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Understanding the Process of Grief

Modern society is a “death denying and death-defying society”1. We speed along highways, eat fats and sugars to excess, overwork, smoke, pollute, and inject toxins into our faces all with the childish façade that death happens to other people. This is not to say that we ignore death – in fact it is constantly in our faces with up to the second media and technology reporting all the tragedies around the world. Yet, families seem to spend little time discussing death with each other. For instance, how often have we heard a friend of a bereaved person say “Do not talk to them about the loss – it will only upset him/her”?

It is in this larger context of ambiguity that one must suffer with the grief. Modern society often does not provide for awareness of recovery or support. This form of “institutionalized denial” 2 is fostered by the lack of education about bereavement, lack of faith, and unrealistic media.

This paper addresses death and the grieving process. Understanding the process of grief helps to break down the misconceptions of death and bereavement that society holds so dearly – in a frantic fear of what it does not know. It is the hope that by better understanding this process, families can better fight against society’s desires to rush through life, but rather appreciate God’s gifts of human emotional processing.

The Process of Grief

Before moving forward, it must be noted that although there is believed to be a basic outline or process by which grief manifests itself, this by no means normalizes or makes concrete individual experiences. There are many qualities such as culture, personality differences, type of relationship with the lost loved one, and how the death occurred – just to name a few – that affect the intensity, longevity, and process of mourning. Nevertheless, the grief timeline is a useful way to describe the process of grief at it offers a general picture of the mourning experience.

Shock Phase

During the initial, or shock phase, the bereaved usually demonstrate the culturally appropriate and expected emotions associated with grief. Numbness, sadness, fatigue, loneliness, anger, anxiety, and guilt are often felt and may persist for weeks to months. Daily activities are done in an uncaring and mechanistic fashion, similar to the lack of pleasure people with depression often experience. Although this phase of grief may be thought of as a negative experience, it serves an adaptive function as it insulates the mourner from the overwhelming emotional pain by creating a general numbness.

The bereaved often feel a need to be alone. Their anhedonic feelings and numbness reflect a push for emotional distance from others, yet the conditioned response of others is to increase closeness with the bereaved. Although it is ironic that many Western traditions pull people toward the bereaved at a time when they are least likely to appreciate the emotional support and closeness. However, family and friends must not allow the bereaved to derail from the task at hand. Even if they do not demonstrate any desire to have connections with others, pulling away is only counterproductive to growth at this phase of the grief process. All involved need to acknowledge the depression and social displeasure as part of the grief process and help them work through it.

Disorganization Phase

The disorganization phase presents some of the most difficult challenges for families. It is considered the most painful and intense feelings of grief. Because of the strong emotions of this phase, the bereaved come to appreciate close interpersonal relationships that allow them to express their feelings in a safe and loving environment. However, these strong feelings sometimes seem too intense and difficult for friends and family to contain with their loved ones. Unfortunately, many may try to escape and distance themselves from the bereaved, making this time an even more needy and difficult phase. While mourners long to talk about and feel close to their lost ones, most of their friends are not comfortable dealing with the intensity of the pain and longing.

It is at this most inopportune time that many friends and family members will encourage the bereaved to stop talking about the deceased. They claim that it is not helpful or healthy for the bereaved to wallow in their painful emotions – “We shouldn’t talk about it anymore because it just makes you feel so terrible.”

Not only does the emotional intensity of this phase put a strain on the mourner’s interpersonal relationships, but it also makes it difficult for people to fulfill their day-to-day duties and roles. Thus, the difficulty and inner turmoil of this time leads grievers to believe they are “going crazy” and that their world “can never be right again”. Their lives, emotions, relationships, and behaviors seem unmanageable and painful.

It is critical to understand that the overwhelming feelings of grief in this phase can be manifested in a variety of emotions, such as sadness, anger, anxiety, and guilt.

Reorganization Phase

Through prayer, time, tears, and major adjustments to life, the bereaved is finally able to reenter their world in a more satisfying and meaningful way through the reorganization phase. Their social interactions and daily functioning are restored to a level comparable to before the loss. Although they may still have deep feelings of loss for their loved ones, the emotions of grief are less intense and overwhelming. In this phase, it is said the bereaved are better able to create new and balanced relationships with the living and the deceased.

Importance of Family and Friends

Death and loss will inevitably be faced all living beings, making the process of grief a “social network crisis”. Although the pain of grief is experienced individually, the pain and healing occurs within the context of relationships.

It becomes important for the families and friends to build relationships with each family member’s unique experience with the loss. Those who appreciate the experience of the bereaved and understand his/her own pace of healing becomes a more powerful helper.

In an attempt to join the mourner’s experience, one is required to be aware of the common social pressures placed on the bereaved to not express their intense feelings. It is essential that the caregiver to create a safe environment for the bereaved to do so – for many people, this may be the only place in which they feel respected enough to do so. An individual’s expressions of anger, sadness, guilt, and other painful emotions must be appreciated as normal, functional, and holy.

March 2009



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Moving Beyond Loss. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

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Shapiro, E. (1994). Grief as a Family Process. New York: Guilford Press.

Tames, R. (1977). Living with an Empty Chair. Amherst, MA: Mandela.

Wynot, Gregory P. (2006). Jesus Wept: A Psychospiritual Handbook of Death, Grief, and

Bereavement Counseling for Eastern Orthodox Clergy. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

December 23, 2009