Helping Loved Ones Grieve: The Seasons of Grief

by Jan Allen, CSW, MSE
More About Jan. . .

Most of us live in parts of the country where there is a distinct change of seasons. Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall each have their own unique qualities. Grieving is also like the seasons – there are a variety of events that we experience as we grieve, much as we experience a series of events as the seasons change.

So, as we explore these seasons of grief, let us turn our reflections to the power of these seasons of grief – pre-grief, a time to grieve, a time to heal and renewal.

Most of us have someone who we had a meaningful relationship with who is no longer with us. This may be due to death or other factors. When a parent leaves the home through divorce or when spouses part ways, these can be very profound times of loss and grief. So, for those of you who have the distinction of remembering a past relationship – please take a moment to reflect on the importance of a past connection or time of life. Please take just a few moments to remember a fond time with that loved one. No sadness. Just a happy time. A time of joy. A time of satisfaction. A time of peace that you shared with that loved one.

OK. Now just set that memory aside for the time being; but we will come back to it later.

As I see it, the seasons of grief are divided into the following general categories:

Summer: The pre-grief time of life
Fall/Winter: The season of Grieving
Spring: A post-grieving time of life o

My friend, Ruth, has taught me more about these seasons of grief than any other single person. Ruth was a colleague of mine for 8 years. She has experienced more serious, sad, traumatic circumstances in her life than most people. She lost her father at a very early age; and her mother worked as a cook to support she and her brothers and sisters. Ruth had a two aneurysms before the age of 40. She also suffered a massive heart attach almost one year after her aneurysm surgeries. Both of her medical crises necessitated that she be evacuated from her rural home by helicopter. In fact, the helicopter team told her that they thought she was really just a thrill junkie since she was the only person they knew of who had ridden in BOTH of their 911 choppers! If those circumstances were not enough, about one year after suffering her massive heart attack, Ruth awoke one Saturday morning to the sound of her husband’s pager going off. Ruth’s husband is a volunteer firefighter and he was being called out to respond to an accident. When he arrived at the scene, he could see that the vehicle was his son’s. Apparently, some time in the wee hours of Saturday morning, Ruth’s son fell asleep at the wheel of his car and crashed into a tree – dying instantly.

Ruth experienced grief upon grief, loss upon loss in her life. How does a person make sense of all this? How does a person "go on" after blow after blow after blow?

If you think I am going to tell you that Ruth found perfect peace and joy and worked through her grief, you are mistaken. Ruth might very well be on her grief journey for the rest of her life. However, Ruth’s seasons of grief have taught me much about how grief works.

First, almost all of us have a "summertime" of life. Grief has not touched our lives. We have visited those dark, dreary and sad days of loss. For many, this summer season lasts into adulthood. I know many young adults who have not yet lost a parent, grandparent, or other significant person to death or departure. For some, the summer lasts only a few brief years before the cold, hard whistling winds of Fall arrive at the door. During the summer of our lives, before we have experienced grief firsthand, we usually have very little empathy and understanding about how powerful these experiences can be. We may have seen some friend go through a loss, and we just simply didn’t know how to respond to them.

Then, grief comes to our door. My friend Ruth taught me that when grief comes, it is like a roller coaster of emotions. You have all sorts of fleeting feelings of sadness, despair, remorse, hopelessness, helplessness, fear, anger, darkness, depression, impatience, grumpiness and fatigue. Make no mistake about it: grieving is WORK. It is exhausting, time consuming, sorrowful WORK. Ruth had to try to carry on her "normal" routines after all these sad events in her life. The loss of her son was by far the most traumatic of all of her lossess. There was so much to remind her of his absence – his accident occurred on the road to her home. She is a dairy farmer’s wife living on the "home" farm and is unlikely to have the option of moving away; so every day she drives past the tree where her son lost his life. The cemetary where he is buried is in the other direction on the road on which she lives. Even when Ruth does not wish to be reminded of her son’s death, it is there – in her face – every day.

We counselors are taught that grief has stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and resolution. We are taught that folks go through these stages at different rates. We are admonished that sometimes folks skip a stage or do them in different order. However, Ruth taught me that sometimes people get "stuck" in a stage for a very, very long time. Ruth has passed through such dark times in coping with her son’s death. She has blamed herself, she has been furious that he died less than a mile from home. She has been depressed for many years. This is partially due to the fact that she has had loss upon loss. Grieving is complicated by multiple incidents. Some folks can handle one loss; but when they start piling up, it can be overwhelming.

When we have a friend or relative that is in that dark fall/winter season of grieving, the natural tendency of most of us is to want them to "get well" or "get back to normal". Ruth taught me that there is no"normal" to which to get back to. Ruth’s life is absolutely, finally and forever changed. The only hope we have is that she might be able to create her own "normal" life after grief. When I asked Ruth what any of us could do to help her, her first response was "nothing". She felt she had to take this journey completely alone, even without her husband’s help. However, over time, Ruth did tell me that two of the things that helped her the most were folks who: 1) did not try to "gloss over" her grief; but rather acknowledged and were open to letting her "vent", even if it was painful to listen. and 2) had been through the same experience she had and could really, truly understand what she was going through. Ruth and her husband found a loving support group of people who had lost children; and this group alone helped them the most.

