Not too terribly long ago I was working with a bereaved dad. I was the second grief therapist he'd seen; the first was shortly after the loss, years before. He explained that his earlier grief therapy wasn't helpful, saying with frustration, "she kept telling me I needed to 'integrate my grief' but I had absolutely no idea what that meant or how to do it". The griever in me could deeply relate to his annoyance. And the grief therapist in me understood exactly what that therapist was trying to say.
Avoiding jargon can be tough. In almost all specialized fields, there is an unofficial language. Once you're fluent, it can be hard to remember that others aren't. Mental health is no exception. We throw around acronyms. Therapists use phrases that are part of the mental health lexicon, forgetting that they require clarification and context. We spend a lot of time explaining grief types, terms, and concepts because they aren't common knowledge. And we want you to have a general understanding of the glossary of grief, because sometimes that jargon is describing something useful. Like integrating grief.
First a little background on how we think about grief
Over the years many writers and researchers have looked for ways to understand the trajectory of grief. That's a tricky project, because grief tends to look different for everyone. There are no predictable, linear stages. There's no set timeline. There are no universal emotions or experiences. In the old days (and my that I mean before the 1990s) society and professionals alike viewed grief as something we need to get over and leave in the past to make room for a new life moving forward.
In the 90s, clinicians and researcher put forth the Dual Process Model of Grief and Continuing Bonds theory, which both upended those ideas. They made space for grief to be ongoing, not something we work at and then recover from. It offered an understanding of ongoing relationships with people who've died as normal, not a problem. Of course, none of that helps to explain what it means to integrate grief. But it is important context.
Before we can get to integrated grief, we've got to get through early, acute grief.
When someone dies or you experience another type of devastating loss, your life often feels like it has split into two parts - before and after. In the early days and weeks following a loss, grief is completely consuming. You look back almost obsessively on the world that existed before, the way life was 'supposed' to be. You're filled with total disbelief, doubt, and fear about whether you will ever be able to live in this shattered, "after loss" world. The pain is unrelenting and the future often looks like an empty abyss.
Coping in the early days of grief
Reminders of the person can feel exclusively painful in the early days. And yet often people feel desperate to hold on to the physical reminders because it feels like all you have left. You want to preserve everything they touched, their smell, the sound of their voice, even when sometimes those things are overwhelming reminders of their absence. You might go over and over moments with them in your mind, trying to etch the memories permanently in place. You spend so much time in the past to avoid looking around at a present and a future in which your loved one is missing.
The grief feelings can be terrifying. It's common to worry that you'll get crushed by the constant deluge of grief emotions. To cope with the intensity of these emotions, people fight back against grief. You might find yourself avoiding anything that brings up the pain. Rather than clinging to every hint of your loved one, you may be doing the exact opposite. To manage your emotions you may be avoiding those reminders, trying not to think about the loss, avoiding places and things that might turn you into a grief-puddle.
And it might look different from day to day, week to week, all the while thinking, when will this end?? When will I finally find 'acceptance' and 'move on'??
Unimaginable as it is, we somehow survive acute grief
Hard as it is to believe, somehow we survive the early days after a loss - one day at a time. Sometimes one breath at a time. The pain remains intense, but our brains slowly but surely start to make sense of a world in which our loved one is missing. The Dual Process Model of bereavement, one of our favorite grief theories, explores the ways we find time to tend to loss-oriented stressors (our memories and connections to our loved one and the pain of our loss) and also the restoration-oriented stressors (the practical daily tasks of rebuilding a day to day life after loss). We do not work on our grief and suddenly find the other side, reaching 'acceptance' and 'moving on'. Instead we're continually coping within domains, loss and restoration, oscillating between them in an ongoing way.
As we slowly resume routines, we start figuring out how to live a life that feels meaningful and balanced without our loved one. For many people, two things become clear: they want to eventually thrive in the world again, and they also want to bring their loved one's memory with them. The ways of coping during early grief often don't serve those goals. Clinging furiously to every reminder and staying lost in the past and in the pain doesn't allow for a meaningful present. But trying desperately to avoid emotional reminders or numbing difficult feelings, and ignoring the past doesn't allow for a connection to our loved one's memory in the present. They create a compartmentalized world in which we're either consumed by grieving or denying our grief and our loved one's memory. Neither is sustainable.
So, finally -- what does it mean to integrate grief??
At some point in grief, most people realize that grief has changed them. We aren't going back to 'normal. In order to stay connected to the memory of our loved ones, cope with the complicated emotions of grief, and to live in a way that has meaning and purpose, we have to invite grief in to stay.
That is integrating grief.
If you're a regular WYG reader, you might know this as 'making friends with your grief monster'.
Integrated grief is grief that exists within your life, as an ongoing part of your life, without overwhelming or dominating your life. I know, at this moment that might feel unfathomable. But as you learn to carry the complex emotions of grief and you change your relationship with grief, slowly the chasm will close between grieving and 'functioning'. Grief impacts your identity, changing your roles, relationships, and priorities. Integrating grief means letting go of who you were before the loss and embracing the person you are now, a person changed by grief, often in ways both good and bad. As you learn what it means to have a relationship with someone who has died it becomes easier to move forward into a new life, bringing your loved one with you.
What does integrating grief mean to you?
Defining integrated grief isn't easy or straightforward. And in practical terms it can look or feel different for different people. We asked our community over on instagram how they thought about integrating grief and here are some of the responses.
- Accepting this daily as part of yourself
- To let yourself really feel it. To let it become part of the fabric of your being
- Make the loss become part of you
- Be able to function with the loss
- Accept the loss as your companion instead of trying to "work through" it.
- Attempting to have your loss live in tandem with your new normal, a familiar part of your new life.
- Owning it. Realizing and working on being sad/grieving AND whatever else needs to be done.
- Make it part of your story
- Stop bumping into the shock of it every moment of the day
- Bring it in. Let it be part of you.
- Growing around your grief. Carrying it and building your life around it.
- To accept the new reality without them but to feel the connection to them.
- Making peace with the truth that your loss becomes part of you and always will be.
- Learning to live with and adapt to the gaping hold in your life instead of staring into it.
- Continuing to keep traditions and little things we shared as I learn to live again.
- Figuring out how to live alongside your grief.
- Learning to carry memories into the day to day.
Integrating grief doesn't happen over night or with the flip of a switch. It is a slow evolution. Be patient with yourself and get support if you need it.
What does integrating grief mean to you?
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
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: