Lesson 3 of 7 - learn how to grieve well

Q&A about Bonds, Losses,
and Healthy

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

member NSRC Experts Council


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

Updated 01-15-2015

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      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.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

      My experience with over 1,000 average therapy clients over 30 years is that regardless of age, life experience, and education, average adults don't know what they need to know about normal bonding, losses, and healthy grief. That means they (you) don't know that they need to research questions like those below; so they and their family members are vulnerable to...

  • living in relationships and environments that hinder effective mourning, and...

  • suffering the toxic personal and relationship effects of incomplete grief (Q8 below)

      Status check - see which of these describes you now:

      "I know [ nothing / a little / a moderate amount / a LOT ] about bonding, losses, and healthy mourning now. Test your answer by viewing this quiz about good-grief basics:

      This brief YouTube video provides perspective on what you're about to read. The video mentions eight self-study lessons in this self-improvement site. I've reduced that to seven.

  Questions you should ask about healthy grieving

      Underlined links will jump to an answer on this page or open a new window. Other links will open an informatiional popup . Before following any links, try answering each question out loud. See how many you get "right."

1)  Why do typical adults need to know about bonding, losses, and mourning?

2)  How can I tell if I or other family members need to learn anything about grieving?

3 What do our family adults need to know about bonding (attachment)?

4)  What do our family adults need to know about losses (broken bonds)?

5)  What is three-level grieving, how long does it take, and when is it "done?"

6What are family anger and "good-grief" policies, and why are they vital?

7)  What's required to grieve well?

8When grief gets slowed or blocked, what can happen?

9)  Are there clear signs that a child or adult is blocked in mourning their broken bonds? Yes.

10)  What can adults do to support a family (or any) griever effectively?

11Is there any connection between a person's childhood and their ability to grieve well?  YES!

12)  Does gender have anything to do with healthy grieving?

13)  When do grievers need to work with a counselor or therapist, and/or join a grief-support group?

14)  How can our family adults help our children become healthy mourners?

And Divorcing Adults Should Ask...

15)  Why is it specially important for typical divorcing-family and stepfamily adults and to learn and practice "good grief"?  

16)  What do typical adults and kids lose from stepfamily re/marriage and cohabiting?

+ + +

   If you don't see your question here, please ask!



Q1)  Why do typical family adults need to know about bonding, losses, and mourning?


  • starting in infancy, they automatically form selective bonds (emotional attachments) to special people and other things throughout their lives, and...

  • these bonds break, by choice or chance, causing losses.

  • If significant losses aren't well-grieved, adults and kids risk serious psychological, relationship, and physical problems (Q8 below) thruout their lives.

      Typical adults raised in low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") childhoods were not taught how to grieve well, and develop toxic beliefs and psychological wounds that hinder healthy mourning. This is amplified by our pleasure-seeking media and culture, which trivializes the need for good-grief knowledge and awareness

      My clinical research since 1979 suggests that most Americans come from low-nurturance childhoods, and don't (want to) know that, or what it means. International comments on the YouTube videos augmenting this Web site suggest low family nurturance is common in most other cultures

      Unless parents seek qualified education about losses and healthy grief, they usually can't form pro-grief families and prepare their descendents to be self-aware "good grievers." This relentlessly promotes the unseen cycle of wounds and unawareness that is spreading and stressing many families and global societies. Could this apply to your family and descendents?


)  How can I tell if I or other family members need to learn anything about grieving?

      Get undistracted and take this good-grief quiz. Then imagine how your other family adults and older kids would respond to it, and whether they need to learn "good-grief" basics.

      If they do, they probably won't know it until you alert them. Most people, including many mental-health professionals, don't know they need to ask the questions you're reading here for their and their kids' well-being. If relatives are interested in learning, refer them to online Lesson 3 here (https://sfhelp.org/grief/guide3.htm.


Q3) What do our family adults need to know about bonding (attachment)? 

      Good grief starts with understanding the range of things healthy kids and adults bond with (Q4 below). Can you name them?

