On Grief and Grieving

date Aug 29, 2023
authors Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler
reading time 17 mins

Table of Contents

Different types of grief

The need to the strong

But we come from a culture where we think people have to be strong. I’m a big believer in being vulnerable, open to grief. That is strength. You can’t know joy unless you know profound sadness. They don’t exist without each other.

Anticipatory grief

A deeper anticipatory grief occurs years later when someone we love—or we ourselves—have a terminal illness. Anticipatory grief is the “beginning of the end” in our minds.

Silent grief

Anticipatory grief is generally more silent than grief after a loss. We are often not as verbal. It’s a grief we keep to ourselves. We want little active intervention.

Experiencing loss

We may also experience the limbo of loss in anticipatory grief, those times when our loved one is not getting better and not dying yet, but in a state of poor health with little quality of life.

5 stages

The five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost.

1: Denial

This first stage of grieving helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on.

Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.

2. Anger

This stage presents itself in many ways: anger at your loved one that he didn’t take better care of himself or anger that you didn’t take better care of him. Anger does not have to be logical or valid. You may be angry that you didn’t see this coming and when you did, nothing could stop it.

All assumptions are crushed

You did all the things you were told. You believed you would be rewarded if you did. Well, this loss is no reward. We also assume that if we care for our bodies, eat right, get medical checkups, and exercise, we will be granted good health. These assumptions come crashing down around us when the good, the just, the loving, the healthy, the young, and even the needed and most wanted die on us.

Non-judgemental anger

It is important to feel the anger without judging it, without attempting to find meaning in it. It may take many forms: anger at the health-care system, at life, at your loved one for leaving. Life is unfair. Death is unfair. Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of loss.

3. Bargaining

We want to go back in time: find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from . . . if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault with ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently.

4. Depression

But in grief, depression is a way for nature to keep us protected by shutting down the nervous system so that we can adapt to something we feel we cannot handle.

As tough as it is, depression can be dealt with in a paradoxical way. See it as a visitor, perhaps an unwelcome one, but one who is visiting whether you like it or not. Make a place for your guest. Invite your depression to pull up a chair with you in front of the fire, and sit with it, without looking for a way to escape.

This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality.

5. Acceptance

Acceptance is not about liking a situation. It is about acknowledging all that has been lost and learning to live with that loss.

Comparing loss

Brian, in his late fifties, had to have his leg amputated. It was a terrible loss. During rehabilitation sessions he saw another man who had had both legs amputated, and now he thought less of his loss and felt unjustified in feeling bad. He said he suddenly realized there were people worse off than he was… Brian, still comparing losses, said, “Well, at least you have two legs.” The man with the cane said, “Yes I do, but I lost my wife in the accident.” When you compare losses, someone else’s may seem greater or lesser than your own, but all losses are painful.

Losses are personal

If you lost a husband at seventy, there will be someone who lost a husband at forty-eight. If you lost a parent at twelve, there will be someone who lost their parent at five years old—or at fifteen years. Losses are very personal and comparisons never apply. No loss counts more than another. It is your loss that counts for you. It is your loss that affects you. Your loss is deep and deserves your personal attention without comparison.

After the loss

Relief and sadness

It is her endless suffering you wanted to end, which is why you feel somewhat relieved that she is dead. Hence the confusion: the relief and sadness mix together in a situation that has no resolve. When this occurs, your relief is the recognition that the suffering has ended, the pain is over, the disease no longer lives.

Guilty pleasure

The day you go back to work may feel like a guilty pleasure, as you feel the relief of returning to your work life as you knew it before the tragedy. But then 4:30 P.M. hits and you realize you will be going home to an empty house.

Postpone decisions

Your emotions, just like your body, need to repair. If you can postpone complex or important decisions, do so. If you can’t, ask for help. Invite trustworthy friends and family members to give you guidance.

Death is inevitable

But there is a difference between curable and incurable diseases, and it can provide an antidote for regrets. The truth is that in most cases, doing things differently may have changed the process but would not have prevented the death.

