So there‘s this thing called grief. You’ve probably heard of it. You probably wish you hadn’t heard of it. There is also ambiguous grief, and cumulative grief, and secondary grief, and anticipatory grief, and traumatic grief and lots of other kinds of grief. You’ve probably heard of most of these if you have spent much time around here, and if you haven’t you can click on any of those terms to learn more. On top of all of that, there’s also “regrief”. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of regrief, but if I were to guess I’d say you probably know exactly what it is. One, because we actually talk about and around regrief quite a bit here (though we have never taken the time to label it and explain it). And two, because it is a phenomenon I suspect most grievers can relate to, you just might not know it yet!
Okay, so regrief in thirty seconds or less: according to the Handbook of Thanatology regrief is “developmentally appropriate processing of the [grief] experience from a different perspective than was possible earlier”. Clear as mud, right? Basically, when you are a child and you lose someone while at a certain developmental stage, you can only grieve in ways that your age and development allow (in “developmentally appropriate” ways). If I am five years old and I lose my mom, I make sense of that loss as a five-year-old can, with the cognitive and emotional capacities that a five year old has. But then this funny thing happens – I age. I move into the next developmental stage and the next and the next. In each new stage I suddenly have a new understanding of my loss and I now ‘regrieve’ that loss from this new, more mature perspective. My cognition and emotions have evolved and I may suddenly feel new and different things, or cope with my grief in new and different ways. If you want to learn more about it, this book has some good info.
For those of you reading who have grieving children, this is a good thing to keep in mind. Not only might you see this ‘regrief’ occur, but it will be important for you to be ready. Regrief might bring up new questions about the loss, new emotions, and new needs. If you want to learn more about what to expect from kids at different developmental stages, you can check out a post we have here about that. For those of you reading this who do not have grieving children and who weren’t grieving children yourselves, don’t go closing your browser yet. Though the ‘regrief’ literature out there focuses on kids, we here at What’s Your Grief feel pretty confident that many adults experience their own type of ‘regrief’.
If you are a regular WYG reader the idea of evolution in grief is probably not new to you. We have written time and again about continuing bonds and about the idea that we have ongoing and evolving relationships with the people we love who have died. As we approach new phases in life (marriage, parenthood, retirement, etc) we understand things and wonder things about our loved ones in a different way. We construct our ideas about who they would have been, the advice they would have given us, and we think about what this phase of life would have been like if they were here for it. We miss them desperately all over again when they are not there for something we always thought they would be there for.
It is not a far leap to see how our relationship to grief itself also changes and evolves as we develop through adulthood. If we go back to the definition of regrief, it is “developmentally appropriate processing of the experience from a different perspective than was possible earlier”. Though the academics and the researchers who introduced the concept of regrief to apply to childhood development, we as adults do a lot of growing and developing too. We have our own psychosocial tasks we move through across the lifespan and, though the changes through the years may not be as obvious as they are in children, they are undoubtedly there (you may remember a guy named Erik Erikson who made that concept of psychosocial development in children and adults pretty darn famous). On top of the normal development that happens throughout adulthood, a death can throw us into a tailspin or give us a serious kick in the butt, impacting the way we understand and process developmental tasks and our grief. Our priorities change, our relationships change, the way we understand the world fundamentally changes. Time passes and the way grief feels and manifests changes.
In the early days of grief, often you can barely see from one moment to the next. When someone tells you it will get easier, you want to punch them in the face. Then one day (and let’s be honest, we often are shocked about it) we realize somehow it has gotten a little bit more manageable. Maybe not easier, but the acute abyss that was there has started to ease its grip just a smidge. Early on we hate those obnoxious grievers who are posting all over the internet about how their losses made them stronger, and then eventually, months or years or decades later we realize we have grown and gotten stronger, even just the smallest bit. In the early days we thought eventually we would go back to “normal”. It would be brutal and excruciating, but eventually we would get to the final grief stage, complete the last grief task, and our grief would be done. Until we eventually realize we will never be the person we used to be. Even if it is a little more manageable now and even if I have gotten just a little bit stronger, this grief will be with me forever. It will change and ebb and flow and evolve, just as I change and ebb and flow and evolve, but it will always be there. The decades will pass, I will change through adulthood, and I will always be processing it and understanding it from ‘a different perspective than was possible earlier’. This isn’t a bad thing, it is just how life and loss work – we remember and are impacted by that loss forever, so it is with us forever.
I don’t like the term regrief, but I don’t have a better word for it. Perhaps this is because in my mind regrief is just, well, grief. It isn’t something that stops and picks back up in a new developmental stage. It is one longe, evolving, morphing, thing.
Your grief monster is born when your loved one dies and he scares the sh*t out of you.
He makes you scream and cry and hide in your house and lash out at people and sometimes he makes you want to die. All you want is for him to go away, so you avoid him every chance you get. Then, slowly but surely you realize he isn’t going anywhere, so you might as well see if you can get used to him, maybe even become friends and share some memories together.
As the years pass, you get older and your grief monster gets older too. Your relationship evolves, just like any relationship does. You start to understand each other a little bit differently. He makes you feel ways you didn’t feel before, sometimes better, sometimes worse. You ask him questions you didn’t ask him before and, because of your own life experience, you feel differently about him than you did. You do different things together than you used to. You still sometimes hate him, because he makes you cry in the sock aisle at Target,
but you also love that he shares memories with you, continues bonds, and helps you live on in a way that your loved one would have wanted.
In the WYG understanding of the world, our grief monsters are always with us, hanging out, for better or worse. They don’t leave you and come back at each new developmental stage through child and adulthood. They just stick with you throughout and you get to know them and understand them in new and different ways. Sometimes you feel this change happening, sometimes you just look back and it has happened, but either way the changes are real and they are just part of how grief (and regrief) works.
Call it regrief, call it the ever-changing relationship you have with your grief monster. Whatever you call it, leave us a comment to tell us about it what it has been like for you. And subscribe over on the sidebar so you can get all our posts right to your email.