- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC
September 22, 2023
It is such a hard truth that loss is inescapable.
Suffering is universal and unavoidable. While grief is an emotional reaction most often associated with death, there are so many other ways we experience grief in our lives. Complicated emotions stemming from loss can permeate so many aspects of living.
Grief from loss is based in love and bonding. "The stronger the attachment, the greater the grief." (Wong, 2008). There is very little we can do to prepare for grief, in particular the finality of a loved one's passing.
Though grief is a natural process that comes from love, there is nothing that feels natural about it. "Pain is essential to grief, but there is more to grieving than just psychological pain" (Cholbi 2017).
Despite its inevitability, the experience of grief can often result in emotional distress and negative health consequences (Li, Li, Wang, Josh & Fang, 2023). If grief persists or leads to increased levels of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, suffering is even greater, which can even lead to chronic illness and more.
Just as every human grieves uniquely, precipitating events also vary. From shocking traumatic losses to long illnesses, grief is often the tip of the iceberg of emotions and spiraling changes in life.
The question often arises, "Is there a right way to grieve?"
While it is important to give yourself grace to grieve in your own unique way, there are healthy and unhealthy coping styles. "Good grief" is referred to as healthy and adaptive styles of coping with loss, while maladaptive or unhealthy coping patterns and thoughts can lead to even more anguish.
"The stakes of grief can be enormously high" (Wong, 2008). "Bad grief can lead to trauma and destruction, while good grief can lead to maturity and creativity." Good grief is what would be considered the best possible outcome for an extremely painful situation.
Early theories of grief included the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stages of grief written for those who were dying (1969). The commonly referred to stages include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
"Few of those who study grief (including Kübler-Ross herself) accept this five-stage model in so simplistic a form" (Cholbi, 2017). "Many people do not experience these particular five steps, do not experience them in this particular order, and some have grief episodes that include other emotional states (for instance, joy or anxiety)." Though the stages are not linear, or experienced by all, this work provided a helpful foundation to the grief field, and helped provide some normalization to those grieving.
Grief is very complex and unique to each individual; emotional pain and suffering is just one difficult part of that complexity.
William Warden's four-phase tasks of mourning (2018) can be helpful in guiding us on the painful journey of grief. These tasks include:
Accepting the reality of the loss. Coming to the acceptance that the loss can be extremely difficult.
Processing the pain of grief. Understanding, identifying, and feeling the pain of grief is so hard. This task is important because ignoring, suppressing, and avoiding can be problematic.
Adjusting to a world without the loved one. Learning to function again by making changes that lead to living after surviving loss.
Help the survivors find an appropriate place for their loved one in their emotional life. Finding a way to remember the loved one lost while continuing to try to thrive in life.
Several "Good Grief" programs have been developed, most of which include a combination of self-compassion, and increasing coping strategies "to better manage grief, address unmet needs (information, respite, social support, psychological support and practical needs) that often arise following the death of a loved one...and make meaning from their loss" (Patterson, McDonald, Kelley-Dalgety, Lavorgna, Jones, Sides, & Powell, 2021).
Transforming grief by way of meaning.
Finding ways to turn loss into meaning can be cathartic. "Basically, it involves the discovery of new meanings and the reconstruction of existing meaning structures" (Wong, 2008). "It requires the re-authoring of one's life story." One profound example was born during the holocaust and has since lead to existential growth for many.
Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning (1946) was written after he survived the holocaust and its atrocities. The existential work initiated by Frankl's logotherapy employs finding meaning through suffering and has since inspired millions of people to find significance through living.
Paul T. Wong (2008) enhanced this work in the years to follow, transforming grief through meaning by proposing a useful process to consider, which includes:
Mourning the loss - there is no timeline on this process, but understanding the numerous emotions one is experiencing is necessary. Mourning involves many emotions, such as those identified in the stages of grief, and more: shock, disbelief, guilt, anger, loneliness, longing, shame, regret, hostility, sadness and so much more.
Accepting the loss - acceptance is the most basic, but the most difficult task of grief that occurs cognitively, emotionally, spiritually, physically, socially, behaviorally, and existentially. Accepting doesn't mean we agree that it happened, but that it is final and there is nothing we can do to change it.
Adjusting to the loss - involves a whole process of trying to live with the loss experienced; making changes and figuring out new dynamics, and working through personal and interpersonal difficulties to take next steps.
Transforming the loss - which Wong sees as fundamental to recovering, and involves
redefining one's own identity and life goals. This often involves channeling psychological
energy, making new connections, developing new plans, and engaging in activities that are
Meaningful transformation of the pain of grief can lead to less suffering.
Meaning is a way to honor the love and bond shared.
"As we grow and age, we grieve the yesterdays and all that entails - the lost loves and missed opportunities, the good friends and broken relationships, the gains and the losses, the good times and the bad" (Wong, 2008). "We remember, therefore, we grieve. But in grieving, we relive what has been lost in time and space."
Grief is among the most pervasive pains and anguish that we humans endure. If we can transform grief into something meaningful, then our pain is no longer in vain. It has been the basis of this writer's life and counseling practice.
It is possible to find meaning through the gratitude of time with a loved one, or feeling changed by having known them, or in someway creating something of meaning for others. Finding the appreciation of support from others, or honoring and showing love for others in your life can be meaningful. Finding big or small ways to commemorate a loved one's life can also be meaningful, like making a memorial, starting a foundation, or other projects in a loved one's honer.
"Ultimately, meaning comes through finding a way to sustain your love for the person after their death while you're moving forward with your life." (Kessler, 2018). "Although your relationship with your loved one will change after death, it will also continue, no matter what." By channeling the pain into something meaningful, it creates a pathway to less suffering.
Whether struggling with loss of a loved one, loss of hopes, dreams, one's identity, stability, health, life you've wished you've had, or in numerous other ways; there can be less suffering through working through the grief in healthy ways and finding ways to make meaning from the grief.
Just because suffering is a "normal" part of living, it does not mean it is something we consistently have to endure. There are healthy ways of easing pain. The journey through difficult emotions to find meaning through healthy grieving will be well worth it, and can lead to a wonderful way to honor the love that ultimately never ends.
Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who provides therapy using evidence-based practices to counsel Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth visits. An empathetic, strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing email@example.com ,
calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting https://www.steppingtowardserenity.org
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