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral responses to a loss. Responses may be related to the object of loss, seconary losses and stressors, the self, others, and the world (i.e., beliefs about safety, security, worldview, etc.)
Of course, there are a few caveats, so take a minute to check out the following graphic and then meet me below:
How our definitions may differ:
I mentioned earlier that we sometimes find ourselves at an impasse with readers who have an understanding of grief that is significantly different from the one we’ve shared above. Anecdotally, we believe this is because many people come here with the belief that grief is something we recover from or the belief that grief is all bad.
Where we differ from this outlook is that we’ve expanded grief to encompass it all – everything – the whole experience from day 1 to day 14,607. Again, we’re not here to say who is right and who is wrong, only to state how we prefer to look at things.
As we’ve established, we don’t believe there is an endpoint to grief and thus it is ongoing. We’ve also established that we believe grief evolves over time and throughout this evolution, it gains new dimensions that sometimes includes more warm, comforting, and positive thoughts, emotions, memories, and connections. So, in this way, grief is not all bad and for many, it comes to hold a special place in their lives where they go to honor, connect, remember, and grow throughout their entire lives.
Logically, a majority of the articles and resources you will find here on WYG discuss the devastating and distressing dimensions of grief. Grief is confusing, grief is overwhelming, and grief can be devastatingly painful and these are the experiences that we, as humans, need the most support getting through.
However, when we started writing about grief way-back-when we promised oursevles we would leave no stone unturned and a major part of this is looking at the experience beyond the parts that have already been explored and mapped out. So if you come here and you hear us talking about things that you don’t often consider in the context of grief – experiences like post-traumatic growth, emotions that are neither (or both) good and bad, grief being an expression of love and ongoing and positive connections with loved ones – this is where we’re coming from.