understanding grief

Grieving is a natural and healthy process. However, it is also difficult and it takes time. We hope this page will help you better understand grief, and will aid you in beginning the healing process.

The grief cycle

Bereavement rituals, which are practiced by all societies in a variety of ways, have one common theme. They have tremendous therapeutic value in areas of transition, that is, moving on with one's life. Rituals provide healing, continuity, and balance if the griever believes there is a meaning in them (Van Der Hart 1983).

Moreover, Theresa Rando (1984) offers, "A ritual is a specific behavior or activity that gives symbolic expression to certain feelings and thoughts of the actor or actors, individually, or as a group. It may be habitually repeated or a one-time occurrence" (p. 104). An example of ritual is the committal service (see figure below) in which we take the deceased from the land of the living to the land of the dead (cemetery). We, the living, commit the deceased to another state. We have a processional or parade acknowledging our commitment, then get back in our cars and journey back to the land of the living to live without the one who has died. This is the outward symbol of what we do during the grieving process. In our grief, we let the loved one go to the life hereafter, then we journey back to the land of the living to form new relationships. The committal service happens in the first two or three days after the loss, when the mourners are deep in grief, so it is not easy. Even so, we leave the land of the dead to start our life again. The journey back is what we must strive to complete.

Rituals are an essential element in our journey through the grief process. They provide various means of expressing emotions and talking through our feelings. Rituals give us permission to discharge our distress over the loss. More specifically, rituals permit the following:

For help understanding the emotions that you  may face following the loss of a loved one you are encouraged to visit our Online Aftercare and Counseling site.

  • A well-defined acting outFor instance, sending flowers for the funeral, contributing to a memorial fund, delivering special, home-cooked dishes to the home of the bereaved, and helping with the funeral arrangements are all actions we might take to demonstrate support, comfort and caring. Through these actions, we try to beautify death to make it more palatable. Rituals allow us to experience the closeness we had with the deceased one more time. We celebrate passing into life after death, sensing that our loved one is moving to a better life. "Better is the day of man's death than the day of man's birth" (Ecclesiastes 7:1). Rituals bring us comfort. They initiate the acceptance of our loss.
  • Expression of feelingDuring the ritual, we can express feelings that we might otherwise withhold. Rituals provide an environment in which grieving and crying are acceptable.
  • A rehearsal of the entire grief processEvery ritual is a miniature grief process. It channels grief into a defined activity with a beginning, an ending, and a well-defined purpose.


Many of the people who have studied the emotional status of individuals who have suffered the loss of a loved one have developed a series of emotional stages that an individual will move through during their period of bereavement. The following information is excerpted from Dr. Canines book "I Can. I Will." that explains the 5 main stages of grief.

  • Stage 1: DENIAL"Everyone knows what it means to deny the existence of something. You simply say it isn't so." Denial is normal, even though a person may see the deceased person. However, this should not continue for a long period of time.
  • Stage 2: NUMBNESS"This period can last through the funeral. In fact, it is how survivors actually make it through that funeral week. Numbness is that time when shock has settled into the person's mind. The survivor, in a state of shock, walks through the funeral rites. They do so without energy, and may even suffer from chronic tiredness. No matter how much sleep they get, it seems they need more. At any rate, they continue to do all the arrangements without thinking."
  • Stage 3: SEARCHING"The survivor falls into a kind of 'pit'.  It is a depressed state that the survivor finds themselves in. They question their own validity, have self doubts, and feel guilt and anger. Survivors may dream about a deceased, and the dreams can reveal how the survivors accept the death. Another element of the searching stage deals with loving again. Many times a widow or widower will make the statement that they will never marry again because the spouse could never be replaced, or they will never allow themselves to be vulnerable again, they cannot be hurt. It follows, then, that if they want to escape grieving ever again, they simply need to not love anyone again. Only those people who love can grieve; and, although grieving is not something a person looks forward to, it is better than the alternative, never loving. Grief must become an acceptable and normal part of life and recovery"
  • Stage 4: DISORIENTATIONOur emotions are like a rubber band after death. Part of us pulls to move ahead without the loved one, and part of us pulls toward the past because that is the only way we can think of the deceased. We are restricted in our movement because of this action. In the disorientation stage, there are feelings of confusion, worthlessness, self-accusation and loneliness. When a spouse or child dies, there is often a feeling of 'Why bother going ahead?' But it is the 'going ahead' that is very important to recovery and eventually resolution. The past should not be forgotten nor should it be lived in exclusively or permanently. Reminiscences are fine, but do not dwell in the past. Let go of the past and watch yourself shoot forward."
  • Stage 5: RESOLUTION"It is letting go that resolution can occur. If you do not let go, you will not change, forgive, or understand yourself. The survivor needs to set goals to bring about these areas of letting go. It is important to point out that change should not be too hasty, nor goals too lofty. In the beginning, it is important to take one day at a time. You don't want to feel guilty in this final stage of grief. You want to feel good about yourself and your recovery."

plan of action for the holidays

Knowing that the holidays are a tough time does not make them easier, but perhaps it will help us if we understand and accept our reactions; while planning ways to help ourselves cope. Here is a sample plan:

  • Pace yourself. Adding decorating, entertaining, gift buying and baking to an already busy schedule is asking for exhaustion and disappointment.
  • Let others help you.As the holiday approaches, share your concerns, feelings and apprehensions with a relative or friend. Tell them that this is a difficult time for you. You will appreciate their love and concern.
  • Allow time for memories.Holidays stir up thoughts of people and places long distant. Approach this with a positive attitude and plan tributes to deceased loved ones.
  • New traditions can be started.Intentionally set out to form new patterns. Do things you always wanted to do, but didn't.
  • Organize yourself with a "to do" and a "to don't" list.Get in touch with your needs. Pass up tasks that don't feel right this year.
  • Forget being the Perfect Family.Any problem currently going on will intensify under the stress of the season. Distant relatives may bring more than packages when they visit. Anticipate problem areas and prepare accordingly.
  • Accept your physical limits.Get enough sleep. Holiday feasting can be treacherous, so get in some moderate meals that are healthy for you.
  • Cancel the commercialism.The message to buy has to be tempered with realism. Let someone else do the shopping if it is too much for you. Consider shopping online or through a catalog.
  • Tis the season to feel what you feel. If you don't feel jolly, don't punish yourself for it! The calendar can't mandate our emotions, especially at a time when your life is not on an even keel. Don't feel guilty for feeling good!
  • Isolation dampens the spirit. Solitude is restorative, but make plans to be with friends or volunteer your time through community service.
  • Overdoing has its own "balloon payments".Avoid overeating, over-drinking, overindulgence, over-stimulation and over-scheduling.
  • Nonsense is nourishing!Go to a funny movie or rent a DVD. Play parlor games. Tell jokes and don't be afraid to laugh. Be with people who know how to enjoy life.