      In this Web site, bonding means "automatically forming a psychological / spiritual 'connection' with, interest in, and 'caring about' a physical or invisible thing." Your bonds exist because they provide significant pleasure and/or emotional, physical, and/or spiritual comforts - i.e. your bonds help to fill primary needs.

      All normal infants are born with (a) primal needs (discomforts) and (b) the instinctive ability to form attachments (bonds), starting with their primary caregivers. Needing someone or something is not the same as bonding.

      Kids raised in very low-nurturance families may be unable to form genuine bonds. This will stress them and their key relationships unless they hit true bottom (often in mid-life) and commit to psychological-wound reduction. The clinical name for an inability to bond is Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Current mental-health professionals and most troubled adults seem unaware of this tragic condition, what it means, how to reduce and prevent it, and what to do about it.

      Your and your kids' early environments nurtured or hindered your natural abilities to bond and to  grieve. If you can bond, you may grieve well if you have internal and environmental permissions to do so. These permissions will significantly improve or degrade your relationships, achievements, and health until you die.

      Notice your thoughts and feelings now...


Q4)  What do our family adults need to know about losses (broken bonds)?

      Throughout their lives, typical adults (like you) and kids who can bond need to (eventually) grieve lost attachments to prized physical things  (people, animals, plants, homes, places, mementos, etc.) and a wide range of invisible things..

      Most people learn to automatically associate grief with death. They (you?) aren't aware of the wide range of things we all bond with and must eventually say "goodbye" to across our years. Such unawareness can promote incomplete grief in average people and families. That can be freed up by self-motivated education (Lesson 3), and patient, courageous personal wound-recovery (Lesson 1).

      For more perspective on losses, see this.


Q5)  What is three-level grieving, how long does it take, and when is it "done?"

      Grieving or mourning is an instinctive internal process triggered by broken bonds (losses). The process occurs on two or three simultaneous levels: mental + emotional + (for some people) spiritual. Each level has an observable sequence of normal phases.

      Moving through the phases eventually produces stable acceptance of key losses and their impacts on each level. This allows grievers to gradually refocus their life energy and develop selective new bonds if psychological wounds and a grief-inhibiting (low nurturance) environment don't hinder that.

      How long the loss-acceptance process takes depends on...

  • a person's grieving policy (pro or anti grief),

  • the number and nature (minor > major) of their losses,

  • the personal and social impacts of their losses, and

  • whether the "loser" has all seven requisites to grieve well.

So it can take days to years to reach stable acceptance of losses and their impacts on all three grief levels. In some cases, mourning gets "stuck," and remains incomplete unless the mourner intentionally frees it up.

      To grow a high-nurturance family living by a healthy grieving policy, your members need to be consistently guided by their true Selves (Lesson 1), and to clearly understand good-grief basics (Lesson 3),  Intentionally learning the basics and modeling and teaching them to your kids is a powerful way to help guard future generations from inheriting toxic [wounds + unawareness]. 


Q6)  What are family anger and "good-grief" policies, and why are they vital?

      A policy is a set of rules (shoulds, oughts, musts, have-to's, etc) and right-wrong, good-bad values and guidelines about how to do something. All kids and adults evolve semi-conscious policies about a wide range of private and social behaviors (e.g. grooming, hygiene, dressing, eating, worshipping, sex, socializing, asserting, etc.) to guide them in private and social situations.

      Premise - all families (like yours) evolve and live by policies about (a) bonding and (b) grieving - i.e. adapting to broken bonds (losses). These policies always include unspoken rules about feeling and expressing significant shock, confusion, anger, depression, and sadness. Can you describe your personal and family policies about each of these?

      The personal and family effects from these combined policies range from wholistically healthy to toxic. Depending on their mourning policies and behaviors, families and relatri8onshgips range from "pro-grief" (encouraging healthy three-level mourning in all members) to "anti-grief" (hindering or blocking healthy grief). Pro-grief (high nurturance) families consistently promote genuine permissions (encouragements) to grieve well to all adults and kids. Does this describe your family?

