When you ask most people what they mean by grief, they’ll usually give you a definition using words like “suffering,” “loss,” or “regret.” But none of those words really captures what we mean by bereavement. It feels more like a process than just one thing.
Grief first entered the language more than 1,200 years ago. Back then, people used it to describe hardship and pain. Over the years, it became increasingly associated with death and mourning, to the point now where the two are synonymous.
In that time, a few people have attempted to define what people actually experience when they go through grief. Each time they’ve tried, though, they’ve come up against a stumbling block. Either their definitions are too narrow, or they fail to adequately capture what we mean when we refer to the process of bereavement. It’s always missing something.
Towards A New Definition
Grief, though, is a psychological phenomenon. Something distinct is going on in the minds of the people who experience it. The question is, what? How do you put something like that into words?
The state-of-the-art definition of grief is that it is a healing process that moves a person from denial to acceptance. When you first learn of a tragedy in your life, your mind instinctively tries to avoid looking at it directly. Instead, you go into a protective mode, denying what’s happened and pretending that it’s not real. It’s too much to deal with all in one go.
Then, over time, you begin to allow new thoughts to enter your mind. Sometimes you feel violated, producing anger. Other times, you try to reason your way out of the situation. Eventually, though, most people fall into a profound depression. Life seems to lose its wonder, and you struggle to find the energy to even get out of bed.
At this point, many people turn to virtual psychiatrists to help them through profound periods of pain. But the progression tends to be similar for most people. Ultimately, the majority come to accept what’s happened. And, in time, that’s how healing happens.
The goal of grief isn’t to eliminate negative feelings or pretend that life is always enjoyable. Instead, it is to accept a tragic loss and move on regardless. Our society places enormous pressure on people to get through their grief and then carry on with their lives as usual. But, our emotions don’t always want to play ball. Grief can linger, even after the person has genuinely accepted what has happened. And that’s okay. When somebody you love dies or betrays you, or you miss out on a significant opportunity, it represents a real, irreversible loss. There is often nothing you can do to make amends. And that feels uncomfortable because it robs you of your power.
Grief, therefore, is a healing process of acceptance. The conclusion of grief, however, is not returning to your life before the catastrophic event. Instead, it is moving on in a positive and functional way that allows you to focus on what matters.