By Larry Dawalt, M. Div., CT, CTSS
Having been in the ‘grief business’ for much of my adult life, I am consistently looking for words to help people understand what grief is and also what it is not. While there is no single absolute definition that covers grief in its entirety, I recently found three explanations in a blog by Russell Friedman that are certainly important contributions to the discussion. His first and most basic definition states that
‘Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind. Of itself, grief is neither a pathological condition nor a personality disorder.’
While that definition works in a classroom setting, it doesn’t exactly explain seemingly endless tears, sleepless nights, and the morning startle of awakening to find him/her still gone. The second definition is more personal and a little closer to reality, writing that
‘Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.’
I can apply that one a little easier than the first one, but it’s still not as good as his last one.
“There’s another definition of grief that’s so descriptive that we include it in all of our books, and usually quote it in every public speech we make. It’s a piece of language that we didn’t create, but if we knew who first said it, we’d give them credit. ‘Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who’s always been there, only to discover when I need her (or him) one more time, they are no longer there.’ As poignant as that statement is in giving words to feelings, it can be reversed and used for a different, painful situation; as when a long-term relationship has never been good, in which case it can be stated as: ‘Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who has never been there for me, only to discover when I need them one more time, they still aren’t there for me.”
I get cold chills reading that definition as I see the faces, hear the voices and feel the feelings of dozens and dozens of dear souls I have worked with over the years. Grief is tough and while I can’t describe it completely, I have come up with a few ‘Larryism’s’ that I consistently share in my grief talks.
“When grief is new, words should be few.”
“Grief is as individual as the relationship that brought it about.”
“Grief is initially about the last chapter, but to really celebrate a life you have to look at the whole book.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking about grief as the path to re-connectedness; learning to trust again, and take one more chance that there may be someone out there you want to let into your life as a lover, friend, mentor, confidant, or just someone who makes you want to get out of your pajamas or jogging suit and live and laugh and care again. Whatever definition you use, please know that there are people out there- neighbors, friends, people at a community of faith, counselors and others- who are willing to walk beside you; not as guides, but as companions on your journey of mourning the loss of someone you love. You are on a unique path, but you are not alone.
Larry Dawalt is Senior Director of Spiritual & Grief Care Services for Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region. He joined the organization in 1997 and has served as Camp Director of Chameleon’s Journey since 2000.