Grief Has A Mind of Its Own

August 10th, 2011

You can’t control grief. It has a mind of its own. It runs its own timetable and its own unpredictable patterns. There was a famous episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show in the 1970s. Chuckles the clown meets his demise when he dresses as a peanut and is shelled by one of the circus elephants. At the funeral, the minister mentions some of Chuckle’s achievements,

Chuckles the Clown brought pleasure to millions. The characters he created will be remembered by children and adults alike: Peter Peanut, Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo, Billy Banana, and my particular favorite, Aunt Yoo Hoo. And not just for the laughter they provided—there was always some deeper meaning to whatever Chuckles did. Do you remember Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo’s little catch phrase? Remember how, when his arch rival Señor Kaboom hit him with a giant cucumber and knocked him down, Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo would always pick himself up, dust himself off, and say, ‘I hurt my foo-foo’? Life’s a lot like that. From time to time we all fall down and hurt our foo-foos. If only we could deal with it as simply and bravely and honestly as Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo. And what did Chuckles ask in return? Not much. In his own words, ‘A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.’

Mary Tyler Moore can barely contain her laughter during the eulogy, muffling her chuckles. The minister finally stops his eulogy and asks Mary to stand up. He tells her that Chuckles would want joy and laughter, and gives her full permission to laugh freely. After getting permission to laugh as much as she wants, Mary suddenly begins to weep inconsolably. Grief is like that. That is partly why some people need to laugh at funerals, and other people in grief find themselves crying at random times without warning. Robert Fulghum said, “Laughter is the cure for grief.” It’s certainly one of the cures. Shakespeare also had some truth when he said, “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”

Some people say that grief has stages that follow a fairly predictable pattern. Michael Scott, in the episode about grief on the comedy The Office, described his version of the stages of grief-

There are five stages to grief, which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And right now, out there, they’re all denying the fact that they’re sad. And that’s hard, and it’s making them all angry. And it is my job to get them all the way through to acceptance. And if not acceptance, then just depression. If I can get them depressed, then I’ll have done my job.

He is quoting the (serious) Elisabeth Kubler Ross stages of grief-

  • Denial (this isn’t happening to me!)
  • Anger (why is this happening to me?)
  • Bargaining (I promise I’ll be a better person if this stops happening to me…)
  • Depression (I can’t handle what is happening to me)
  • Acceptance (I’m ready to accept what is happening to me and whatever comes)

Kubler Ross’s writing was specifically focused around people as they face the prospect of their own death. The stages were later applied more generally to grief, but this wasn’t Kubler Ross’s focus. Even as they relate to the dying process, the stages are only general markers and should not be applied legalistically. There are no hard and fast rules in relation to grief. If your elderly parent dies peacefully in her sleep, you may not feel any anger and many people skip denial, anger and bargaining and move straight to depression. Grief doesn’t proceed in an orderly way. You may go back and forth between denial and depression, or have days of acceptance followed by tough days of sadness. A favorite song or a particular place might trigger memories and sudden sadness. Holidays may be difficult times to contemplate. People experiencing deep grief often become forgetful about daily chores, suffer from insomnia and loss of appetite, all of which compound the challenge of grief.

There is a beautiful movie, starring John Cusack, called Grace is Gone. The husband (Stanley) and two young daughters are forced to deal with the absence of their wife and mother who is serving in Iraq. They each have their own way of handling this grief. The 6 year old sets her alarm to a set time each day when she and her mother think about each other. The 10 year old walks at night, when she can’t sleep. When Stanley sees two soldiers at his front door, he knows that the news is not good.

He doesn’t know how to tell the girls. He doesn’t even know how to deal with it himself. So he packs the girls in the car and they drive to Florida. They have all sorts of spontaneous adventures and tender moments, but he still doesn’t tell his daughters about their mom’s death. When they stop at gas stations, he slips away to a payphone and calls home. He hears Grace’s voice on the machine and bears his soul to her, asking her what to do, how to talk to the girls, begging her forgiveness, admitting his feelings of inadequacy. He finally finds a way to tell the girls and they hug and cry on the beach.

I love the movie because it feels like an honest, authentic portrayal of grief. It captures the messy feeling of sadness and confusion that most people feel after loss, and certainly something like what I felt when my best friend died in an old refrigerator at age 6, and when my childhood dog died, and when my grandparents died. I gathered with my siblings on my parent’s bed when my grandfather died, and we lounged in our grief, shared random memories, laughed at his idiosyncrasies, and cried when we thought of what we would never get to say to him. It helped to share an unplanned time of grieving.

No one can tell you how to grieve. Anne Lamott said it well,

 Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore.

What is good grief? The first truth of good grief is to be fully present to the pain. The second is that you are not alone, no matter how lonely it feels at times. The third truth of good grief is that its YOUR experience of grief, grief that follows your timetable with honesty and self awareness. Most of us jump around from shock to outright pain to acceptance or numbness to chaos to acceptance. And that’s okay.

Be patient with yourself and others. Maybe there is no such thing as full acceptance of loss. Acceptance may be a mythical town, somewhere in the nonexistent state of closure. The expectation of an end to grief may just add more pressure and guilt. Maybe acceptance is the mini victories of human courage; getting through a day without crying, or managing your first Christmas alone better than you expected.

However it manifests for you, be patient with yourself and allow your mind, body and spirit to heal in its own time and its own way.

