Grief can be a very isolating process for many people. Even more, for those who feel like they have to grieve at someone else’s speed.
I’ve had clients tell me that they felt supported for awhile, like during the funeral or memorial, but not long after, they got the sense from those around them that they should be “over it” already.
Authors of Living with Dying, Joan Berzoff and Phyllis Silverman, remind us that “development is not something that we do alone.” That is, our culture, the environment we grew up in, and so on, all affects how we understand our own experiences and how we will respond to the many things that life throws at us.
Looking through the lens of Jean Piaget, who was famous for his work on child development, we see that there exists a constant conversation between a person and their world, ultimately (and hopefully) leading to adaption and assimilation. In other words, Piget found that as kids grow their ability to see the world beyond their own lens increases, with each stage of this process lending to an increased capacity to not only understand or observe their external world, but to understand how their internal world affects their perception or worldview.
While this is traditionally applied to understanding development in children, we can see that this is largely a big part of what we go through when we are grieving.
That is, in out efforts to cope, we are trying to understand how the death of of our loved one (or other loss) has changed us, or maybe helped us identify a need to change in light of our loss.
While the grieving process is often talked about as a linear process (going from one stage to the next), the reality is, grief does not follow a progression and is instead quite fluid; thus, when we talk about grief, its many stages, or how it develops, we must remember that people are not their stages of development.
"We must remember that people are not their stages of development."
The Risks of Viewing Grief As Problem to Overcome
The risk of simply viewing someone as a “stage” of their grief, is that it can lead to only the intellectualization of grief, or worse, can portray grief as a disease to overcome. The danger of treating grief like pathology is we may feel like there is a prescriptive way a person must grieve (i.e. a “right” way to grieve).
Part of this view is born out of the psychodynamic literature on grief, which has classically framed the discussion in terms of the negative aspects that can sometimes accompany loss. But stopping there could risk overshadowing hope. In other words, it could wrongly paint grief as unidimensional with its only end being pain and heartache.
Thus, it’s good to keep in mind that the purpose of such ways of viewing grief is to help us better understand a person’s process—not to put them in a box shaped by a certain theoretical view or orientation.
Grief is an ongoing process—one that ebbs and flows—and must be treated with great care and respect.