Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Move on from Grief? You Don't Have To.

Your grief is your own and no one has the right to say otherwise. No one should ever tell you it is time to move on. The anguish you feel may bum out family members and friends, and be seen as a challenge to psychiatrists and grief counselors, but if you do not feel like moving on you don't have to. If that fact inconveniences others it is their problem.

Now, please understand: Many therapists, counselors, and peers provide excellent support for those in grief. They would never insist that anyone in grief needs to “move on.” They might prove very resourceful should you seek their help understanding your grief, learning to live with it, working through it, finding your place in the world. It is not to these fine individuals that I speak.

Nor do I speak for every person in grief. How could I? Each person grieves in his or her own way. Me too. It is my own grief that prompts me to write that I have no intention of moving on from the complicated feelings I have about the death of my daughter, my only child. I hurt, I cry, I laugh, I love, I grow. I live. Moving “past”or “beyond” my grief – or getting over it - is not part of this picture.

Some in deep grief have a strong desire for an end to their pain. For whatever reason – unquenchable optimism, a religious conviction that God will provide healing, a powerful spiritual experience, a need to do what their deceased loved ones “would want them to do,” or because they have families to take care of and feel the need to appear “normal” – some people in grief are drawn to healing. They wish to move on.

“Being healed” and “moving on” from grief is fine if that is one's choice.

Others, however, hold tight to grief. Their losses are too great for them to consider “letting go.” Faced with such primal questions as whether they should stay alive after losing the ones they lived for, these bereaved parents, children, siblings, cousins, spouses, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and friends, find that the everyday assumptions they held before death struck seem now to lack meaning and immediacy. Going to job? Being productive? Being a good consumer, a model family member, a team player? Such notions can seem suddenly empty and bizarre to those who have lost the loves of their lives. To some in grief, society itself can appear as a meaningless accretion, a game people play that allows them to almost never face the fact that they and all their loved ones will someday die.

Death and grief can bring about, in some, the need for profound reappraisal of all they once took for granted. It can stimulate speculation of the most existential kind. Whereas before the loss of their precious ones they never gave much thought about the fundamental assumptions of culture and society, and even existence itself, they might now be pondering such thoughts as, “Should I carry on? Why? Are there compelling reasons for me to do so? If there are such reasons, how do I find them?”

For those drawn to face considerations as serious as life itself, thoughts about “getting over” one's grief, “moving on,” and “being healed” may never enter their minds; and if they do, may seem like absurd notions from another universe. To some they may seem like further torment to be endured for the sake of others.

What's more, the extreme, off-the-charts emotional pain of a loved one's death, based in raw immeasurable love, may come to be the most significant connection one might feel with the deceased, and be a very compelling reason to stay alive. Precious by virtue of intensity and association.

The death of a loved one – a child let us say - can be the single most potent event in a person's life; it may not eclipse the importance of the child's birth, but love for the child, and memories of the child's birth and participation in the world, may actually intensify the parents' feelings of loss and pain by alluding to all that has been lost, creating a massive confusion of feelings both wonderful and hellish. Compared with the stark and brutal reality of a loved one's death, most everything else in life may appear trivial. The world may seem crazy, insensate, with its machine-like tendency to move around and around on its axis and circle the Sun; and its people – focused a great deal on the pursuit of pleasure (at least in several of the developed nations) – can seem to embody the very idea of meaninglessness.

The pain of grief can sometimes seem the only thing the bereaved have to hold onto. And why shouldn't they hold on? Who else has the right to say they shouldn't – that they are “sick,” that they need treatment, that they need to be “healed”?

Grief can be a powerful connection with our dead loved ones. Sacred. Something that can be explored anew each day in an attempt to connect more deeply with the lives of our dead, and to search through for reasons why we are given life only to have it inevitably snatched away. The continuous and ever-changing nature of the way we honor dead family members and friends, and the central questions of existence we explore as we grieve, may either kill us or give us strength to carry on. And no one else is in a position to decide these things for us, unless of course we want them to, and they are willing to try.

Psychiatrists, bereavement counselors, clergy, family members, and friends may view our attachment to grief as a pathology, an illness, a morbid and unhealthy condition to be “treated.” In fact the year 2000 revision of the DSM IV – the (1994) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association – retains language to the effect that any grief lasting beyond two months should be diagnosed as "depression." Whether or not a person in grief has depression, and sometimes it is the case that they do, it is cruel for the APA and those who follow the DSM recommendations to make this decision for them; the list of symptoms which the book uses to diagnose depression rather than grief looks pretty much like the symptoms of those in grief! To automatically call it "depression" gives members of the medical and healing communities the false justification they may be looking for in order to prescribe antidepressants and psychotherapy to those in grief. This may prove beneficial for the pharmaceutical companies, but not necessarily for the bereaved, as with grief over the death of a child, in which the parents and siblings may experience such symptoms for years. It also affects the policy-making decisions used by the attorneys and doctors who write the DSM, and influences the way politicians and corporations determine their policies for bereavement leave. Does the diagnosis of depression after two months sound arbitrary? The authors preparing the DSM V are implying that two weeks is actually sufficient - and after that, the bereaved, including bereaved parents, have "depression."

