Since grief is such a wide topic that covers so many kinds of losses and an almost infinite range of emotions, there isn’t a single grief definition that covers it all. But there are three we use to help people understand what grief is and what it isn’t.
The most basic one is:
“Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind. Of itself, grief is neither a pathological condition nor a personality disorder.”
While that definition is accurate, it doesn’t really explain what grief is. So here’s another one we use to give a better idea of what grief is, beyond the fact that it’s normal:
“Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.”
When someone important to us dies, it represents an end to what has been familiar for us, and we must adapt to that new—usually unwanted—reality. Our lives are different after someone meaningful to us dies. That’s fairly easy to understand.
It may be a little less obvious to understand what we mean when we say “conflicting emotions.” Let us explain, using circumstances you’ll probably understand if you’ve ever been a primary caretaker to someone who was afflicted with a terminal disease, like cancer. If not, you’ll probably still be able to relate.
For most people who’ve been in that situation, the primary emotion they feel when that person dies is a tremendous sadness. Part of the sadness is about the irrevocable fact of the death, and another aspect is that a miracle didn’t happen to cure the illness and allow more time together.
But in addition to the sadness and other painful feelings involved, a huge percentage of people who’ve attended to a dying relative, spouse, or friend over a long period of time, will tell you that one of the feelings they felt when that person died, was a sense of relief. Relief that the person they loved was no longer in pain; and relief at the difficulty of seeing someone they loved in pain and the frustration of not being able to cure them or ease their pain.
Relief is often perceived as a somewhat positive feeling, especially when it comes at the same time as sadness. So the idea of conflicting feelings, in simplest terms, is sadness on the one hand and relief on the other.
However, the idea of conflicting feelings isn’t limited to death and the entire range of emotions including sadness and relief. We suggest to anyone who’s ever gotten married that their wedding day probably contained a conflicting mixture of feelings. There’s the love and excitement and high hopes on the one hand, and there’s the loss of certain freedoms and independence on the other. Even if it’s a good trade-off, it still represents a loss.
We can even move away from death and marriage and talk about conflicting feelings in other life areas. For example, when you get a promotion and raise in salary at work, that’s a good thing. But along with the change may come an end to some or many of the daily interactions with co-workers in your old position.
As you can see, our definition using conflicting feelings relates to most—if not all—of the major life changes that can and do happen. At this point, we can tie the first two definitions together and say that the range of emotions—including those that seem to be conflicting—that we feel in response to the changes in our lives, are normal and natural.
Grief Definition—Reaching Out For Someone Who’s Always Been There
There’s another definition of grief that’s so descriptive that we include it an all of our books, and usually quote it every public speech we make. It’s a piece of language that we didn’t create, but if we knew who first said it, we’d give them credit.
“Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who’s always been there, only to discover when I need her [or him] one more time, she’s no longer there.”
We find that statement to be profoundly emotional and exceptionally clear in its meaning. We believe that the person who coined it was referring to the death of a long-term spouse. But it could just as easily apply to the death of a parent, who was clearly there from the beginning of your life.
As poignant as that statement is in giving words to feelings, it can be reversed and used for a different painful situation; as when a long-term relationship has never been good, in which case it can be stated as:
“Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who has never been there for me, only to discover when I need them one more time, they still aren’t there for me.”
In that situation, it doesn’t imply that the other person has died, but is still emotionally or otherwise unavailable to you, as they’ve always been.
Lastly, in the case of divorce, it can be restated as: “Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who had been there for me at one time, only to discover that I can’t go to them for help or comfort anymore.”
One More Grief Definition—A Cliché With Which We Agree
Most people are familiar with the expression, “Every one grieves in their own way and at their own pace.”
We agree with the basic truth of that quote, even though it doesn’t define grieve beyond saying that we’re all individuals and we will each experience and express our grief uniquely and in our own time.
There are many other definitions of grief [Infographic] that you can find if you want to spend time researching. But we caution you that defining basic grief, while important, doesn’t necessarily lead to recovery or completion of what the death or divorce has left behind in terms of unresolved or incomplete grief.