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journey through grief

written by Karen Field

The journey through grief is different for everyone – longer, shorter, smoother, more tumultuous, one-way and steady, endlessly back and forth. Whatever pattern your experience of grief takes, it is likely to include some of the following components.

SHOCK and DENIAL are foremost

Nature allows the reality of the loss to slowly sink in. Shock and denial help us to absorb it without being overwhelmed. We may even faint or feel nothing but numbness and move like a robot for a day or two. Our friends should not rush us through this nor encourage us to linger.

The EXPRESSION of FEELINGS is foremost

Pain is expressed through tears and wailing, anger and rage in violent outbursts of words or actions. Repetitive activity like making cups of tea over and over, laughter, talkativeness, are ways of letting intense feelings out. Our friends need to help us get these feelings out without stifling us, yet helping us feel safe as we do so. Our tears or anger may frighten us, so we need support and encouragement.

BODY REACTIONS are foremost

Severe grief disturbs all of our body rhythms to some degree. Our natural patterns of sleeping, eating, going to the toilet, menstruation, breathing, and heartbeat may be disturbed. We are likely to be more susceptible to disease. If we bottle things up we can increase the stress on our bodies and maybe seriously hurt ourselves. Our bodies will right themselves but we may go through physical discomfort.

DEPRESSION and PANIC are foremost

The sorrowful weight of loss is heavily upon us. All is dark and gloomy. The sun not so bright, food tasteless, every action an effort, we cannot think clearly, unanswered questions repeat Is life worth it? It seems unreal and dreamlike. Will the nightmare end? Will I ever get over it? We panic. The tunnel seems forever. We need the contact of caring others who can be with us.

GUILT is foremost

How did I contribute to the loss? If only … We remember our failings and feel regret and remorse. There is danger we may even feel suicidal and need to ask for extra help. We search for forgiveness, or maybe we are asked for it by others.

ANGER is foremost

Resentment and rage need to be expressed. It is natural to feel angry when we lose something important. It feels unfair and we’ve been robbed. Our natural anger is often blocked by our training to be considerate and reasonable. Feelings are real and irrational. They must come out in safe ways. We need someone who understands the unreasonableness of say, the anger of feeling abandoned by the person who has died. When anger is out and done with, then we can be forgiving of ourselves and others. The corner is turned and we can move out of the dip into the thrust toward full life.

IDEALISATION is foremost

We hold to the past and revere it as the best. Feelings are calmer now but we are convinced life can never be as good again. I’ll never find such a wonderful boyfriend. There’ll never be another job like that one. She was the perfect wife. When our energy is locked into what we had, there is none available to develop the future.

REALISATION and HOPE begin to dawn

When we can see the weaknesses in our past situation and accept the bad with the good, we can begin to hope that the future will hold good with the bad. Maybe despite our loss there might be room for other things.

NEW PATTERNS begin to emerge

With much of the disruption behind us, we start to make new routines, focus on new thinking. We find there are new reasons for getting up in the morning and going on with everyday living.


The time it takes will vary. A few hours, a day or two, for the loss of something minor, to months and years for something major like losing part of our body, shifting to a new country, a marriage separation, death of a loved one. Nevertheless, with good grief we can get on with living, including the loss as part of our life. The amputated finger is gone forever, but we have adjusted to living without it. At times we miss it and feel sad, but the disruption is past as we are at peace with our lot. Our grieving is done.

I have developed this article from a workshop handout called "Good Grief", on which the original author was not referenced. I extend my gratitude to that writer for these ideas which I have used to help many clients through difficult grieving processes.

Karen Field is a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Auckland  » more details

Article posted 12 March 2007