We’ve probably all heard of the expression: ‘Good grief’ and know it’s an exclamation of surprise or alarm used in everyday language. It can also be used to explain how grief – our reaction to any significant experience of loss – can be ‘good’ and healing.
Remember that grief is not the same as bereavement, although they share some common features. Grief can be experienced after any significant loss in our lives, whether it’s symbolic or actual – if the loss is great enough, we’ll need to grieve in order to move on with our lives.
People have said they’ve grieved the end of their marriage, leaving a much loved family home, moving to another area to live or the loss of possessions and status after natural disasters or fleeing a country as refugees.
‘Good grief’ and the grief-work that is lived through have the potential for recovery, growth and change. It gives us the opportunity to heal the emotional pain and move forward with life. It helps a grieving person to adjust to their loss and new circumstances and build a new reality for themselves.
‘Bad grief’, on the other hand, is the sort that continues and lasts a long time. The grieving might be too little or incomplete. This sort of grief does not provide us with the opportunity to heal, mature and change. Sometimes, this sort of grief is called delayed or complicated.
You can look at ‘bad grief’ as holding the person in emotional bondage. It’s possible to see that by being permanently shackled to old, unresolved issues, a person will be held in perpetual slavery. There is pain in grieving and achieving a kind of ‘good grief’ but there are immeasurable benefits as well.
It’s famously said that Queen Victoria had ‘unfinished business’ when it came to grief. Her grief extended for the rest of her life after her husband, Prince Albert, died. She was said to have ordered his clothes to be laid out each day, water set out for his shaving and everything was kept as he had left it.
It’s true to say that people will always be changed in some way by their grief experience. Some people get ‘stuck’ in their unresolved grief. like Queen Victoria. It becomes a complicated grief, whether it’s delayed or chronic – and the person is unable to move forward with renewed energy into their lives. If change and recovery are not happening over a period of time, a person with this complicated grief response could benefit from professional counseling.
A client once told me that she couldn’t bring herself to face an empty bedroom once her child had died. She maintained the room as a shrine to her daughter who died in a boating accident. Her daughter’s presence lingered in the room for this mother long after her loss and at some level, this woman was unable to move on with the rest of her life. She described how she went and sat in the room every day, sometimes for hours, alone with her memories. This lasted for almost 5 years before she accepted that her daughter would never return and she needed to put some closure on her loss.
After she’d done her grief-work, this woman reflected on how her sense of loss had immobilized her and how she was shocked by the ‘easy acceptance’ of her husband of his loss. The very different coping styles of this woman and her husband meant that there were years of friction and misunderstanding. If it hadn’t been for her unexpected pregnancy, they might have separated and divorced. Both of them thought they were doing the right thing – she clinging to the past, he moving on into the future.
Achieving a sense of good grief comes when a person accepts their loss, moves into the present and looks forward to the future.
In Eugene Field’s poem, Little Boy Blue, we read that the toys are kept forever, waiting for the return of the little boy who died.
In good grief-work, the process involves a number of steps, the first three being important to complete in order to achieve the fourth step.
Grief is something we have to work with so we can get on with the rest of our lives. There are no short-cuts to life after loss – whether the loss is actual or symbolic.
The lyrics of an old spiritual reflect the essence of grief-work. Although not written specifically about grief, they capture the essential truths:
It’s so high you can’t get over it,
So low you can’t get under it,
So wide you can’t get around it,
You must go through the door.