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What is ‘grief’?

I wrote a post a couple of weeks back about the 5 stages of grief (the Kubler-Ross method) and why it needed to be retired as our model for understanding grief. If you haven’t read it yet then take a look here.

As I explained, the model is misused, misunderstood, and outdated.  But there was a question left that needed properly answering and that question is….if grief isn’t a series of stages after losing someone…then what is it?  For so long our definition of grief has been based around this model (most answers to the ‘what is grief’ question will work themselves around this)…but if that isn’t what grief is….then what is grief?  How can we define it?

I have an answer for you.  But before I give you my answer we need to take a great big step back from the pain of grief and what has brought it on (a death), as death becomes such a big topic for most people that it’s hard to take a proper rational look at anything to do with it.

Just like your own relationship is hard to analyse from the inside, and your business is tough to see objectively when you’re standing smack bang in the middle of it, so too is grief impossible to understand objectively when you are stuck right in it. To get any rational definition that isn’t emotion driven you need to step away and look at it from another space.  So let’s step all the way away from it…..all the way into another space…literally

Join me in my spaceship.  Imagine, for a minute (longer if you fancy it) that you and I are aliens.  Be a little green man if you want. I’m thinking more a tall golden-glowing figure.  Anyway, we are on our way to earth to try to understand the human race. We do not have emotions or feel any physical pain.  We have no attachment to others or to objects, so we feel no emotional pain over events either. In our world we merely analyse what is happening and make the next practical decision.  We feel no upset, no happy, no sad, no discomfort.  We aren’t designed that way. We have come to study humans to understand what ‘pain’ is and how they experience it. (We checked ‘happy’ out last time – that was pretty interesting).

(That’s you driving. I’m in the back)

The first thing we check out is purely physical pain.  And here is what we find.  Pain is pain is pain. There are just different extremes/variations of it.   Physical pain, at it’s simplest, is an unpleasant sensory experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.  So though the pain from stubbing a toe, breaking a rib, burning your hand, or giving birth to a baby may have very different intensities and impacts, the reason why (on a physical level) something is experienced as pain in the body is the same.  (When you remove yourself from feeling the pain you see it for what it is, basically it’s all about a series of electrical and chemical exchanges involving your nerves, the spinal cord and the brain. Right, back to being an alien…)


Then we move on to study emotional pain.  As aliens (remember we are still aliens) this concept is no more or less tricky than understanding physical pain. We want to understand the root cause, not the impact, to understand what this concept means.  And this is what we find….

All emotional pain, be it from a minor disappointment or embarrassment, to a relationship breakup, to a death, is made up of the same three things – emotions, thoughts, and questions (we put questions separate from thoughts as these are the bigger questions like ‘why?’ or ‘what does this mean about me?’ or ‘how did this happen?’).  Now what these emotions, thoughts, and questions are and the intensity and impact of them are completely different depending on the event/situation…but at their root all emotional pain seems to be based on emotions, thoughts and questions.

And as we watch these humans we learn something else fascinating….that emotions can be healed, transformed, or shifted.  And that thoughts can be changed.  And that all questions, no matter how deep or tricky, have an answer.  Many of the humans don’t seem to realise this though, or don’t want to…..but we’ve watched long enough and can see it clearly.  They think this stuff can be changed when these emotions, thoughts and questions are of a simple or superficial nature…that makes perfect sense to them…but for some reason, when it is, by their judgements, a much more serious matter (like a death) all the logic goes out the window and they decide that nothing can be done and that none of these emotions or thoughts can be changed and none of these questions can be answered. In fact they insist that they must hang on to these thoughts, emotions, and questions…until time makes them fade but never resolves them.  It is the oddest thing.

As aliens, we leave very very confused about what we have just seen.

Right, back in your head.  If my story seems silly or strange or even childish it is because I am trying to cut away all the emotions and fears that pop up when we discuss death and grief and just get down to the nuts and bolts of what grief really is.  Often I speak to coaches who are so clear on the changes people can make in their lives in so many areas…but when it comes to death they start wringing their hands and reverting to the ‘nothing can be done’ way of thinking.

Grief is not stages. Or a state. Or a prison. Or a way of life.

Grief is a collection of very specific (to each person) emotions, thoughts and questions, after you have lost someone you love.

That’s it.  That is my definition of grief / bereavement. Yes, these emotions are intense, gripping and consuming, these thoughts can be prolonged, painful and pervasive, and these questions come from very, very deep inside of us….but this doesn’t change the fact that they are what they are – emotions, thoughts, and questions.

And don’t forget what the aliens could see so clearly.  Emotions can be transformed, thoughts can be changed, and questions can be answered………….




Hildi Rowland February 18, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Haha, thank you for your humorous out of world perspective on this. Interesting to take a (birds eye) extraterrestrial view on grief. Something that i’ve been contemplating around loss, through breakup or death or moving away is the following “you can’t feel a loss unless you’re unhappy with who you are without them, be it person or thing”. Who am I as a person without those things and people in my life? And am I grieving them err no longer “existing” in my life or the part of me that I believed existed because of having them in my life and that part of my identity? What helps me is knowing that I exist without their having to be physically present and the part of me that existed with/through/because of them also still exists without their physical presence. Mainly because their contribution to me and my life is forever and I identify with them dead or alive, I am still very much my fathers daughter and I love hearing about his life and experiences and how that is passed on to who I am. It’s not a complete thought process, nor would I say that is the only element in my experience of grief, but perceived loss of self definitely plays a role in my experience of grief. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Kristie West February 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Hey Hildi,
how did I miss this comment? Thanks for commenting!
Great question too. Usually we all imagine our emotions are totally a reaction to what goes on around us…and our relationship to those things and people. But the more people I work with…and the more stuff I go through in my own life…the more I see that a huge part of the way we react to what life throws at us has to do with how we feel about ourselves and ….not to sound too touchy-feely….how much we love ourselves.
Most people don’t actually like so many parts of themselves that actually truly loving themselves is a ridiculous impossible push. And the world gets way harder the less you love yourself.

So…how that fits into grief: the less we love ourselves the more likely we are to identify with the people in our lives, knowledge we have, things we have, plans we are making, etc, etc as actually being us, as making us worth something, as making us whole. Without all that we aren’t actually sure what or who we would be…or whether we would be worth anything …or even exist at all. (There are times I know I have said ‘I’d be nothing without my friends’. Really? Nothing??) And when we lose any of those things…that we felt made us complete…..then the loss is that much harder. That is a totally simplistic and brief explanation of something I could write loads about! (There will be a whole chapter on it in my book)….but it’s a start.

So yes I totally agree with you…and though it is only one part of what goes on in grieving….it is certainly a valid and almost never considered part.


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