Grief Is More Than Sadness

Emotion / Emotion : Litsa Williams

For further articles on these topics:

There are a lot of things we love about writing a grief blog—but if I had to pick one of my favorite things about the work we do, it's meeting new grief friends. What do grief friends do? We talk about grief, of course!

Allison Gilbert
Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert, a new grief friend, checked in with us a couple weeks ago to toss around some recent reflections that were bouncing around her head about loss and remembrance. We know Allison because she is the author of a grief book we love: Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive. There aren't a lot of grief books we really love, so when she mentioned that her grief-wheels had been turning, we were quick to welcome her to share some of those thoughts here at WYG.  It wouldn't be fair if we hoarded our grief-friends all to ourselves, right?  So today we welcome Allison to talk a bit about loss, grief, and the ways we remember those we love.

How long does it take to upend all previous notions of what an inspiring commencement address sounds like? It took Sheryl Sandberg four minutes. 240 seconds into her 2016 Commencement Address at the University of California at Berkeley, the Facebook COO launched into lessons learned following the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg. Sandberg told the 4,700 graduates and their parents that, if you dig deep enough, it’s possible to reframe any setback as an opportunity to build resilience and foster personal growth:

“You can choose joy and meaning."

Sheryl Sandberg

But following the death of any loved one—whether a spouse, parent, or sibling—there’s another lesson to be learned: Grief can be a springboard to happiness.

The key? Keeping your loved one’s memory alive.

Shortly after I graduated college, both of my parents died of cancer. Their deaths were bad enough, but then came an avalanche of other losses: my aunt, uncle, and grandmother. In every case, in those first awful days and months, I benefitted from being a passive recipient of support. My family and friends came to their funerals and attended the shiva calls. 

But later, there was an unexpected and cavernous void. I never stopped thinking about my parents and other family members—yet, for the most part, a year later, a decade, now twenty years since my mother died, the outreach that once provided so much comfort was mostly gone. For a time, this vacuum of support made me resentful and sad until I realized what should have been obvious all along: When it comes to keeping their memory alive, that work is up to me.

Recognizing and accepting this responsibility helped turn my grief around. I was able to tame my sorrow by celebrating what my loved ones still mean to me. By being proactive, I took ownership of my life after loss, and this new sense of power brought me enormous joy.

Noted grief expert J. William Worden says:

“Death makes you feel out of control. Taking steps to remember leads to empowerment, and feeling empowered is absolutely necessary for living a full, happy, and loving life.”

The mourner “needs to take action.”

Worden is far from the only bereavement expert to conclude that grief—and efforts to stay connected to those we’ve lost—can lead to happiness.  Therese A. Rando, Clinical Director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss, lists four processes individuals must traverse to be considered fully resolved in their mourning.

"Keeping your loved one ‘alive’" is one of them.

But how?  Knowing what to do is far more complicated because, frustratingly, so little has been written about it. In the nearly twenty years I’ve been researching and writing about loss, every source I’ve come across doesn’t provide any specific guidelines for remembering or doesn’t offer enough. Even Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief— the landmark book that toppled previous theories about grief, revealing the psychological benefits of staying connected to loved ones—fails to fully address concrete strategies for remembering.

But there’s so much we can do. While I worked and chased two toddlers, I carved out time to gather my father’s neckties and work with a shop to turn them into a quilt. Years later, with the help of a potter, I designed a serving plate on which the artist printed my grandmother’s coffee cake recipe. And when my husband and I order in Chinese food, I still make a point to tell them how Grandma Lynn loved dumplings and moo shu pork, too. Since my mother died of ovarian cancer before they were born, these silly observances seemed to click, making their grandmother just a little more real. Creating opportunities to remember my parents took effort, but I noticed it was working; I felt closer to my mother and father, and my children were developing a connection to their grandparents—even without having known them. I was also happier.

Ms. Sandberg’s children knew and presumably loved their father, and she will no doubt want to teach them the same lessons she passed along to the graduates at Berkeley—that there’s awesome power in kicking against the bottom and breaking the surface, as she so eloquently described in her address. What comes next for her and her family is an important shift, and it will come in the form of making yet another critical choice. For Ms. Sandberg to continue moving forward from her loss with “joy and meaning,” she must be proactive about keeping Mr. Goldberg’s memory alive. Doing so will not only enable her and her children to keep him close... It will be the most essential key to transforming their grief into a tool capable of bringing them a lifetime of happiness.

Missed Sheryl Sandberg's commencement speech? No worries, you can catch it below. 

And don't forget to keep up with all our new posts by subscribing to get our email updates.

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

Related Blog Posts

Related Blog Posts

See More

11 Comments on "Grief Is More Than Sadness"

Click here to leave a Comment
  1. Stephanie  June 28, 2016 at 7:49 am Reply

    Wonderful post. I have been working on small project such as this since the recent death of both my parents . I am a sewer, as was my mom. I took her beautiful cashmere sweaters (many given to her by my father), felted them in the washing machine and re-fashioned them into mittens. In the cold of winter, I feel my mom is helping to keep me warm. I can forward the pattern to anyone who might be interested.