You did the best

It would also be just as unrealistic to have been perfect and have no regrets. Forgive yourself. Isn’t it true that if you could have made better choices, you would have? You did the best you could at that time of your life.

Cry it all out - from a hospice nurse

Marion took Shelley’s hand and said, “The only way I’ve learned to survive this work over the last twenty years is to cry every tear I have for anyone I care about. I walked away from that funeral with no residue, just some fond memories.

911 crying and men

He looked at all the men crying and thought, “I would have cried if I’d known I could.” He then asked himself a rhetorical question: “So what if I had cried?” And cry he did.

Telling the story

Telling the story is part of the healing of a traumatic event, no different from the trauma of large-scale disaster. In your world it was a large-scale disaster, most likely the biggest you have ever experienced.

My fault

It feels as if it were somehow your fault. You were there. You saw it all happening. In your perfect hindsight so many things stand out that could have been done differently. But all events require many converging factors in order for them to happen.

Death is inevitable either ways - a little earlier than usual

He could have eaten better, exercised more. You could have encouraged him, helped, even forced him. Maybe you think he should have seen it coming. Maybe it’s not your fault as much as it was his. The sad reality is that, despite our best or worst efforts, we all will die someday, usually sooner than we would like.

Nobody escapes death

We do things hopefully because they add life to our living, but not with the illusion they will help us escape death when our time comes.

Life is risky and dangerous

Bad things happen, illness happens, accidents happen, crimes happen, and we want to prevent them. But the truth is that life is risky and dangerous, and we are the only species on earth who knows that as much as we fear it, death will come to each of us one day.

Survivor’s guilt

We have to understand that more often than not, the most tragic of events happens and it’s no one’s fault. None of us knows why one person dies and another survives; such questions lead to a condition of self-blame mixed with guilt, often called survivor’s guilt.

Blameless illness

We are responsible for our health, but we are not the ones to blame for our illnesses.

Acceptance of what life actually is

Life was never supposed to be perfect but was always supposed to be long. Disease, earthquakes, accidents, and planes flying into buildings are not supposed to happen. When these things do happen, we not only must grieve the loss, we also must grieve the loss of the belief that it shouldn’t have happened at all.

Children and grief

We don’t teach false assumption to children

we need to update their views on life and death. If we don’t, we perpetuate the beliefs and assumptions that nothing ever goes wrong. If that is the belief a child takes with her into adulthood, she will have little sense of reality and a hard time coping with life.

Death in children has been normal

Even the belief that a child is not supposed to get sick and die, that a child’s death is unnatural, is not a reality. If you look back a hundred years, infant mortality rates were very high and were considered a part of life. If you had seven children, you knew that only a few would survive. That was reality.

Good people die. Healthy people die.

In essence, they were struggling with their crushed belief system that if they did the right things, they would have a good result. It is easy to understand this assumption until we remember that athletes die too.

Healthy living can give us a longer healthspan, but not escape death

It leaves us to wonder, why bother trying to be healthy? The answer is that healthy living can prevent some conditions from developing or being exacerbated. But the belief that healthy living will stop us from dying is a hard belief system to hold together when we are deep in grief. In the grieving process, we also need to take time to mourn the life we were supposed to have.

Kids grieve too

This wise woman understood that grief in children feels different than it does in adults. Kids don’t have the words or permission to voice their grief, while adults have trouble expressing the emotions.

Secrets and grief

After a loved one has died it is not unusual to uncover a secret or two here or there. The hardest part is that the secret represents something we perceive as them withholding from us personally.

Secret addictions

It may be very painful to find out a loved one had a gambling habit or strayed from a marriage. Secrets can leave behind more than just a bit of information. They often leave many questions in their wake.

Secret family members

A funeral director spoke about how every once in a while he would have what he called “after hours.” He was referring to the times he got a call from the ex-wife, the mistress, the illegitimate son, the black sheep of the family, the one who would not be welcomed to grieve at the funeral.

