Grief and Regrief (aka growing up with a grief monster)

Understanding Grief Understanding Grief : Litsa Williams

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.

A while back, Eleanor talked about grief monsters.  The way I think about regrief, it is a lot like the way I think about my grief monster:

Your grief monster is born when your loved one dies and he scares the sh*t out of you.

regrief grief monster 4

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.

regrief grief monster 2

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,

regrief grief monster 3

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. regrief 5They 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.

Let’s be grief friends.

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19 Comments on "Grief and Regrief (aka growing up with a grief monster)"

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  1. Ginger I.  July 6, 2016 at 2:24 pm Reply

    I have come to call my grief my constant traveling companion. It is always with me. Sometimes we travel in silence, simply aware of one another’s presence. At other times, we are quite engaged with one another. In some ways I wish it would move on, but in other ways I welcome it because it is a symbol of great love, albeit it painful in this form.

    As for regrief, I think we all experience it on significant dates. I am nearing the 2-year mark of losing my husband to pancreatic cancer. I think I am having a more difficult time this year than last, and I think it is because I am more aware of getting farther and farther away from my husband actually being physically present with me.

    • JOSEPH DINARDO  July 7, 2016 at 9:58 am Reply

      I also lost my wife in March of 2015 to pancreatic cancer. Your remarks resonate completely w me. Well said.

  2. Linda McKendry  July 7, 2016 at 2:11 pm Reply

    I lost my husband, and best friend in December 2015. I am sad and mad.

  3. Susan Thrasher  July 7, 2016 at 2:52 pm Reply

    I lost my husband in December 2015 too.Suddenly,unexpectedly.I am sad,mad and stressed.My son is my rock:(

  4. Eira  July 8, 2016 at 2:30 am Reply

    My husband died nearly 8 months ago now. My grief monster crops up fairly often at the moment. We are getting very acquainted.

  5. Teresa  July 8, 2016 at 10:14 am Reply

    It will be 2 years since I lost my beloved husband, Kenny to cancer. I find the second year was indeed harder than the first. For me, the first year I was in shock, numb and focused on survival, getting business done and living moment to moment. The second year everything was more real, and my world without Kenny started coming into focus. One of the most hurtful and frustrating things for me was the perceptions from others that somehow I should be feeling better with time. Because I appear so well on the outside it is assumed I am getting better. But on the inside I feel like I’ve been dropped on another planet that resembles earth, but is not quite earth at all. I uunderstand now and respect that everyone’s grief is different, and unless you have lost your husband who was the love of your life you couldn’t possibly truly understand what that’s like. I found myself having to put on a happy face for others because they could not handle nor did they want to see my pain. Even knowing Kenny was going to die, the grief has been much more difficult and layered than I could have ever imagined. Having said all this, my grief is evolving and ever present. I just found myself in tears walking through the men’s section in Target just yesterday. Some moments I have great joy. But my loss of Kenny, is always there , and while each day I choose happiness, which was his wish, I still feel like I am living on a different planet. I try my best to let his light shine through me as a way to honor his life, while mine is forever changed. I hope to ride the tides of my grief as well as I can, not get sick from it, and am open to love again someday. If that doesn’t happen, well that’s okay too. Being 58 is a very awkward time to suddenly be single, but that’s another story.

  6. Genevra  July 8, 2016 at 12:04 pm Reply

    Losing both my only children, both sons (forever 39 & 37), and both of them left behind a child. My granddaughter at the time was 13 and my grandson was 9….I can clearly see the stages they will be going through, as I myself do too. I agree the “grief monsters” will always be with the three of us. Thank you for your article. I will save it to give to them as they need it. They are now 17 & 13. Losing a child is the worst, in my opinion having lost my parents, brother and various aunts and uncles prior and knowing people who have lost spouses. However I think losing a parent when you’re still a child is also extremely difficult. This “regrief” will certainly haunt them. Both my parents lost a parent in their childhood and it certainly haunted them.

    • Mary  July 21, 2017 at 1:51 pm Reply

      I don’t think of it as being “haunted” by grief. There is certainly ‘regrief’ throughout life when you loose a parent at a young age. I see it as being developmental, & not a bad thing. I lost my father 55 yrs ago, when I was 7. I still love him. I have maintained a “relationship” with him throughout my lifetime. I still honor his memory, even though most of my family is also gone, & my friends do not have any memory of my dad. It’s hard being the only one left, but how could I forget my dad?

  7. Katherine  July 9, 2016 at 11:50 am Reply

    I have been writing about my grief regarding the sudden death of my father this past March. I call grief “my little friend” who comes and goes. I like grief monster! I am going to share this with my children. Thank you

  8. Dianna  July 14, 2016 at 7:59 pm Reply

    I have been alone for 11 months now. I don’t even know the person I am now. People have stopped comforting me and my son and wife have moved on in their own understanding. I am still here but feel like everything is gone. All my work and place in the world is gone. Camp Widow was wonderful, buy would like to see a workshop for people over 55. I think it is different for us.