      Note that "No grieving policy" is a policy. See this sample family grieving policy for more perspective. Is there anything preventing your family members from evolving and using such a policy? Lesson 3 in this non-profit Web site focuses on healthy personal and family grief


Q7)  What's required to grieve well?

      Typical adults and kids need a number of things for full mental + emotional + spiritual acceptance of their broken bonds (losses).

1) Significant progress in reducing any false-self wounds; and...

Awareness of...

  • healthy grieving basics,

  • their family's grieving policies,

  • their specific tangible and invisible losses, and...

  • the impacts of these losses on them and key others;

      And typical grievers need....

3) Confidence in surviving significant losses and their impacts; and...

4) Steady personal and family commitment to healthy grieving; and...

5) Consistent inner and outer permissions to (a) feel and (b) express shock, confusion, anger, and sadness. These permissions come from a family's above (usually unspoken) grieving polices (Q6 above), and....

6)  Motivation to meditate, sort out, feel, and move through the phases of each grieving level at their own pace; and they need…

7)  Time, compassion, encouragement, forgiveness, patience, and faith in the normal grieving process.

      Absence of some or all of these requisites can slow or block effective mourning, causing significant health and relationship problems (Q8 below).

      So - family adults should help each other with Lesson 3 if (a) their true Selves are solidly in charge and (b) they're progressing on reducing any adult-teamwork barriers. If these aren't true, work patiently together on this self-improvement course.


Q8)  When grief gets slowed or blocked on any level, what can happen?

      There can be a group of significant effects in typical adults and kids, like:

  • trouble forming and/or maintaining stable, healthy relationships - tho the real cause may be significant psychological wounds; and...

  • crying or anger outbursts they can't control, and feel ashamed, guilty, and anxious about that. Such outbursts concern and/or scare kids and adults close to the griever, which cause secondary relationship stresses and reactions. Such outbursts are usually caused by a dominant false self;

And incomplete grief can... 

  • promote or increase one or more self-soothing addictions; and/or...

  • cause difficulty concentrating and/or sleeping; and/or...

  • promote recurring bouts of ''depression'' and reduce zest for living; and/or promote...

  • a range of physiological problems (e.g. obesity) and possible premature death.

      These and other incomplete-grief symptoms combine to cause webs of problems in the griever's personality subselves and family members. These compound everyone's stress, and often obscure the primary problems:  psychological wounds + unawareness + an anti-grief environment.

      The effects of incomplete grief often lower the nurturance-level of grievers' homes and families, which promotes psychological wounding. These effects justify family adults helping each other and their kids to (a) learn and apply grieving basics, (b) spot and free up incomplete grief, and (c) become a pro-grief family by working patiently at Lessons 1 thru 5 together.


Q10)  What can adults do to support a family (or any) griever effectively?

      Aware adults can do many things to help each other and their kids reach full acceptance of their losses. The key first steps are to (a) assess all family adults thoroughly for false-self wounds, and (b) take appropriate actions - i.e. help each other do Lesson 1 over time. As you do, use Lesson 3 to intentionally grow a pro-grief family environment! See this for grief-support guidelines.


Q11)  Is there any connection between a person's childhood and their ability to grieve well?

      Yes, there are at least two potential links. The first is the family nurturance-level a child experiences in her or his early years. The less effectively a child's daily and developmental needs are filled ("low nurturance"), the more likely s/he will develop protective false selves and psychological wounds. These wounds can covertly hinder healthy bonding and grieving by...

  • denying or minimizing significant losses and/or their impacts;

  • (a) numbing or minimizing grief emotions - specially anger and sadness; and/or (b) not expressing grief emotions - e.g. not venting, raging, and/or crying;

  • unconsciously associating healthy grief feelings and behaviors with "weakness," "being a baby," and "badness" - i.e. misplaced shame and guilts. And wounds can hinder grief by...