We are all humans with imperfections even after death

What you knew was real. What you found out was most likely real also. If it was negative, do your best to realize they were merely mortal just as you are. Forgive them if you need to, and try to accept the parts of them you didn’t know. Death can invade our privacy and deprive us of the chance to explain our actions.

Dealing with grief

And falling ill does not mean that you are doing something wrong. True spirituality is not about blaming or finding fault. It’s about reaching into the purest part of yourself, the part that is connected to love, the part that is (if you believe it to be) connected to God, the part that is beyond the body and health and disease.

Fantasizing the life after death

After she died, in his grief, he began to reconstruct their life together as one in which Sophie could do no wrong. He saw her as never having been anything less than perfect and loving, and in his mind he created a powerful fantasy about who she was. He, like so many others before him, idealized her in death with a marriage they never had in life. People often change reality to fantasy after death. Some of this is cultural. We are taught never to speak ill of the dead, and we feel guilty for even remembering the mistakes they made.

The only way to deal with death is to go through it

Most of us would do just about anything rather than sit with someone in grief. But grief must be fully experienced to provide the healing on the other side. The only way out is through it, so you can put it off but you can’t skip it. To delay it is to live with grief sitting mildly in the background, or for some, not so mildly.

Don’t distract yourself

Peace lies at the center of the pain, and although it will hurt, you will move through it a lot faster than if you distracted yourself with external outings.

Don’t define strength with not dieing

We are sure that strong people can beat it. She will make it. Cancer is no match for a strong husband or a fiercely determined wife. The message is that strength is life and death is weakness. So what are we left with when our loved one dies — weakness?

Grief and possessions

While there is so much going on inside of you, a myriad of tasks await outside. One of these tasks is to pack up your loved one’s clothing. Another is to decide what to do with it. This often feels like the most difficult job of all, because to deal with a person’s possessions is to clearly face the fact they are gone.

Start with the sorting when you feel the grieving is done

Start this task when you feel strong enough. Ask a friend or family member to do it with you if you feel that a loving presence will help.


Write to them even after they are gone. Tell them how you are doing and how much you miss them. A letter can be a substitute trip to a distant grave when frequent travel is not possible.

Grief and age

Dieing when you are old

“Years ago,” she told her daughter, “I might have been afraid, but now, I know so many more people who have died than I do people alive. Most of my friends are now dead. I figure if death is nothingness, I won’t be dealing with anything.

Dieing when you are young

Old age in many ways cushions us in grief, prepares us, and helps us deal with loss. Young age complicates our grieving by increasing our sense of unfairness. We all believe we should die old, not young.

Help children deal with grief

How children experience early loss will be replayed at many different junctions of their lives. It may determine how safe the world feels, what their friendships are like, and how their romantic relationships play out.

Teaching children about death

Explaining what happens to the body

Say, “The body is heated until it turns to ash” rather than “burned.” Some children can be traumatized to learn that their favorite aunt is about to be burned. The child may think, “Wasn’t dying bad enough—now we have to burn her too?”

School and grades

When a child’s grades fall, adults may consider that the child is not doing so well. But a lack of attention in school after a death, or any reaction at all, is a normal sign.

Teach them about death

We spend a great deal of time teaching our children about life, and when someone is dying, we have a profound opportunity to teach them how to care for loved ones in their last days.

Teaching them about life and death

We spend so much time teaching our children about life, why not do the same with death?

Dieing well

we don’t die well and we don’t grieve well anymore. Illness moved into the hospital in the 1940s and death moved into the funeral home. We now, all too often, die among strangers. Only a few visitors at a time are allowed in the hospital room. Hospice and palliative care are wonderful and yet still underutilized resources. We rarely gather as a family as our loved one dies.

When dying is prolonged

The process of dying when it is prolonged like mine is a nightmare. I have struggled with the constant pain and paralysis.

Why grieve well?

Why grieve? For two reasons. First, those who grieve well, live well. Second, and most important, grief is the healing process of the heart, soul, and mind; it is the path that returns us to wholeness.