As Deepak Chopra says,

Grief falls into the rare category of being a necessary suffering. You have to go through it before you can release it back to the light.

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  1. One of the best written articles on grief that I have ever read. Thank you for sharing this on Twitter where I found it posted.  I retweeted it and also shared it on my Facebook page.  If you are okay with it, I would also like to share a link to this post on my blog Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker.  As an incest survivor, much of my own healing has come about through the process of grieving the losses in my life.  Child abuse brings about all kinds of losses, especially when it is a parent who does the abusing. So many people just want you to hurry up and get through the grief stage so that they don’t have the reminder of their own hurts and losses. What they don’t seem to realize is that child abuse has major losses which means that the grieving process can take months to years depending upon how long the survivor has stuffed or denied her/his feelings.  Talking, for me, was how I let out the grief.  After holding everything inside for almost 40 years, I had a lot of grief to let out. When I started to talk, it was like someone had opened flood gates. The strength of the water was so strong, that I was no longer in control of it. The grief was a power of its own pouring out of me to anyone who would listen in the beginning.  I was blessed to have people in my life who cared enough to see me through the grieving process. Thank you for your article on grief.

  2. ian says:

    thank you Patricia- Im honored if you share the article and i’m glad if it helps you and others. I’m sure you are now returning the gift to others, by listening to them the way you were listened to. You sound strong and wise from your grief.

  3. Here is the link to my post with its link back to here:
    The title of my article is “Grieving Is A Major Part of Healing From Abuse. 

  4. [...] Grief Has A Mind of Its Own, Ian Lawton Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  5. Thanks for this article. The worst grief I ever experienced was the break-up of a relationship with someone I gave my whole heart and self to. It was worse than the death of my best friend who died of cancer, I think becuase the love was still so very much alive inside of me….and I was the one who broke it off. I found the poetry of Bohemian-Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke particularly comforting. Here’s a small extract of how it felt for me working through grief.

    “It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, – is already in our bloodstream. And we don’t know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate.”

  6. ian says:

    thanks for your honesty and the awesome Rilke quote. I also find Rilke to be the most moving poet when it comes to grief. I quoted Rilke in the previous piece on grief. Take care Annalie

  7. This is a great article, and I am sure it will help many people.  This will help many people who are feeling the pain of divorce, since it is so prevalent these days.

  8. I too found this to be one of the best articles on grief that I have ever come across. My one and only husband died, and I spent a couple of crippling years not being able to imagine ever meeting or dating someone again. Eventually, I found my way into the life I was living, and I began online dating. Many people, who always knew me as married, weren’t extremely understanding. And it has been an interesting ride – both people’s reactions and the dates. I’m not looking for another husband right now, but I am enjoying my life as my husband would want me to. I have had such an entertaining, and sometimes disasterous, ride that I ended up publishing a book. It hasn’t been easy, but through the unconditional love of my family I have found strength and my passion for life again.

  9. This was a great article. Giving meaning to our suffering is vital to our growth as a whole. Understanding the adversity in our lives leads to personal acceptance, freedom and fulfillment. Feelings of fear, anger and resentment are replaced with the motivation to extract as much meaning as possible from each earthly experience. This shift removes us from the victim role and places us in the driver’s seat of our own lives. But how we get there is different for all of us.

  10. In response to Cindy Lucy:  I am glad you have found the strength to move forward.  I find it sad that some people were not understanding when you were ready to date again.  That seems to happen a lot.  Nobody knows what people are going through unless they have gone through it themselves.  If something were to happen to me, I would want my husband to move forward, when he is ready, not when people think he should.  Whether it be 2 months or 2 years, only he can determine that.  Please forward me the name of your book, I would love to read it.  Good luck to you!!

  11. ian says:

    hi Cindy Lucy, i was away from computer for a few days so couldnt respond. What an awe inspiring story. You are an inspiration. I would love to read your book. I will check your blog,

  12. Dutchess68 says:

    In my view, I think one of the reasons people feel so uncomfortable with grief is because they think it is a place they will get stuck.  Once you can allow yourself to realize that it is a state of permanent flux, a place you can visit and leave,  the fear of it will dissipate.  Allowing yourself to feel all of your feelings, even the yucky ones, is key to positive self-development.

  13. ifelicious says:

    great article on grief! i will be sharing it on my social networks. i lost my 27 yr old sister last Dec (just before xmas) unexpectedly and it’s just been hard. there’s some allowable fews months of grieving people seem to honor then they just assume you’re ok. truth is, you’re never ok. and laughter was certainly a great comfort in all of the sadness. thanks for writing this.

  14. Thanks, Ian and My Favorite Bedding. It has definitely been a tough road to hoe. So I keep going to Home Depot and buying more hoes. My local store is sold out! On a more serious note, I am currently happy and I know that my husband would expect this of me. Luckily, I also have two wonderful and supportive sons. The name of my book is Plenty of Carp: A Fishing Guide for Dating Singles.

  15. Ian, I could have my publicist send you a copy of my book. I know that my publicist has been seeking reviews, interviews and guest blogging opportunities for me. Would you be interested? You can email me at the yahoo email I used to leave a comment here.

  16. [...] I write this post. I’m reminded that grief has a mind of its own. [...]

  17. Caroline says:

    Thank you. 

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