Loss is ubiquitous. As time and circumstance dictate, we are all destined to have people, jobs, abilities, and belongings fall away from our lives. Grief accompanies such losses as we come to terms with the gaps between what was and what now is. What if, within all its aches and agonies, there is such a thing as good grief?
Grief is so painful, in part, because it is confusing. For instance, we’ve never known life without our parent or can hardly remember a time before a loved one was in our life. We’ve never felt more alive than in that previous job. We’ve always been able to run a lap around the track or remember our loved ones' names with ease. Grief and loss are confusing because our previously unquestioned and taken-as-granted situations are now permanently absent.
Over a century ago Sigmund Freud (1917) wrote that mourners wrestle with profound desires to reunite with the deceased and are “met by the verdict of reality that the [person, thing, context] no longer exists.” Said differently, while one can cognitively understand that their loved one is no longer alive, one simultaneously can struggle to emotionally register this truth. In some cases, such emotional insight is an ongoing soreness that retracts and sharpens across time and reminders (e.g., birthdays, holidays). Indeed, five years after writing his seminal paper on grief, Sigmund Freud lost his own daughter to influenza. In his letters to colleagues, he implored that this was “a grief without end.”
Feelings of grief and loss can accompany life transitions, unfulfilled wishes, big moves, or losses. This may occur in some parents’ experience of empty-nest syndrome, when the pleasure of parenthood became so much of an identity that, in its gradual removal, one begins to lose hold of themselves.
In other cases, grief can arise in retirement as one reflects on their career and registers just how much time has passed by. In these tender moments of reflection, we are faced with unlived potentials, or the ways our life didn’t turn out. All of these situations of grief are essential to being human and betoken our beautiful ability to deeply attach to persons, places, things, or roles.
So, what is good grief? Good grief is complex, honest, and true. It comes to terms with the fact that we will never hear their voice, live in that town, run that marathon, or go into work again. Good grief gradually puts our tears to words as we mourn through gradients of sadness, despair, unmet longing, and ache that are present nearly every day after loss. As Taiana (2014) writes, grief involves making “an effort to overcome that message of absence and create a substitute way to keep the other alive.”
One way this can be done is by trying to see the deceased in everyday life occurrences that symbolize or carry on their presence, values, customs, or ideas. For example, making effort to notice a particular style of socializing that calls one back to a dynamic they had with their deceased father; in wearing or reusing a beloved grandmother’s wedding band; safeguarding a paw print of a pet in a work desk drawer; or donating to a charity that supports children who had the same disease as ours. This type of grief response is captured beautifully in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
Good grief acknowledges the cherished roles our loved ones played in our lives, but it doesn’t aggrandize their memory (i.e., “he was a saint"; "she was the greatest woman who ever lived”). Such declarations, while tender in spirit, capture us in an ever-deprived state. In other words, the more idealized our beloved becomes, the more out of touch we will be with brushing by someone like them ever again, and, perhaps, the more distanced we become from who they actually were.
Basinger et al. (2016) found this occurrence was quite common when listening to those who were grieving the loss of a loved one. They found that mourners focused almost exclusively on positive characteristics of the deceased, hardly leaving room for more balanced conceptualizations of their loved ones. Such a pattern risks distancing us from the actual memory of the human, error-prone person, job, or relationship we lost. In contrast, good grief avails coming to terms with the imperfection of the person we lost in effort to 1) honor their memory with accuracy, 2) (re)discover their humanity, and thus, potential similarities between ourselves and them, and 3) connect with more people who experienced our beloved in similarly complex ways.
And how might we help one another demonstrate good grief? Recent research has shown that compassion and support from others helps mourners move through grief (Mayer et al., 2022). In addition to supportive communication, actions like grieving apart and together, holding the silence, acknowledging the gradients of sadness without prematurely jumping to fix the feelings, and speaking honestly about one’s experience(s) positively help mourners work through grief (Hooghe et al., 2018; Hooghe et al., 2021).
There are ways of engaging with mourners that support a moving-through process. Supportive responses to a mourner may include:
In each of these responses, a mourner is allowed to verbalize and reflect on their loss in a tender way. Over time, this process of putting tears to words can mend a grieving heart. In the words of William Shakespeare, “give sorrow words, the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.”
Note: This content originally appeared on Mind Matters from Menninger, our blog on PsychologyToday.com.