  2. Vicki  June 26, 2016 at 7:14 pm Reply

    I haven’t been able to turn the setback into something good yet. Or find a springboard from the grief of losing a loved one on September 11, 2001 that springs from the tragedy directly to happiness.
    I’ve been able to find happiness totally independent of what happened but not from the tragedy directly. I haven’t even been able to do what my friends did, whose son died at Columbine High School. They call it “turning bad into good.” Even if I try that the goodness is still separate from what happened. There’s no direct link that leads from the tragedy to a happy normal life.
    I think the horror of what happened taints the memories so I don’t include what happened to him in my memory of keeping him alive. I won’t say what my last image of him is and I’ve heard the tape of his last 10 minutes. There’s no intersection between that and memories of his life.

    • Kim Bell  December 21, 2016 at 10:34 pm Reply

      Dear Vicki,
      The last sentence you wrote ” no intersection between that ” and other life memories , made complete sense to me. I share a similar experience. It is so difficult and frustrating when others do understand that . I simply wanted to say: You are not alone. And , your words made me feel like there is someone out there who gets it. Hoping there is peace for us one day.

  3. Suzy  June 25, 2016 at 9:12 pm Reply

    I recently moved out of state and one of the first things I did was set up a memory shelf for my son that died January 22, 2016. I have included my daughter as well…she is alive and well. Both my kids forever in my heart
    My son’s grandparents bought a memory brick in a prayer garden at our church
    It is peaceful there and I plan on sitting there to pray and mediate to feel his love and spirit…dear God I miss him so much

    • Litsa  June 25, 2016 at 11:11 pm Reply

      I am so sorry Suzy. These are beautiful gestures and, I hope, some small source of comfort.

  4. Lois Fetterman  June 8, 2016 at 11:46 am Reply

    We lost our son Feb. 16th, 2016 and all the attention seemed to be focused on his widow and the children….honestly so was ours. I do not begrudge her of any of this. But, it left us to morn on our own with not even our family (brothers, sisters or parents) checking on us or offering to bring a meal. We went through that first week and month on our own. I believe that is truly why we are at the stage in grieving that we have reached—my husband still won’t talk about our son that much at all; in fact he tries to avoid the subject. My daughter and myself have relied heavily on each other and our faith. I talk to my son’s graduation picture daily and if for some reason I don’t I have to get back out of bed and do so. This keeps his memory with me. There is no headstone/we personally have no ashes so we keep his memory alive by continuing forth with ministry work. Sometimes I feel like I’ve moved on into the “New” normal quicker then I should of but, I’m for the most part at peace. I plan memory books for the grandchildren so they can know their daddy from our memories also. I guess there’s all kinds of ways to grieve and hold memories.

    • Becky  February 6, 2017 at 8:37 pm Reply

      I lost my son at age 43 on 4/28, my dad on 8/2 and my husband on 9/22 all in the same year. I am beyond sad. I am lost.

  5. Melissa  June 7, 2016 at 1:22 pm Reply

    I agree; keeping the memory alive is truly important. I’m making a memorial book of all the things said about my late husband at both Facebook, Caring Bridge and from cards and letters. I think this will mean more to future generations of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will learn who he was and how beloved he was. There are so many ways to do this and I look forward to reading Ms. Gilbert’s book.

  6. Eileen  June 7, 2016 at 10:08 am Reply

    Actively keeping our loved one’s memory alive leads to healing and joy – what a powerful concept. I think this is what I’ve been doing all along, searching for ways to keep my son’s memory alive, but part of me feels guilty about it, talking about him, or doing things in his memory, I worry sometimes that I’m making people uncomfortable. But understanding this idea that what I’m doing is healthy and positive for the healing process is liberating. Thanks for another wonderful article about grief and grieving. I’m going to check out that book you mentioned.

  7. Mary Beiermann  June 7, 2016 at 9:45 am Reply

    5 family members died between 2002 and 2005. My mother,brother,father, uncle and sister-in-law.That was very overwhelming. I asked the nurse for an ECG strip ,just to have something of them. So from that loss I created the ECG Memento.It is now in use at the hospital I work at, as a nurse, to give to families after the death of their loved one. That is the positive response from my loss. It gave me comfort and the Evidence Based research showed that 86% of families reported it also.

  8. Robyn Gabe  June 7, 2016 at 9:23 am Reply

    Thank you for this post. It is so true that support quickly dissipates, especially for the siblings. People move on because the roles of the deceased person had no bearing on their daily life. Leaving the griever at times confused because they have not moved on. But keeping the memory alive in a positive fashion speaks volumes. It does not alienate people. I was afraid that my son would never know who is uncle was. Then I realized that it was my responsibly to speak about him. I have my brother’s guitar mounted on the wall next to my son’s playpen. I want him to see it, and when he can talk, I want him to ask me questions about the instrument.

Leave a Comment

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.