Parents who have lost children (and there are many other scenarios of loss that apply) may be harmed immeasurably by a society that would have them “get beyond” the deaths of their children.

As if we can shut off the most intense emotions of our entire lives like turning off a hot-water spigot! As if the lives and memories of our loved ones are less important than our former culturally-sanctioned pursuits of making money and contributing to the GNP! This prevailing medical view of long-term grief as an “illness” is perhaps our Western society's greatest example of the avoidance of death, and demonstrates that society itself may be the sick entity, based as it is on the spurious assumptions of a largely consumerist, death-avoiding culture.

Thank goodness that enlightened members of the bereavement community are working hard so the APA will eliminate this disastrous language in the DSM V, due out in 2013. It is something we need to follow up on; we must keep up pressure on the APA to instead use language explaining that experiences of grief are unique for each person, and may have no limits on duration or intensity.

The bereaved individual might be quite the opposite of sick: it is possible that, in being led by severe grief to question the tenets of existence, he or she is having an awakening of sorts. Remember the science fiction movie “They Live,” in which the guy finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see what the messages really say on signs, television, and food-packaging? Things like, “Consume;” “Stay Asleep;” “Submit to Authority.” Everyone else thinks he's crazy – until they too put on the glasses and see for themselves.

Many in our society, including some bereavement counselors, are like those citizens in the movie who blithely maintain their socially-approved views of life until they themselves put on the glasses, which reveal conditions shockingly different from anything they ever imagined. When the glasses of grief are worn, they can make apparent such unnoticed yet persistent assumptions as, "Deny Death," "Get Over Your Grief," "Appear Happy No Matter What."

When the bereaved do hold onto their grief, learning just how much they love and wish to honor their deceased loved ones – and when they use these feelings and thoughts as springboards for reevaluating their lives – they may find that they have no intentions of submitting to any predefined notions of how one should grieve. That is quite alright. Their awakenings may be deeply personal, and they may conclude, rightly, that family members, friends, and therapists do not have the right to interfere with their discoveries, unless of course the bereaved are intending to physically harm themselves, or others.

If those who love you say that they want the “old you” back, or suggest it's time for you to "move on," thinking they know what's best for you, you needn't give in to their entreaties even though you love them, too, and don't wish them to suffer. Their grief is secondary grief, and you, as the primary person in grief, should not have to bear their grief for you on top of what you already have. Doing so creates a kind of secondary grief in yourself, as well.

At Friends Along the Road, we will never suggest that people should “move on,” "get over” their grief, or “be healed.” If healing is what our clients truly want, then this is wonderful and we will gratefully provide them with resources, including referrals to qualified therapists and counselors who specialize in healing options for the bereaved. But if the clients want to fully explore the loss of their loved ones at their own speed, in their own ways, then we will offer them safe places – temporary or permanent – in which to do so. We regard each person's grief as a sacred event, something possibly far more precious than fitting back into society as a good worker/consumer, and we believe that each grieving individual has the potential to write his or her best manual on grieving.

Sometimes, the best thing to do to help those in grief is to make them as safe and comfortable as possible, be present for them to the extent they desire, and get out of their way while they make their own journeys of discovery. Will this enable all our clients to emerge from grief as better, more sensitive and caring, more whole individuals? Or to even emerge? No. But we won't be attempting to control experiences that are essentially their own. By allowing them to simply grieve, in the ways only they can know are best for them, they may actually decide to live. In some cases to live more fully. And in the best possible outcomes, to surprise everyone with their transformations. Who knows what to expect? I certainly don't. By not expecting, we allow the possibility of the wonderfully unexpected.

To learn more about sanctuary and caring support for those in grief, and about creating Sanctuary Anywhere for the grieving, please visit Friends Along the road on the Internet at


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  5. Dave, How do you move on from the hurt and anger?

  6. Hi! Forgive me for taking so long to reply; I just saw your question. In my view, grief isn't something one must by necessity move on from. Each experience, no matter how dreadful, is part of who we are. I consider myself to be in part the sum of my experiences, including the death of my daughter. I have no desire whatsoever to "get over" her death. In fact, the pain is a powerful connection with her, and informs me in my work with the bereaved. If people wish to "move on," that is their decision, as it should be, but no one in grief should feel pressured by the presumpions of society how they should grieve, including "getting over it." For me, "getting over" my daughter's death would be like amputating a body part. And for what? So I can return to replacing widgets for soulless corporations? No, my world stopped when Lilli died, and it has brought about an awakening that has put me on the path of offering support to those in grieve. My world remains stopped because for me, my work trumps the importance of the smooth functioning of a mechanistic society that cannot bear to think of death or be reminded of it by the grief of others.