If you haven’t experienced the death of someone close — someone so important to your life that the loss left you hollowed — then you haven’t yet found out what your imagination is capable of.
Grief is like an impenetrable force field around the person left behind, the person who used to be like you (pro-tip: they’re not really like you anymore; acknowledge that).
Inside it, the mourning person is both incredibly lonely and never alone. “You run through me unceasingly, like blood, like my own thoughts,” the writer John Niven says in this Father’s Day letter to his late dad. A beautifully expressed, completely private moment between the two, but only really happening inside one person's mind.
“A lot of grief feels like madness and is crazy-making,” says Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and author of Grief Works. Death is an enormous concept to grapple with, and, yes, it can feel like you're losing your mind. Mourning is inscrutable for those who have yet to experience it; no wonder we try to impose a linear order onto it. Both the grieving and the witnesses to grief feel the need to map a way out.
You’ve heard of them, the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. You’ve seen that Simpsons clip. They sound faster than the 12 Steps, less prescriptive than the 10 Commandments, but much less fun than the Rule of Threes. Unfortunately, I can tell you this is not at all how grief works.
Both of my parents died before my 20th birthday. The shock and the disbelief lasted for a long time. In those strange early days I’d wake up from vivid multi-colored scenes of simple domestic moments — dreams of lost normality — forgetting that I’d been locked out of that world. The knowledge would then slide in, taking those few precious seconds of believing that I was still a daughter, and making them absurd, a source of renewed pain.
Back then, my head invaded by grief, I couldn’t find the words to explain the shifting size of it: unbearably huge one day, forcing endless crying and dwelling on the past; small and tucked away the next day, freeing me to just live for a little while.
The popular five stages framework presents bereavement as a simple linear process, but grief is closer to a huge, unending paradox.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross devised the five stages in the 1970s after speaking to terminally ill patients as a way of helping them deal with their own impending deaths. The Kübler-Ross model was quickly snapped up as a framework for all responses to death. Kübler-Ross noted this with concern, and said the steps were “not stops on some linear timeline in grief.” Still, the model’s enduring popularity for precisely that purpose tells that we desperately want a guide to living with death.
So, if even Kübler-Ross herself suggests grief is not experienced in stages, then what?
“They never come back to tell you what it's like," my dad once said to me about the people he’d lost; an image that I’ve held on to for more than 15 years. He was right. There is a lot of imaginative work woven through the labor of mourning.
The Kübler-Ross model’s enduring popularity tells us that we desperately want a guide to living with death.
“Grief goes in circles. I think we are slowly coming to realize as a society, that it is okay to grieve your whole life,” said actress Beth Rylance. Her mother died four days after Beth’s first birthday.
As an ambassador for child bereavement charity Grief Encounter, Rylance said, “I feel the loss of her more the older I get.” As she has gone past life milestones and matured emotionally, Rylance has both experienced her mother’s loss and come to understand how time has shaped her responses to the absence. Rylance’s grief has grown up with her. Cruelly, comfortingly, it’s been there in place of her mother. “If there is something I’ve learnt from growing up without my mum, it’s that there isn’t really an end to it,” she said. “You don’t suddenly one day feel better that you don’t have a mum.”
The grieving process is complex, isolating and ongoing — requiring emotional energy to find meaning in the vast unfairness. This goes on under the skin, invisible to the outside world. It’s what you do just to continue living at the same basic level as everyone else. Certainly this involves feelings of denial, anger, and depression. Sometimes all at once, or not at all, and then again.
Sounds like a lot of effort? It is, and that’s only part of it. Among some of the unwanted gifts of a new loss is overproduction of fight-or-flight hormones cortisol and adrenaline, leading to a racing pulse and state of hypervigilance. Grief is not confined to the emotions; it is a physical reaction going on in the heart, veins, and arteries of the bereaved. If this continues, anxiety, exhaustion, and a fear of building relationships can follow.
One significant death means that anyone can die, anytime; the world is no longer safe. This feeling is particularly true of people who lost a parent in their teenage years. Comedian Cariad Lloyd, whose father died when she was a teenager, compares it to having the floor pulled out from under you, which is exactly right.
“I joined the club when I was 15,” Lloyd said, alluding to the common feeling shared by people who’ve been through a devastating loss: that we’re in it together because we understand something overwhelmingly large and unspoken, knowledge that can only be gained through loss. We have a need to talk to each other. That’s why she started her award-winning podcast, Griefcast, in 2016.
“When we were growing up,” she said, “everything was stable. And then, suddenly, nothing was. As a teenager, it feels like: oh, well now I don’t believe in anything. I’d worry that everything would be taken away from me all the time, because it had been. We had evidence of that.”
There’s no choice except to engage with loss, to acknowledge and grow around the outline of the missing loved one. “If you ignore grief and push it down,” Julia Samuel said, “you can live and you can even function, but you will live a very narrow emotional life because you are using so much energy to cope.”
When dealt with head-on, “mourning can be one of the most enriching, vivid things you ever do, if you lean into it fully. There’s a feeling of joy that eventually arises,” wrote Heather Havrilesky, in her Ask Polly column for now-defunct site The Awl.
So if the five stages of grief are inadequate for guiding us through loss and explaining how that journey might go, is there any structure that works?
I’ve found a lot of truth in Julia Samuel’s Pillars of Strength, which are built from her 25 years’ experience of counseling the bereaved. They categorize the effects of loss, showing the bereaved person that, as confusing and alienating as mourning is, there is help available.
The eight pillars are: relationship with the person who’s died; relationship with oneself; ways to express grief; time; mind and body; limits; structure; focusing. You don’t progress through them in a linear fashion. Each pillar is a resource you can return to. They provide reasons for why your feelings are changing over time, and suggest ways to get through the harder moments. The pillars also frame a series of windows onto that experience, for those who remain outside the club.
They make clear the basis of grief’s paradox: “The relationship with the person who has died, although radically altered, continues; loving them in absence, rather than presence.” It is an experience that covers the real and the imaginary, the living and the dead.
Mourning is so much more than an act of endurance. Really, grieving is the task of taking the love that was once shared between two people, and transforming it to fit inside one broken but still-beating heart. That’s why it takes time; that’s why it hurts.