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The Changing Face of Grief


All the passages below are taken from the book “On Grief and Grieving” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. It was published in 2005.


“You’re not going to grieve forever, are you?” “How long does it take to get through those five stages?” “Haven’t you grieved long enough?” “Isn’t it time to move on and get over your loss?”

Unfortunately, these questions are frequently asked of those who have experienced a loss.


Grief is not just a series of events, stages, or timelines. Our society places enormous pressure on us to get over loss, to get through the grief. But how long do you grieve for a husband of fifty years, a teenager killed in a car accident, a four-year-old child: a year? five years? forever? The loss happens in time, in fact in a moment, but its aftermath lasts a lifetime.


Grief is real because loss is real. Each grief has its own imprint, as distinctive and as unique as the person we lost. The pain of loss is so intense, so heartbreaking, because in loving we deeply connect with another human being, and grief is the reflection of the connection that has been lost. We think we want to avoid the grief, but really it is the pain of the loss we want to avoid. Grief is the healing process that ultimately brings us comfort in our pain.

That pain and our love are forever connected. To avoid the pain of loss would be to avoid the love and the life we shared. C. S. Lewis said, “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” To deny that loss is to deny the love. And in order to cope with the enormous loss we feel after death, we often enter the stage of denial quickly. That “I can’t believe it” or “not me” reaction is an important tool in coping with the loss that has occurred. In grieving we struggle to comprehend the loss of a loved one. Grief is a necessary step in going from death to life.


We plan for most everything in life. We plan weeks ahead for our birthday, months ahead for our vacations, over a year ahead for our weddings. We plan decades ahead for our retirement. But death, perhaps the biggest trip of our life, usually catches us by surprise. And when we lose a loved one to that unwanted mystery of life, we are never prepared.

Death is a line, a heartbreaking dividing line between the world we and our loved one lived in and the world where they now are. That line of death on a continuum becomes a Before and After mark. A line between time with them and time without them. A line that was drawn without us or our permission. An existence that continues for them but leaves us out, separating us from those we love and lose.


Healing grief is often an overwhelming and lonely experience. We do not have any real framework to help us recover from the loss of a loved one. We do not think we have the tools to overcome the feelings that devastate us. Our friends do not know what to say or how to help. As a result, during the days following a loss we wonder if we can survive. As time passes, that fear gives way to anger, sadness, isolation, feelings that assault us one after another. We need help.


Our generation saw death and grieving in a way no other generation ever had. John F. Kennedy became a familiar face with television. Though he was obviously not the first president assassinated, it was the first assassination captured on television for the world to watch. In that moment, in a way never possible before, we as a nation were bonded in a common grief. In that grief and loss, we remain bonded in a collective memory even today.

From the most personal to the public, we continue to be bombarded with images of national and international grief in a way we never could have imagined. From the loss of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, John Kennedy Jr., and then, of course, the terrible events of September 11, we as a nation have been deluged with deaths that are “larger than life.”

In these public losses and large memorials we feel like a community again. They are reminiscent of a time long past when we dealt with loss in a small town instead of our hospitals and funeral homes with relatives too far away to be a part of the loss.

            Things were different a century ago. In death we gathered. We rang the town bell. A cooling board was put out for the body. Wood was collected for the casket. Fabric was sewn to dress the body. The loved one’s body was put in the parlor. Everyone from the town gathered and paid their respects.

Everyone knew everyone else. Every visitor came with a story about our loved one. These stories created a rich tapestry. The person who presided over the memorial knew our loved one well and helped put the loss in perspective. Friends and family were all present at the burial site. Afterward they did things for us; they didn’t ask what they could do or how they could help, they just did. There was no mystery of how to help another person in loss.


We live in a new death-denying, grief-dismissing world now. In America, 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. And if we do, the medical system forces us to do it in shifts. Children under fourteen are usually not allowed in hospitals.

If we mention our feelings of anticipatory grief to the doctor, he has a pill for us. At twenty-seven years old, what else has he to offer us? He has many demands on his time, as do the nurses. The doctors and nurses are caring and well meaning, but in a system designed to cure, there is no clear direction when someone is dying. We get the word from the nurse or doctor that our loved one has died, maybe even a quick phone call, sometimes with the same amount of emotion that you would find in a delivery notice. If we are there at the time of death, the nurses will help connect us with the mortuary.

We do not see our loved one until they magically appear again at the viewing or funeral, looking in death a way they never looked in life. We no longer routinely transport the dead in elegant black hearses; often we use white unmarked vans. We meet with a funeral director who handles everything in the funeral home. There is no town bell to ring, but he can put a notice in the paper. We don’t know everyone in town anymore. We don’t live in just one or two houses; in fact many of us will live in ten to twenty homes during our life. Our family will be spread out not over blocks but over states.

Ours is a productive society. Most corporations allow three to five days of bereavement. Very few, if any, will say, “Take as much time as you need, this is a very difficult time.” Our work usually allows one death per year. After our bereavement time we must go back to our work. We may go back physically but not necessarily mentally. We are challenged to find closure and find it fast. We expect everyone to grieve the same way and in the same time.

But death doesn’t have to be like that. You can choose to make the process more meaningful. As two people who have spent our lives dealing with loss and grief, we both visited concentration camps, where there are carvings of butterflies. They are an enduring symbol of transformation, that even in the face of great loss we will continue, someway, somehow. We spent time with Mother Teresa and witnessed the embodiment of human kindness. In our worst we have the power to find some thread of hope. In grief, just like in death, there is a transformation for the living. If you do not take the time to grieve, you cannot find a future in which loss is remembered and honored without pain.


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