Relax, You Don’t Have To Do “Grief Work”

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In the modern Western world we’re so obsessed with working and achieving that we’ve even tried to push the experience of loss and grief into our culture of working and achieving. I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about needing to do “grief work.” Grief work is often usually interpreted as thinking and talking about your losses and expressing your emotions through talking or crying. While I do think that talk therapy and crying can be useful sometimes, there are a lot of other ways that we can relate with our grief and use it to transform ourselves, and I question whether “work” is a useful metaphor for grieving and transforming.

Words create assumptions, expectations and experiences

The words we use matter because our words create our expectations and also the permissions we do and don’t give ourselves, which ultimately mediates our experience of grief. The word “work” invokes assumptions that grief work is focused, productive, rational and difficult, but ultimately if you’re brave and diligent about doing your grief work, you’ll be rewarded and you’ll “resolve” your grief or “achieve closure.”

The notion of grief work is so attractive to our modern Western minds that we have a word for the experience of people who don’t do their grief work in a timely fashion and are later seemingly punished by a back-lash of intense grief. This has been called “unresolved grief” or “delayed grief.” You’ll often hear counselors cautioning their clients against “avoiding” their grief, and prescribing grief work as a difficult but necessary process that they have to go through in order to heal.

Also linked to the idea of grief work is the idea of “anticipatory grief” – the notion that we sometimes start grieving in anticipation of a loss. While grief psychology explains that there will always be some grieving after the death actually happens, there is still often a tendency for people to believe that if they start the grieving process early they can somehow be prepared for the death (and protected from the pain of loss), and get their grieving completed or “resolved” sooner.

“Grief work, grief tasks, unresolved grief, achieving closure…” Can you hear the modern Western industrial cultural influence?

When we come at grief with this approach, we’re affirming grief as something to be controlled, fixed or resolved. Healing is something to be earned or achieved and conversely, not feeling healed (or appearing to have not yet completed your “grief tasks.”) is often interpreted as a sign of weakness of character, avoidance or incompetence. These are all potential triggers for guilt and shame about your grieving experience.

Relax. You don’t have to do grief work

The idea that grieving could involve 5 sequential stages or 4 tasks that can be completed is attractive. It sounds so neat and orderly. Best of all is the idea of “closure” or “resolution” – the notion that we can complete our grieving, and the underlying promise that we can avoid future pain after that. But as compelling as those industrious, proactive metaphors are, they’re not an accurate reflection of most people’s experience of grief. The latest grief research shows us that grief is messy and unpredictable – even when you’ve done it before, because it’s different every time. And we’re never really finished with grieving because as we learn and change and have new life experiences, those experiences give us new lenses through which to view our losses.

The new grief research shows us that grief naturally oscillates or pulses. Grief arrives for a bit and then it leaves, only to arrive again a bit later. It’s not linear and it’s not productive! It’s natural for your grief to come and go and to change it’s shape. It’s not natural to elicit your grief or try to summon it in order to try to express it, work on it, fix it, resolve it, control it or purge it.

The latest grief research also shows that there’s no real evidence that “delayed grief” exists, and that we shouldn’t prescribe grief counseling to everyone as a matter of course because not everyone benefits from it and for some people the outcomes are even worse when they have counseling.

So what should I do if there’s no need to do grief work?

Perhaps this is the nub or it and the reason why the idea of grief work became so popular. It gave us something to do when we were feeling lost, confused and clueless about what to do. “Work” is where so many of us in the modern Western world establish our identity and it’s what we instinctively think will fix everything. But you don’t have to do grief work.

Grief pulses. It will come and go. When the “dark” grieving emotions arrive, just be present to them and feel for yourself what you might like to do with them. When you do this, the “dark” grieving emotions will visit a short while and then move on. (Until they visit again, and then leave again. That’s their natural way.) Seek to relate to and relate with and collaborate with your grief, rather than trying to control or eliminate it.

How can you be present to your grief? You can name your grieving emotions and talk about them with a professional, but you don’t have to and, even though “talk therapy” is promoted as the main way to grieve and heal, talk therapy is not the only thing you can do to be present to the “dark” grieving emotions. Here are some other options:

  • Observe your thoughts and feelings. Just sit and watch your grieving thoughts and feelings and notice what they are. Be genuinely curious, and notice how watching your thoughts and feelings shifts them.
  • Draw/ paint/ collage or write about your thoughts and feelings.
  • Create a lament mandala.
  • Make a playlist of music that expresses how you feel.
  • Talk with a friend who’s earned your trust and will be a non-judgemental and compassionate listener.
  • Go on a quest.
  • Dance or sing.
  • Practice Tonglen.
  • Walk, run, do yoga, dance… just move your body in whatever way it feels like it wants to move. Hard and fast or long, deep and slow.
  • This isn’t a complete list. What other ideas can you think of?

Notice that this list sounds a lot more like play than work! “Grief play” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but I’ve found that play is a much more liberating and peaceful way to approach grief than “grief work.” What would it be like if you knew that you could transform your grief through play? How would you grieve and play then?

And in those spaces, when the “dark” grieving emotions aren’t visiting, don’t try to anticipate them, prepare for them or worry about them. Just get on with doing and being what you love. There is no guilt or shame in focusing on other things beyond your grief – pulsing in your grief experience is the natural way. When the grief emotions aren’t there, this is the space to find your “new normal” and to create more new small joys in your life. The small joys you create will provide a contrast against the losses, until you become convinced (through your own experience) that a full, wholehearted life is full of both the awful and awe, and it’s all okay.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” – Plato

“If animals play, this is because play is useful in the struggle for survival; because play practices and so perfects the skills needed in adult life.” – Susannah Miller


Would you like guidance to explore and heal your grief?

I’ve put together a 35-page grief “workbook” for you; an introduction to Remembering For Good and living wholeheartedly after loss. Learn more about the Remembering For Good grief workbook.

The first book in the QUESTIONS + ART AFTER LOSS series, Untangle Your Grief is a beautiful 65-page book of artful questions and creativity-sparking art prompts to help you to create meaning, belonging, and hope after loss.

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2 Responses to Relax, You Don’t Have To Do “Grief Work”
  1. AnnetteG
    March 13, 2012 | 2:18 pm

    Ingenious to re-frame “grief work” as “grief play,” Cath.  Initially after the unexpected passing of my fiance, being around “play” or “happy” was very difficult.  Either I numbly watched from behind the glass I felt before me, or others’ happiness felt as though it was literally cutting into me with razor blades.  It took several months to begin to feel bits of lightness and joy, but then the play activities I remember finding enjoyable were crafting and baking – activities that delighted and helped to reawaken all my all senses!  I wholeheartedly concur with your mention of walking.  The feel of the sun (or even rain!) on your face, your feet hitting the floor, and the repetitive motion, can be very grounding and meditative.  Last, and with the caveat and respectful awareness that everyone’s mileage may vary depending on the loss they’ve experienced, time with my nieces and nephews was tonic.  I dote on and delight in them,  and sharing space with their life force, enthusiasm, smiles, and humor continues to be uplifting for me in a special way even two years beyond my loss.  Thanks for your insights, Cath!

    • CathDuncan
      March 13, 2012 | 5:08 pm

       @AnnetteG thanks for sharing those examples of ways you’ve played through/ with grief, Annette. (And I’m smiling because I know that your playing with baking led to your cakes business!). As your examples show, playing doesn’t have to feel “excited” or “happy” – it can simply feel calm and gentle and peaceful. I think the main difference between work and play is that work has an agenda and a sense of obligation. Play is free and the only purpose is curiosity or pleasure.

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