What Does It Mean to Integrate Grief?

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Litsa

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 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,
real-life book!

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.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

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17 Comments on "What Does It Mean to Integrate Grief?"

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  1. George  December 9, 2022 at 8:59 pm Reply

    I have had a deep learning on grief for the last 2 years. Nobody died, but what happened, and importantly what happened INSIDE ME was profound and changed me, changed the world I knew, and who I was. I have had to reconcile and understand that grief is not bereavement, and that we do grieve what we loose and what hurts us. I lost a deep relationship, twice & in complicated circumstances involving job, parenting, another person and property; the whole array connected to who I was at a very deep almost spiritual level, as deep as meditation goes. I learned about taking on dark energy, inherited Karma, trauma, how our parents grief becomes our grief even in our relationships by transmission between partners, sometimes through lovemaking or the emotional energy we feed each other. All this has been a revelation all be it a painful one; but the grief remains and I’m learning that we can be free by accepting what happened and allowing it to stay, it becomes an ornament in our being. I do still have the ‘story’ mentally but thd work is to change the narrative and accept it as it is. So thank you for the article it speaks to my own discovery. with love, George

  2. Harrietta Cherwinski  May 17, 2022 at 4:51 pm Reply

    It has been almost 5 months. I do believe the fog is starting to lift. But still make mistakes, think I hear one thing and a clerk has to repeat. I find I am going with the grief and not trying to hold it in. Cry when it just comes not to hold it in. It’s a part of me or I’m a part of the grief. I appreciate this because I can more or less see that I’m not crazy or abnormal when it comes to grief. I thank you for that

  3. D  May 17, 2022 at 4:25 pm Reply

    Trying to anticipate, joyfully, my youngest son’s wedding next month. Dreading it without his brother’s presence. Recently, his widow, talked about dating. Through me into a major funk/tailspin. She is so wonderful, my son and his wife were soulmates. Of course, I don’t want her to remain single, she is young with young children. I want her to have someone great in her and my grandkids life. This feels like we are leaving my departed son behind. I want to be happy for the wedding and for my daughter in law as she looks for someone. Like I said, dread and leaving Joshua behind. Thanks for reading.

  4. Melissa  April 3, 2022 at 4:19 pm Reply

    Yesterday marked 3 years since my partner died. I find that nature metaphors speak deeply to me, so I was thinking about how all the parts of my partner and our relationship when he was living are slowly breaking down into this rich, spiritual compost, something I am nurtured by and that the garden of my life now grows from and is rooted in.

  5. Ilana  March 8, 2022 at 5:39 am Reply

    Grief invites to accept we are always in the unknown

  6. Sue  February 13, 2022 at 6:26 pm Reply

    Nathan – my son died 3 years ago. In a practical sense integrated grief means;
    Some days there is a tightness in my chest and a lump in my throat and other days a warm fuzzy feeling in my stomach when l reminisce.
    Our home has photos of Nathan, his ornaments from his travels.
    We utilise his belongings – computer,camera and clothing.
    In our conversation he is mentioned and included.

    He is still part of our lives.

  7. Ghazala Khan  February 12, 2022 at 4:28 pm Reply

    It’s been 2 years now since I lost my
    Beloved middle younger sister to
    Cancer – I still find life without her tearful
    Upsetting and empty. I have however always carried her with me every where which makes me feel that she is and will always be with me.

  8. P  February 7, 2022 at 7:00 am Reply

    I would like to do something new, make new friends, and stop feeling so empty and lonely.
    I would like to begin to move on with my life, doing something meaningful and rewarding, at the same time carrying with me the memory of my friend of 50 years.
    That, to me, would be integrating my grief.

  9. Nancy  February 6, 2022 at 7:36 pm Reply

    I don’t completely understand what you mean by “integrating grief”. It’s my husband’s birthday 2 years on. I function. I work. I tell friends I’m okay. I cry. Alone.

  10. Karl Bartlett  February 3, 2022 at 3:57 pm Reply

    Thank you, I found this article both timely and helpful. I lost my wife of 28 years, 16 months ago and I’ve not been able to get a handle on what I’m now supposed to do, it almost feels a betrayal of my loved one to move on, so this gives me hope.
    Much love

  11. James  February 3, 2022 at 1:18 am Reply

    Wrap me in

    your cold embrace


    Wrap me in

    your briny taste


    Wrap me in

    your forgetful waves


    Wrap me in

    your deepest place


  12. Jan Jasper  February 2, 2022 at 3:54 pm Reply

    Thanks so much for mentioning “When someone dies or you experience another type of devastating loss” in your article about integrating grief. My grief is a “another type” I rarely see mentioned – I lost a loved one, but not to death. The love of my life walked out with very little warning, over 3 years ago, he left his stuff at my house and never returned to retrieve it. I called and texted and emailed him many many times for weeks, and when he didn’t respond, I began to wonder if he’d died of a heart attack (he’d already had one) or a car crash after speeding out of my driveway. I learned that he was alive when I saw his very new posts on Facebook. We’d spoken seriously of getting married and he was half living at my house. He said I was the love of his life. We rarely argued. There was no other woman involved, I’m certain. I knew at the time that he left because I hurt him, he cared deeply about my opinion of him, and he felt (wrongly) that I did not respect him. He had a terrible childhood which I guess he never recovered from.
    But I didn’t expect him to refuse to ever speak to me again. I made dozens of attempts to talk to him in the past couple years, and he won’t talk to me. So while he didn’t die, the fine, decent, devoted and loving man I’d planned on growing old with… no longer existed. I never had any closure.
    I’ve been in therapy for the over 3 years since. In addition to losing him, it has also destroyed my confidence in my ability to judge men’s character – I never had any warning signs that he was capable of this. I guess this is one of the secondary losses you’ve referred to. You’re welcome to post this on your blog if you think it might help others – to let them know that even if a person you love doesn’t die, it can be a shattering loss that you grieve deeply.

    • George  December 9, 2022 at 9:12 pm Reply

      Hi Jan, I empathise with what you have written. I also had no closure, in different circumstances but it can be unbareable to be left in silence with chapters of words and no ear to take them or the feelings behind them. Many blessings for your journey and the Work we all do for Life. George

  13. B.  February 2, 2022 at 3:49 pm Reply

    Since the 10-year mark last year of suddenly losing my 20 year-old son, I’ve really examined how the past decade has changed me. As I like to tell people, my son’s loss permanently tilted my world. It’s never tilted back, but I’ve learned to live with the tilt.

    I never could have imagined this would happen in the days/weeks/months immediately after he died. I never could have imagined that the pain and shock would eventually fade.

    I never could have imagined there would be gifts in grief, or that I would find surprising paths to healing.

    But all of these things happened. Anniversaries and holidays are still hard, of course. But how I feel on those days has become familiar, as well as the relief I always feel once the anniversary or holiday is over.

  14. Carmella Russell  February 2, 2022 at 8:34 am Reply

    “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.” Favorite words!!

    I have an a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. Mainly because they were my husband’s favorite team. I have picture of them their rookie year hanging on my entry wall. Many will think I’m just a fan which is true. And many will think the jersey numbers 214 represent the Dallas area code. Which is also true! But for me see two members of a team who in a heartfelt way remind me of a loved one. Who left this world on 02/14/2014. It’s next to my daughter’s wedding portrait (I know some make think it’s weird but it works for me) where she is holding her bouquet with a Dallas Cowboys hair band wrapped around the upper stems to remember. Reminders of our husband & father as we learn to thrive and integrate his memory in our lives.

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