  9. Janet Sellars  January 8, 2017 at 9:55 pm Reply

    It’s been just over 5 yrs for me since I lost my husband but I can so relate to this.Dianna it is different for us.

  10. Paula Evans  January 15, 2017 at 10:57 am Reply

    I lost my husband nearly 6 six years ago and I know I have turned a corner because I actually enjoyed Christmas. With that being said, I have also had major sadness/fear/grief because that joy frightened me. I am afraid I am losing my memories or feelings about my husband. Sometimes that feeling is worse than the actual grief. People do not understand it because it has been “the 5 year mark” and all is better. No just different.

  11. jean kirschenheiter  July 21, 2017 at 6:14 pm Reply

    I don’t have a grief monster but at times my grief mostly goes toward a lot of anger. The day was august 28th ,2016 when I received information that my soldier son/ veteran had taken his life. PTSD was still with him. He was my pride & joy. He served 20 yrs all over the world. It was a devastating shock for me that day . It’s so hard for me to understand the son that I thought I knew was capable of suicide.

    • Jan Bassier  August 30, 2017 at 12:02 pm Reply

      Jean, I am so sorry for your loss. All that you feel sounds very familiar. The mixture of pride and anger, and the deep grief – I hope you will find a group that specifically helps with loss to suicide, even the loss of someone in the military to suicide. All of us, grieving, need to know that we are not alone in the feelings we feel. Please find people who can identify with your loss. It has helped many to do just that.

  12. Kathleen  July 21, 2017 at 8:56 pm Reply

    This might not be what the professionals writing about regrief and children are actually referring to since I am an adult, but in my personal experience I think regrief is an appropriate description of how my grief has evolved. . When my son died I felt myself regressing to child mode. In my shock I became a needy, helpless child. I was not able to make simple decisions, I didn’t know when to sit, stand or walk. I had no idea how to be. I became fearful, hopeless and wondering what would happen to me next. Where would I go from here. Friends and family made my decisions, dressed me, put food in front of me and basically cared for me as one would care for a child. My brain fog, feeling crazy, the insanity of the fact that my son died kept me from functioning as an adult for many months. Slowly I recognized the need to leave my child state behind so that I could grieve my son’s death as his mother. My regrief slowly began to take affect and today I am able to grieve not only with my adult emotions, which have evolved as my grief journey lengthens but also cognitively with my adult brain thinking process. This is not to say I don’t revert back to the child in shock who can’t understand why this happened and wanting my life to return to the way it was before my son died but regrief pulls me back and I start over again.

  13. Anna  July 22, 2017 at 12:03 pm Reply

    Great article. I’m 61 years old. I experienced my first death when I was 14 month old. My 3 month old brother died of SIDS. My parents divorced when I was 2. Regrief and have spent time together. It’s nice to have a label for it. I thought I was stuck and crazy.

    My husband died 3 years ago. The grief I feel for Keith has not laken a long vacation. It takes mini trips I’m just now starting to see Keith’s regrief and the roll it plays in my.

    Once again ladies you have given me food for thought. You have put words to the mystifies of my feeling.

    Thank you

  14. Teresa Martinez  August 4, 2017 at 3:19 pm Reply

    Thank you for this article and illustrations! Regrief is an awkward term but I feel accurate. My Mom died when I was 11 yo. At every developmental milestone I have grieved her absence. It is not easy but understanding what is happening and why has made all of the difference. I share many of your articles in my grief groups. They are excellent! Thank you for the great insight into grief!

  15. Kris B  December 7, 2017 at 3:53 pm Reply

    I’d love to read more and connect more on this. I lost my mom 12 years ago, when I was 16. A young person at my work just lost their mom and I’ve been grieving so intensely the last few days. I’ve felt like I was 16 again. I feel stuck.

  16. Laura  June 2, 2018 at 12:10 pm Reply

    Been browsing this site for a couple of months and wonder how much good it would have done if I only I had discovered it sooner. Its the best, most accurate, most helpful site PERIOD! it hits all the right notes its almost uncanny, but then again, most of it is written from personal loss with the distinction of being also written by mental health professionals. There should be a requirement that bereavement counselors have their own experience with loss in order to help others (something that was sorely amiss during our interview to get accepted into a grief group – we didn’t get accepted, which was another blow to my teenage daughter who finally was ready to go a support group…. who does this??? NOt accepting a grieving teen because of an interview done by folks NOT FAMILIAR with loss of a close loved one)
    This regrief article totally describes my daughter who lost her father at age 12. So accurate is its observation that it specifically could have been written for her. She normally is not interested in online support or read articles to help her in any way, but this one I will forward to her so she can recognize herself in it and feel better about how things are.
    My wish is that this site will be available indefinitely as I go to it frequently for advice, solace and emotional support. Thank you so much to its moderators

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