Lesson 3 of 7 - learn how to grieve well

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What Is Good Grief,
 and  Why Do It?

7 Requisites for
 Healthy Mourning

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/grief/basics.htm

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost..

      This is one of a series of articles comprising Lesson-3 in the Break the Cycle! self-improvement course. This lesson aims to educate readers to healthy grieving basics so they can spot and complete unfinished mourning and evolve pro-grief relationships and families.

      Typical survivors of childhood trauma (Grown Wounded Children - GWCs) never learned these basics, and risk psychological, physical, and relationship problems from incomplete mourning. Benefitting from this Lesson requires that you make major progress on Lesson 1 - reducing psychological wounds.

      This article covers...

  • Why self-improvement Lesson 3 exists;

  • Grieving terms used in this lesson and Web site;

  • What adults and kids need to know about their losses (broken bonds);

  • The three levels of healthy grieving, and their several phases; and ...

  • Seven requisites for healthy grief.

      Option: learn about yourself: get undistracted and curious, and take  this quiz before continuing...

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  Why Does This Lesson on Good Grief Exist?

       Thruout their lives, healthy infants, kids, and adults (like you) automatically form bonds (emotional / spiritual attachments) to special living and inanimate things. By choice or chance, these bonds break, creating painful losses.

      Nature provides an automatic way to

  • process the questions, thoughts, and painful feelings created by losses over time,

  • understand and accept broken bonds and their impacts, and to

  • regain personal and social balances and life purpose.

This is the slow [mental + emotional + spiritual] process of grief, or mourning.

      Healthy grieving requires seven personal and environmental factors. Few adults and no kids can name them. Can you? A sobering implication is - many parents are unable to provide, model, and teach these good-grief requisites to their kids - i.e. they can't provide a "pro-grief" home..

      Without these requisites, mourning may be slowed or blocked. This can promote serious personal, relationship, and family problems, including chronic sickness or depression, addictions, obesity; hypertension; "endless" rage or sadness; divorces, difficulty sleeping, digesting, concentrating, and/or forming new bonds; and premature death.

      My experience as a therapist since 1981 suggests that incomplete grief is so prevalent that I include it among five core hazards that promote epidemic misery, stress, and illness in our society. Americans avoid recognizing this hazard by condoning ceaseless distractions (like TV, PCs, iPods, and smart phones). These discourage personal solitude, reflection, and awareness, which are key grieving requisites. Do you agree? 

      U.S. mental health workers are just beginning to recognize incomplete ("complicated") grief is a serious, widespread condition in our country. This recent research summary notes that it is not yet recognized as an "official" mental-health condition by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). 

      Incomplete grief has distinct behavioral symptoms. Knowing them can help people like you identify missing personal and family requisites, and facilitate the grief process in themselves and others. This is specially important in typical dysfunctional, divorcing, and step families whose adults and kids are prone to many major losses, requisite-deficits, and incomplete grief.

      SO - these Lesson-3 Web articles and resources exists to...

inform Web site visitors on basic realities about...

  • psychological attachments and losses,

  • three levels of healthy grief and their phases, and...

  • seven requisites for healthy grief;


to provide a useful way of assessing...

  • personal and family grieving policies (healthy > unhealthy) and permissions (encouraging > discouraging); and...

  • grieving status in kids and adults (blocked > incomplete > complete).

      And Lesson 3 exists to provide practical ways to acquire healthy-grief requisites and to help family members - specially kids - to fully accept their inevitable  life-losses and regain their personal balances and life-interests.


to help courting partners learn how to assess whether incomplete grief and what causes it could promote unwise commitment decisions .

NoteThe Lesson-3 Web resources are integrated in two chapters of the guidebook Stepfamily Courtship. (Xlibris.com, 2003). Most of the book pertains to all courting couples

      All relationships and families evolve a ser of beliefs and values about handling life-losses - i.e. they grow an unspoken grieving policy. One element of an effective family grieving policy is each member learning how to talk clearly about bonding, losses, loss-impacts, and the mourning process. That requires learning and using some....

 Grief Concepts and Terms

       In this self-improvement Web site and its guidebooks and videos....

bonding is the normal psychological - spiritual process of developing an interest in, appreciation for, enjoyment of, and spontaneous caring for, a living thing, or a prized place, ritual, activity, idea, sound, smell, object, dream (hope), memory, or fantasy. Some professionals use attachment to describe bonding, specially between parents and kids..

