The Unprecedented Nature of Individual Grief: Trading answers for understanding

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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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 Collage

Most 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.

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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.

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9 Comments on "The Unprecedented Nature of Individual Grief: Trading answers for understanding"

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  1. Cecilia  August 5, 2020 at 3:28 am Reply

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m 43, had a fiance for 19 1/2 years. I am lost. I was also my better halves care taker. He was on peritoneal dialysis. I disinfected & prepare his dialysis since 3/2017-12/24/2019 every night. Christmas eve is when I lost 1/2 of my life. I dont have many friends and I am responding because I feel you may understand this horrible feeling I feel. Perhaps we can help each other. Hope to hear from you

  2. Ana  May 15, 2020 at 5:55 pm Reply

    I lost my boyfriend 2 weeks ago. He hanged himself in the bathroom. We were not living together as I was with my kids from previous marriage and he was caring for his dad.
    He was in alot of mental pain ..He was probably bipolar and suffered from delusions. Tried to help him but he had many years of this and I knew something would happen one day. Nothing prepares you for something like this. 8 woke up that morning and his phone was disconnected and I just knew.. I went to his house and when I went upstairs there was a note on bathroom door not open the door, there is a body inside.
    I always knew we would not have a normal loving relationship as he was constantly living a paranoia of pain he didn’t want to come out of.
    I’m so devastated and in disbelief still.. feeling numb and an enormous emptiness.
    I hate him too..I hate him for making me suffer like this. Selfishly and cruely.
    He left a letter for me and other people. He said sorry for causing me pain and that I was free from him. He also said I love you forever..great isn’t it

  3. Patricia Tewhey  January 16, 2020 at 7:40 am Reply

    My husband died over 3 years ago very unexpectedly. My adult daughter is angry and resentful toward me because she says she had to help me through and I was the mother and should have looked after her. Three years have past and the angry and resentment still come up. I didn’t know how to “act” when I lost my husband. I just felt pain, sorrow and shock. We both made all the arrangement for burial and a day of celebration. I will try to give her extra love and support now, but it is difficult when she is angry and I have to be careful of my ever word. Did anyone else experience this??? Advice??

  4. Lesli  July 30, 2019 at 8:44 am Reply

    I can relate to so many of you. My husband passed a year ago yesterday. I tried a grief recovery program but I don’t feel like it’s helped. I have to say I was his care giver and cared for my aging mom who died two years before my husband, lost my job of 25 years 4 months after loosing my mother and lost my father who I also cared for three years before my mother. Depression is a very real thing. I don’t know how to get out of it. It consumes you. I do try to hide it and just move on but I don’t think This is working. I don’t have insurance and places I’ve called have terrible waiting lists. I just stumbled on this site and hope there is something here for me or maybe somewhere you could tell me. Talking to someone may help. Someone please respond. Maybe you could tell me somewhere else to go.

  5. Joy  February 12, 2019 at 7:06 pm Reply

    My husband passed away 3 years ago and I’m still waking up in the morning shaking! I have so much pain dealing with each new day! I had to take care of him he was on dialysis! We were married 40 years and I was never really alone! When will I ever feel normal! Refuse to try medication!!!

    • William Schmidt  December 12, 2019 at 8:37 pm Reply

      Joy …I lost my mother on sept 15 2017… I was very close to her…My girlfriend died at the age of 44 … On april 20 2019…health issues …I am very depressed.. My oldest daughter comforts me she is 38… Don’t know where i would be without her help

  6. Lori  January 1, 2019 at 8:15 pm Reply

    I have been married for 31 years and in the process of a divorce wasnt looking for anyone but it just happened i fell in love w a man that made me feel like i belonged in this world and loved me for me no matter what my faults were we met at work a year ago October 8th 2017 and i started hanging out in April 2018 everday he showered me w love and i did the same for him because i was in the process of divorce we kept it all quiet we started to tell people on dec 14t h 2018 and then he passed away from a heart attack on the 17th i am so devasted and never felt tbe love of a man like him even in my 31 years of marriage. I cry all the time and especially in the morning when i know i wont here from him he text me good morning sunshine every morning then text me everyday asking how my day was i have never ever felt that and dont know if i want to ever feel that way again w anyone else i came upon this sight and realized i wasnt the only one feelling this way they say god brings people in ur life for a reason not sure why it was so short but all i can say is that right now i will never ever feel the way i feel about the 8 months i had w my boyfriend. And also i never thought i would ever respond to this site

  7. Ekeocha Rebecca  October 9, 2018 at 12:03 pm Reply

    I what to know the meaning of Unprecedented.

  8. Sherrie Dunlevy  May 20, 2017 at 12:00 pm Reply

    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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