When launching a new grief support group, I often begin by asking participants to complete the sentence “Grief is…” Invariably participants will respond by saying “painful,” “debilitating,” “dark,” “surprising,” “more common than you would have thought before personally experiencing it,” “time-consuming,” “demanding,” “energy-draining,” “the result of any significant loss in life,” and “unique to the individual.”
Each one of these responses is accurate because grief has as many facets as there are people. Each individual and situation is unique and therefore each person’s grief process is unique as well. In my work as a grief counselor, I am constantly reminding myself that “If you have met one griever… you have met one griever.”
That being the case, I have also found that most grievers are simultaneously working through four tasks of grief as they process the loss that has occurred in their life. This is a helpful framework which I have adapted from William Worden’s task based model.
While I will describe each task individually, bear in mind that most people who have experienced a loss find themselves engaging in each task throughout their grief process, and even throughout the course of the rest of their lives. To remember each task, I use the initials B.F.A.R.
“B” stands for “Believing the Loss has actually occurred.” It is not unusual for grievers to say “I just can’t believe she is gone.” I often will ask about the progression of the lost loved one’s illness as well as recollections of the funeral or memorial service as a means of helping the bereaved talk about and eventually cognitively accept the reality of the loss.
“F” stands for “Feelings.” “Cognitive acceptance” is helpful, but it is even more essential that the griever “Feel the Feelings” that result from the loss. The four primary human emotions are “Anger, Sadness, Gladness, and Fear.” Grievers are usually feeling some combination and variation of these four primary emotions. Author Melody Beattie, in her book “The Language of Letting Go” writes, “How do we grieve? Awkwardly, Imperfectly, Usually with a great deal of resistance. Often with anger and attempts to negotiate. Ultimately, by surrendering to the pain.”
“A” stands for “Adjusting to life without the deceased.” Usually the loss of a loved one casts a whole new set of responsibilities upon the person left behind. Learning to buy groceries, cook, managing the family finances, taking the car in for service, and navigating an altered world of social relationships are all examples of unwanted but necessary adjustments that precipitate from the loss. These adjustments often elicit an emotional response. It is not unusual to feel anger at the deceased welling up inside while standing before the infinite choices of salad dressings at the grocery store or attempting to decipher one more incomprehensible mutual fund statement.
“R” stand for “Emotionally Relocating the deceased into one’s life.” The loved one is physically gone from the life of the bereaved, yet their influence and legacy continues. When my clients begin to be able to speak realistically about their loved one – neither blaming them for all of the difficulties they encounter nor nominating them for sainthood – I begin to sense progress in this task. Clients will say things like “I am so sad that he died, but I am so glad that we had so many years together and for the gifts he gave.”
My group participants also often complete the sentence “Grief is…” by saying “something I want to get over with as soon as possible,” and “something I realize I will never get over.”
This is accurate as well. I have never witnessed someone joyfully and enthusiastically engaging in their grief process. But I have observed that those who embrace the process are able to transform their grief and find serenity. Grieving is not simply a process but indeed part of being fully alive. Author Geraldo May sums it up this way: “Grief is neither a ‘disorder’ nor a ‘healing process.’ It is a sign of health itself, a whole and natural gesture of love.”
Phil Hohulin, DMin, is a chaplain and grief counselor at Hospice of the Miami Valley and guest columnist. The Hospice of the Miami Valley provides grief counseling to the community free of charge.