      Some psychologically-wounded survivors of childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse (trauma) are unable to bond, empathize, or love, so they have no significant losses to grieve. They can appear to be cold, callous, uncaring, and insincere.

      Bonding is different than needing (dependence). It may be one-way or mutual, and may or may not include feelings of love

to lose means a process or event which results in an adult or child being deprived temporarily or permanently of part or all of something s/he's bonded to.

a loss may mean (a) this process, or (b) the abstract or tangible thing that is changed or gone. All losses are changes, but not all changes cause losses (broken bonds).

a loser, griever, or mourner is a person who is trying to accept and adapt to one or more broken bonds (losses)

grieving and mourning both mean the natural mental-emotional-spiritual process that heals the pain and upset of a significant loss over time - unless that's blocked by the loser and/or their environment.

good grief means an unhindered natural process that completes well enough to allow the loser to (a) fully accept significant losses on mental, emotional, and spiritual levels; and to (b) eventually resume normal life interests and form new bonds.

grief levels refer to the interrelated mental + emotional + spiritual dimensions of the normal mourning process. Each level has several sequential phases, ending with stable acceptance. Awareness of these levels and phases allows tracking a person's grief progress..

blocked or frozen grief occurs on one or more levels when a person and/or family lacks the requisites to grieve to completion. If prolonged, blocked (incomplete) grief promotes significant personal and family stress. 

incomplete ("complicated") grief occurs when a loser has not reached the acceptance phase in all three levels of healthy mourning. They may or may not be blocked by personal and/or environmental factors in their mourning process. Incomplete grief promotes observable behaviors in typical adults and kids.

grief completion means fully accepting and adapting to a major loss and its personal, family, and social impacts on mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. 

grief permissions are internal (personal) and social encouragements to move through the natural mourning process to completion. Without stable permissions, grieving slows or stops.

grief requisites - seven things that typical kids and adults need in order to complete grieving significant losses.

a grieving policy is a set of semiconscious attitudes + values + expectations about bonding and "proper" or "healthy" grief conduct and progress. Every person and family unconsciously evolves such a policy. Typical adults (like you?) are unable to articulate it without studying mourning basics, undistracted meditation, and discussion. Personal, home, and family grief policies range from healthy (grief-promoting) to toxic (grief-blocking).

a pro-grief relationship, family, or organization is one which consistently promotes...

  • clear understanding of human bonding, losses, and the mourning process;

  • a healthy grieving policy,

  • effective grief support, and...

  • unhindered three-level mourning to completion.

grief support occurs when one or more people accept and empathically encourage (permit) a loser to move through their process towards full and stable loss-acceptance. The alternative is discouraging a loser from moving through the three grief levels in their own way. This often stems from a low family nurturance-level and toxic personal and/or family grief policies.

      How do these definitions compare with yours? Do you think most teens and adults could accurately define each of these terms?

Perspective on Losses

      This brief YouTube video hilights what you're about to read:

      Most adults and kids automatically associate "grief" with death. Actually, we must mourn the endings of many kinds of bonds we form throughout our lives. To grieve well, it helps to realize that our losses…

are inevitable for any child or adult who is genuinely able to bond;

can be tangible (e.g. loss of a prized physical thing or place),

and/or invisible (e.g. losing a dream, a relationship, trust, hope, a security, a ritual, a freedom, an ability, a group status, an identity, a family role, a purpose, ...); And our losses ...

may be planned and expected (e.g. a chosen job change, graduation, or geographic move), or unforeseen (e.g. a car crash or illness). And losses can be....

very slow (like natural aging), or sudden (e.g. being robbed, flooded, or fired without warning).

many concurrent modest losses may have a cumulative emotional impact in us, if not well mourned as we go;

      And specific losses...

are experienced uniquely by each of us - e.g. a child usually reacts differently to the loss of a pet hamster than their parent does; and...

well-mourned losses usually make hope and new bondings possible, like acquiring a new friend, partner, ritual, dream, or pet.

      Notice your thoughts and feelings now. Do you agree with these premises? Were you taught these things as a child? Was your mate (if any)? Is someone teaching these loss-basics to the young people in your life? Doing so is part of an effective grieving policy.

  What Is "Grieving"?