Generally, people who are grieving have little tolerance for folks who do not genuinely understand what they are going through. So, if you have not had a significant grief experience in your life, or not had the one your loved one has had, be very careful to not try to tell the grieving person you "understand". Also, spouting Bible verses sometimes anger grieving people rather than comforts them. We need to be sensitive to where a person is in their faith and in the grieving process. They may be a very dedicated religious person; but also a very angry one. I tell folks that God is big enough to understand and care for us even when we are really angry with Him. Grieving people know for a fact that you do not understand what they are going through. And, even if you have had a similar experience, Ruth taught me that you need to be sensitive to the fact that everyone grieves differently; so don’t expect your friend or loved one to grieve or heal exactly the say you did. Ruth once told me that she knew she could "be real" around me and that I would not judge her. Anger is a very large part of grieving for some folks and as friends of the grieving, we need to be able to suspend judgement of our loved one and give them permission to do the grief work that they need to do.

So, for those who are grieving, let us:

- for as long as they need to
- with as many tears as they need to
- with whatever process they need to

- visiting the gravesite or not. Going to the old haunts or not;
- keeping the same routines or not;
- journaling, drawing, painting, tape recording.

This is where that special memory comes in. Some folks find that part of the road to healing involves taking the time to record those special times and to reflect on them.

We can help by perhaps giving the gift of a special journal to our grieving loved one. We can help by understanding that grieving is sometimes a very introspective time so the person may not be as open to communicating, going out or being involved in family or community events.

Those of us who have not had a heavy grief to bear often do not understand how important it is for those who are grieving to talk about their sadness. We are embarrassed or uncomfortable. Sometimes we even think we are making them worse to talk about their sadness. The old "sweep it under the rug, put on a happy face" syndrome.

In fact, I am always most concerned about folks who appear to "get on" with their lives immediately after a loss. While it is true that some folks work through their grief quicker and with less hassle than others, some grieving people do sweep it under the rug -- but I will tell you this. If they do sweep it under the rug -- it will have to be dealt with eventually. Denial of the grief will eventually lead to all sorts of other issues. Sometimes, we just simply have to wait until the person can move into the next stage of grief and that can take a very long time for some.

Rather than being so concerned about our loved ones getting back on their feet, back to normal, back to their old self -- we need to walk with them through the darkness, the sadness, the doubt and the questioning until we both come out into the light of a new day. Not "back to normal" -- just a new day with a new hope.

So, Ruth has taught me that we can help grieving people the most when we:

1. Pray for them;
2. Encourage them;
3. Listen to them;
4. Find time to spend with them;
5. Cry, mourn with them;
6. Be open about discussing their loss -- and after a suitable time:
7. Invite them to a new social activity. Perhaps the foursome that played cards every Thursday evening can no longer meet since one has died. But as friends of grieving people, we can try to help them begin to discover new ways of maintaining social contact.

So, for many people who are grieving, the Spring time of renewal –life after grief – does come. In that spring season, a person who has wrestled with grief can often be the helper, supporter, friend and encourager of others who are just starting their journey into the dark winter of grief. People who have "been there" are often very helpful to the person who is just beginning to learn about the powerful season of grief.

Bible verses for people who are grieving:

"Listen to me whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hairs. I am HE, I am HE who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you. I will sustain you and I will rescue you." Isaiah 46:3,4 

"Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint. O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, O lord, how long? I am worn out from groaning all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow....." Psalm 6, selections

"The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord, "Oh, Lord, save me! .....For you, Oh Lord, have delivered my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling that I may walk before the Lord in the land of living." Psalm 116, selections

In my index, there were about 4 references to sorrow; but 50 which referred to comfort. "My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life." Psalm 119:50

"May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant. Let your compassion come to me that I may live..." Psalm 119:76,77

"For your Maker is your husband -- the Lord Almighty is His Name-- the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; He is called the God of all the earth. The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit...." Isaiah 54:5,6

"I have summoned you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior." Isaiah 43:2

Related Articles:
- Talking with Children About Death
- Three Stages of Grief: Tips and Techniques
- Stress Management: Tips and Techniques
- Death, Dying, and Late Stage Alzheimer's Disease Hot Topic

Recommended Readings:
- Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Artificial Feeding, Comfort Measures Only and the Patient with a Life-Threatening Illness by Hank Dunn
- Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness by Joanne Lynn, M.D.
- After Goodbye: How to Begin Again After the Death of Someone You Love
by Ted Menten
- The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses by John James and Russel Friedman
- Good Grief: A Constructive Approach to the Problem of Loss by Granger Westberg
- Living When a Loved One Has Died by Earl Grollman

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