Lesson 3 of 7 - learn how to grieve well

The 3 Levels of Healthy Grief

Assess your mourning status

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/grief/levels.htm

Updated  01-18-2015

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

      Typical survivors of early-childhood trauma (Grown Wounded Children - GWCs) never learned these basics, and risk psychological, physical, and relationship problems from incomplete mourning.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

      This brief YouTube video summarizes grieving basics, including the three levels you'll read about below. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement site - I've simplified that to seven.

      Wholistically-healthy children and adults naturally form bonds or attachments to special living, inanimate, and invisible things throughout their lives. Eventually these bonds break by choice or chance, causing minor to major losses.

      Nature provides an automatic reflex to allow us to accept our losses and their impacts, and return to "normal" (focused, calm, stable, balanced, purposeful) life again - mourning or grief. Healthy grievers move through predictable phases in two or three levels, as they restabilize their emotions, thinking, and perhaps spiritual faith. Behavioral symptoms of these phases allow gauging a mourner's progress - or lack of it.

      This concept suggests an answer to "When is grieving done?" Though each griever has their own answer, the general one is "When the mourner feels s/he has reached the acceptance phase of each level, and is no longer significantly distracted from living fully in the present and forming plans for the future.

      A common stressor in typical troubled families and relationships appears to be significant incomplete grief in one or more people. Lesson 3 in this Web site offers practical ways to assess for and facilitate unfinished grief, and to evolve a pro-grief family over time.

  The Levels and Phases of Healthy Grief

      In my experience, typical adults - including most mental health professionals - are unaware of what you're about to read. They're taught that grieving is a 1-level process. One implication is that NO children are being taught this vital 3-level concept, which raises their vulnerability to toxic incomplete grief.

      Here's a simplified picture of our normal 3-level mourning process. It begins on the left, when a person (like you) first experiences a significant loss (broken bond). Some losses may be experienced before they occur ("I feel sure my sister and her husband will separate soon").

      If you haven't recently, review this perspective on losses (broken bonds). Then note these typical physical and invisible things kids and adults can lose from significant relationship and family changes.

      If you know someone who is grieving one or more significant losses now (including yourself), imagine where s/he is in progressing from left to right in each of these three simultaneous levels

    Emotional level of grieving     can take many months or years  

SHOCK or numbness

periods of feeling and expressing unfocused or specific anger or rage

periods of feeling and expressing sorrow,
apathy, and despair

normal emotional
stability (acceptance)

at the same time, healthy people move through the...

    Mental level of grieving     can take many months or years  

denial and/or confusion and "mind churning"

initial questions
coalesce; repeated venting

clarity grows on what was lost, and what the losses mean

credible answers stabilize, and confusion and venting abate no more questions or churning; stable focus returns;  occasional calm venting

and people with an initial faith in a High Power also may move through the...

    Spiritual level of grieving     can take many months or years  

disbelief, denial, pleading

searching: "How could my God permit this loss?

loss of trust and faith in a Higher Power - cynicism

acceptance of not understanding God's plan gradual return and stabilizing of personal faith

      Each child and adult will move through the phases in each level at different rates, depending on their personalities + wholistic health + environment pro-grief or anti-grief) + the magnitude and impacts of their losses. When grievers of any age (a) are ruled by false selves and (b) lack too many of these requisites, they can become "stuck" in one or more of these phases, or reach "pseudo" acceptance of their losses.

      This diagram gives you a way to gauge where you or someone else is in the grief process, if you focus on a specific loss or cluster of losses. Validate this idea using a major loss in your life. Are you done grieving yet?

      Note that grieving significant new losses can start before fully accepting prior losses on all three levels:

Multi-year mourning for original losses  - e.g. from childhood   
  Multi-year mourning for new losses - e.g. from moving, cutoffs, childbirth, or divorce  
  Mourning more losses - e.g. from aging. illness, and death...

       The cumulative effects of many unmourned losses can increase the intensity and duration of each phase above. Knowledge of healthy grieving basics and awareness of kids' and adults' losses and timings, and their personal mourning progress are essential steps in patiently breaking the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

      Gaining this awareness is best begun in courtship, for committing to a partner before you or they and any kids are well along with these grief phases can promote major personal and family conflicts and stress. This is specially true in average multi-home stepfamilies.  

+ + +

      Pause, breathe, and reflect: why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? What did you learn? Would you say you're living in a pro-grief family now? Is your partner, if any? Are your children? Who's answering these questions - your wise, resident true Self or ''someone else''?


      This article proposes and illustrates three simultaneous levels of normal grief: mental, emotional, and (for some), spiritual. Each level has several identifiable phases that healthy grievers pass through until they fully accept their loss/es and their impacts, and resume normal life.

      Understanding these levels and phases allows anyone to assess where they (or another person) are in grieving one or more losses. This can help to spot incomplete grief, which can promote significant personal and social problems.

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