       We're each born with the instinct to form minor to major psychological bonds or attachments. Because Life usually forces most bonds to break, we're also naturally able to grieve or mourn - i.e. to move through a predictable sequence of emotional, mental, and sometimes spiritual phases.

      If unhindered, this healing sequence eventually relieves our painful thoughts and feelings from broken bonds over time by attaining stable acceptance of our losses and their personal and social effects. Our genetic programming to survive and to grow naturally tries to move us through concurrent mental, emotional, and - for some - spiritual levels of grief.

      Study this summary of grieving levels and phases now, and return here. Let's explore each level briefly

1) The Mental Level of Good Grief

      After a significant loss, typical losers need to gradually shift from mental chaos to clear, credible  answers to common questions. Think of a significant loss you've experienced and recall if you had questions like these:

  • "Specifically, what have I lost? What has ended temporarily or completely for me?"

  • "Is it really gone for good?"

  • "How and why did my loss/es happen?"

  • "Am I to blame? Could I or others have prevented this ending?"

  • "Why did this happened to me? Why now?"

  • "How will this loss affect me and others important to me?"

  • "Can I replace what I've lost? How? At what cost or risk? Do I want to? When?"

      Family adults can gently and patiently help young losers and each other to find their own answers to these questions over time. Suggestions and patient empathic listening help more than giving mourners "right" answers.

      Forming clear, realistic answers to questions like these can promote a welter of emotions like confusion, doubt, anxiety, guilt, and shame .These can complicate the emotional level of grieving (below) and slow loss-acceptance. Mentally acknowledging realities about significant broken bonds (answering these questions) can take a long time, because they can be so painful and/or slow to manifest ("I'll never have my birthday again the way we used to do it!")

      One requisite for healthy mourning is undistracted solitary times to clarify and try out answers to  loss-related questions like these. A related requisite is the need to discuss these questions with empathic, supportive others. These requisites can be hard to find in today's over-stimulated, warp-speed world.

      In their book "Second Chances," psychologist Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee propose that it takes some kids 10-15 years to fully adjust to (accept) their complex set of tangible and abstract losses from parental separation, divorce, and family restructuring. I believe where this is true, it probably indicates that such kids are not living with pro-grief caregivers.

      While typical losers are mulling questions and answers like these, they're also experiencing...

2) The Emotional Level of Good Grief 

      Noted British researcher John Bowlby proposed that young children's' grieving of absent caregivers has three emotional phases: protest, despair, and detachment (unbonding and indifference). Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who has studied and written widely on psychological reactions to human death, proposes five phases of (the emotional level) of mourning for any significant loss:

  • Shock, numbness, and disorientation ("This can't be happening!");

  • Irrational pleading, fantasizing, or bargaining ("magic thinking") - e.g. "If I start taking out the garbage on time like my parents want, I know they won't divorce."; This is really an early phase in the mental level of grief.

  • Cycles of anger and rage. These surges may be felt or repressed and denied. If anger-energy is felt, it may be expressed directly or indirectly, or unconsciously converted into a "safer" emotional/physical state (e.g. "heaviness," "depression," or "hyperactivity.")

       There is persuasive evidence that repressed anger can be stored in our muscles as a tight jaw, and/or shoulder, stomach, and "back pain." It also seems to contribute to some recurrent headaches, facial tics, teeth grinding, and stomach problems.

  • Cycles of deep sadness, apathy, despair, and (perhaps) depression. Again, these emotions may be felt or not, and expressed or not. By the way, medical research reports that tears of joy differ chemically from tears of pain because the latter contain compounds that cause stress. By ejecting  these chemicals, crying is one of our body's natural ways of staying balanced during times of trauma and endings. Implication - blocking our healthy human reflex to weep stresses us, and is often a sign of psychological wounds and a toxic grieving policy!

           The last phase of the emotional level of our normal grief process occurs when we fully accept our loss/es and their impacts us and others. It's characterized by...

  • Regaining stable calmness and focus; resuming our life interests, activities, and goals; and forming selective new bonds. Resolving the array of mental questions we have about our losses and their impacts (above) promotes this calmness. Periods of calm sadness (e.g. at anniversaries) may continue.

       We losers can move through these phases in order, repeat or skip one or several phases for a while, or may move back and forth between the phases over time. We each evolve our own mourning style, so it's usually not helpful to "persuade" a loser to grieve "right," unless they're stuck.

