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Can You Tell Me About Grief?

By Larry Dawalt, Senior Director of Spiritual & Grief Care Services

‘Can you tell me about grief’ is a question I hear often, especially since I have been a grief counselor for a very long time. It is a sincere question, asked at times out of exasperation because people generally want to know, and are desperate for relief from the suffering they are experiencing.

Without getting into the basics of grief theory, my first answer would be that grief is about relationship and that makes grief as individual as the relationship that brought it about. I recently read an article by Emily R. Long that describes it well:

“Every relationship between any two people is completely unique and individual. That also means that every experience of loss and grief is also completely unique and individual. Everyone grieves in their own unique way. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, no set timeline, and no clear-cut path to walk on one’s journey with grief.”

So, what does that mean in terms of day-to-day functioning? It means that while there are certainly some observable commonalities in grief such as initial shock and numbness, sadness and sorrow, anger, loneliness, and maybe even a situational depression, there are also feelings of relief, gratitude, and even celebration and joy for a life well lived that people also express.. To say ‘my grief is not like theirs’ is not only true, but also logical because the relationship was different, and the survivors are unique individuals who grieve in unique ways. What we want is for it to be easily explainable, with simple instructions and a workable action plan so we can feel better and get on with our lives.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

I attended a memorial service in September for a young man who died tragically in a vehicular accident. His mother and girlfriend both gave eulogies and five of his friends went to the microphone to share remembrances as well. Some could barely talk at times while others were able to deliver their words with strength. But you never know exactly what is going on because all we could see and hear was the exterior- on the surface.

That brings me to my other answer to the question, and the reason I keep a little duck figurine in my office. Grief is like a duck swimming across the water. The duck may look majestic, serene and in control, but you have no idea how hard it is paddling underneath.

I occasionally run across the quote that basically says, ‘treat everyone with kindness, because you have no idea what they are going through. Those words are especially true as to how we should treat those who are grieving. We just don’t know the whole story because grief is as individual as the relationship that brought it about. So, we extend kindness, listen to the stories, and never forget that we have no idea how hard they are paddling underneath.

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