The Unprecedented Nature of Individual Grief: Trading answers for understanding

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say they like ambiguity, I’d be pretty broke. Studies show that making ambiguous decisions (based on little or conflicting evidence) actually activates areas of the brain associated with processing fear and emotion; thus proving that fear of the unknown is more than just an ominous cliche.

I can think of few things more scary and unknown in life than coping with the death of a loved one.  If only there existed a map outlining the ‘typical’ experience of grief, we might know what is normal and the steps one should take to heal.  Of course, such a guide can never exist because grief is a reflection of the individual, their relationship with the person who died, the circumstances of the death, coping skills, and many other factors.

Although many of those who’ve come into contact with grief understand it’s variability, they still might set out in search of definitive answers and quick solutions.

How long will I feel this way? 

What is the best way for me to cope? 

Which grief theory is correct?  

What should I say to my grieving friend? 

I lost my husband and my friend lost her mother; whose grief should be more intense? 

Should I leave my grieving friend alone or continue to check in? 

The answer to each of these questions is either “I don’t know” or “that depends.”  Individual grief is unprecedented; it’s so personal that it looks different on everyone.  Sure we have theories, commonalities, and general truths to guide us, but these things can only help us to guess – not know.

PicMonkey CollageMost of us have little experience with grief and so when a death occurs we have limited knowledge about how to proceed. Grievers want to feel better and those who love the griever want to help them in their hour of need. Naturally, all impacted by the death want to find solutions and want the comfort of knowing these decisions, judgements, and interventions are accurate and effective. After all, grief is a high-stakes situation; tensions are high, emotions are raw, and nerves are razor thin.  One wrong move and an emotional landslide may come tumbling down on everyone.

The trouble is, in the presence of stress and the absence of clarity we often rely on things like…

  • Emotion: My friend is in a lot of pain; quick think of something to take her pain away.
  • First Hand Learning:  I don’t know what will help my sister, but I know what helped me.
  • Vicarious Learning:  My friend thought a support group was very helpful to her when her husband died, maybe I should go to a support group.
  • Comparisons:  My brother isn’t struggling as much as I am, is there something wrong with me?
  • Categorizations:  I heard that people feel regret after a loved one dies from suicide, I wonder why I don’t feel the same.

These cognitive shortcuts make sense in many scenarios, and at times they are helpful with grief. Living in the unknown can be scary and paralyzing; of course we want to make sense of the senseless and put our trust in whatever clues seem to offer the quickest path away from ambiguity.  Sometimes these clues can lead us in the right direction, but many times they do not and this is especially true when we are talking about something as complex as individual grief.

It’s easy to get caught up in the search for black and white answers; we figure they have to exist because, after all, everyone experiences grief at some point.  As something so inherent to the human experience, how could grief be beyond comprehension? But to quote William Shakespeare, “Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.” Only when you are in the midst of grief do you understand, shortcuts do not exist and the only definitive answers you will find are the ones you arrive at yourself.  

Across the board, we need to figure out how to better tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty of grief.  We need to have a healthy respect for its complexity and recognize that, although a few general and basic truths exist, on an individual basis much cannot be prescribed or predicted.  Above all, we need to stop looking for answers and focus our attention on understanding.

We may not have all the answers, but we do what we can.  Subscribe to What’s Your Grief to receive posts straight to your email inbox.  Also, head over to our shop and check out our print grief resources.

March 28, 2017

1 responses on "The Unprecedented Nature of Individual Grief: Trading answers for understanding"

  1. I have recently written a book on this subject and would love to share it with you. I wrote it after losing my son in 1999 and losing friends as a result. It is a go-to guide to help people help those they love going through loss. I would love to send you a copy.

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