      Try reading this insightful summary of the emotional level of normal grief out loud, and see what you think and feel...


Work through the denial that hides the anger; ...

Work through the anger that hides the hurt; ...

Work through the hurt that hides the loss and loneliness; ...

Work through the loss and loneliness that hides the lack of self worth;...

Work through the lack of self worth that hides the total confusion; ...

Work through the total confusion that hides our unwillingness ...

to give up our own control and to surrender our lives to the Creator.

- Anonymous

3) The Spiritual Level of Good Grief

      A third level of healthy mourning has to do with (re)gaining a stable, nourishing spiritual faith in a trustworthy Higher Power, "Nature," and/or "the Universe." People overwhelmed by grief can lose a life-long trust in a benign Supreme Being, raging "How could you let this happen to me (or a beloved other)?" - and perhaps feeling great guilt for this "sacrilege." 

      They may alter or stop their worship (religious) practices, reject their God and perhaps Guardian Angels, stop participating in a religious community, and feel spiritually disconnected, betrayed, and abandoned. Non-believers can feel their skepticism in a loving Higher Power is obviously justified.

      For originally-faithful grievers, the third phase of healthy mourning is regaining or growing a new, firm faith that their Higher Power and/or "Nature" is trustworthy in ways that can't be humanly understood.

      Many factors seem to affect how important spiritual grief is to a child or adult, and how long it takes to move through it. It's possible that people with firm nourishing (vs. toxic) spiritual faith can often accept significant losses more quickly than non-believers. Some options to help move through the phases of spiritual mourning are prayer, reflection, and perhaps spiritual guidance and/or pastoral counseling.

       In healthy mourning, the concurrent mental, emotional, and spiritual levels and phases are eventually complete enough. Loss emotions and questions gradually subside, and refocusing on normal living returns. Significant needs created by the loss/es start to fill with new rituals, activities, goals, and bonds. Each person's unique needs, traits, and situations shape if and how this grief-completion occurs, and how long it takes. Because mourning involves mind, body, and spirit, conscious effort can't speed it up, but can promote it.

      Conversely, our three-level grief process can be unconsciously slowed or stopped. In my clinical experience, this seems to be very common in members of low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") families. Incomplete grief adds greatly to ongoing, day-to-day personal and family distraction and stress. I believe it is one of five main stressors in typical troubled families. Does this premise seem credible?

       If effective grief is vital for personal wholistic health and growth and family welfare, what's needed to "do" it? Pause, breathe, and say your answer to this question out loud before reading further. Then compare your answer to this...

 Seven Requisites For Healthy Mourning

       This brief YouTube video previews what you're about to read. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site - I've simp-lified that to seven:

      Premise: these seven factors are key good-grief ingredients for most kids, adults, and families:

1)  Significant progress in reducing psychological wounds from early childhood trauma. Without this, the other six requisites probably won't help much. Lesson 1 in this nonprofit Web site focuses on wound assessment and reduction.

2)  Clear awareness of...

  • the natural three-level mourning process we're all endowed with (above);

  • our tangible and invisible losses, and...

  • their personal impacts on us and key others.

3)  Confidence in surviving our losses and their impacts, based on experience + realistic counsel + faith;

4)  Commitment to patient grieving as a healthy personal priority, without excessive guilt, ambivalence, or anxiety.

Three more requisites for healthy mourning are...

5)  Consistent inner and outer permissions to...
  • feel and express our natural shock, disbelief, rage, and despair - over and over; and permissions to

  • turn our mental confusion into clarity and order, over time, by asking questions, and repeated venting, discussion, and meditating.

       Restated - grievers need a stable, pro-grief  (high-nurturance) environment to move steadily through the phases toward loss-acceptance;

6)  Motivation and opportunities to meditate, sort, feel, and process; and…

7)  All the time we need, and patience as we mourn a day at a time.
      Premise: the more of these requisites that are missing for a loser, the more likely s/he will move slowly through, or be frozen in, accepting inevitable life losses and moving on.

      What do you think?


      This article proposes that incomplete grief is epidemic in our culture - partly because of psychological wounds, and partly because of widespread unawareness of bonding and healthy grief.

      The article overviews fundamental concepts about losses and the three-level process of healthy grief. It defines key grieving terms, summarizes 7 requisites for health grief and some common effects of incomplete grief. This article is part of online self-improvement Lesson 3

        Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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