  • not asserting normal mourning rights and needs (e.g. "I need to be alone."), including not asking for appropriate support ("Could I have a hug?"). 

      The second potential childhood <> grieving link is a neglected child growing...

  • distorted attitudes about grieving - e.g. "Crying is for sissies"; "Stop whining and feeling sorry for yourself, and get on with your life;" and "You only grieve when somebody dies," and...

  • observing unhealthy grief behaviors of wounded, unaware caregivers; For example...

    • seeing family adults ignore, block, minimize, intellectualize, avoid, or scorn major losses (broken bonds) and their impacts; and...

    • not seeing them honestly expressing their grief-feelings or...

    • not openly seeking credible answers to their loss-questions.

      If you came from low-nurturance early years, you may have psychological wounds and difficulty bonding and/or grieving well. Study and apply Lessons 1 thru 3!


Q12)  Does gender have anything to do with healthy grieving?

      Probably. In their thought-provoking book Brain Sex - the real difference between men and women, biogeneticist Anne Moir and journalist David Jessel propose that typical male brains and female brains..

  • are "wired" differently, and often react to the environment very differently; and...

  • may reside in a male or female body.

      This suggests that typical female brains (vs. female persons) are more emotionally sensitive and reactive to life changes (e.g. losses), and may feel and express grief emotions more readily and fully than male brains. Female brains may need more emotional processing (like venting) and less mental processing to reach stable acceptance of significant losses and their impacts.      

      In her interesting book "You Just Don't Understand - Women and Men in Conversation," Dr5. Deborah Tannen describes common differences in the way males and females communicate. This suggests that the way they vent and express grief thoughts, emotions, and needs will often vary significantly.

      Implication: your personal and family good-grief policies should include not expecting the male brains in your family to grieve the way your members' female brains do, and vice versa. Can you identify which members have which brains (starting with you)?  Notice where your thoughts go now...


Q13)  When do grievers need to work with a counselor or therapist and/or join a grief-support group?

      Mourning significant broken bonds may be hindered or blocked by personal false-self wounds + ignorance of grieving basics + organic and anti-grief environmental factors. The mix of these may warrant qualified professional help.

      Some clinicians are certified  to help people and families grieve well. It's good to learn and use practical selection criteria, rather than trusting uninformed referrals. No matter what their credentials, beware a counselor who quickly prescribes mood-control medication as the solution to incomplete-grief symptoms.

      Drugs may relieve the symptoms of incomplete grief (frequent misdiagnosis: "depression") but inhibit healthy [ mental + emotional + spiritual ] mourning. Mood-control medication does not promote healthy grief!

      If you and/or someone you care about has...

  • symptoms of significant psychological wounds and incomplete grief, and...

  • worked to free your Self to guide your personality via some version of and you or they...

  • have learned and applied the ideas in Lesson 3 and still make no progress mourning, then...

I suggest shopping for a qualified grief counselor. If you're unsure whether you have incomplete grief, seek a professional evaluation. Ask local mental-health agencies and hospitals for referrals, and try a Web search on "grief counselors." Don't expect any you find to know how personality subselves and psychological wounds affect bonding and grieving. They can still be very helpful.


ask any professional you hire to review these Lesson 3 resources - specially this article on thawing frozen mourning. Also ask if they can name the three levels of, and seven requisites for, wholistically-healthy grief.

use this to help make wise grief-support choices;

adapt this article to fit grief counseling; and/or...

seek an effective grief-support group locally or online. Well-run groups can facilitate moving through the levels and phases of mourning, but probably can't offer informed help on assessing and freeing blocked grief.

      Such groups are often for people surviving the death of a loved one, (e.g. Compassionate Friends) and/or family loss from divorce (e.g. Rainbows and Kaleidoscope). They may or may not include professional guidance and participation.

      Learning about and assessing for incomplete grief is specially important for (a) adults in divorcing families and (b) courtship partners considering joining or forming a stepfamily. It may also be appropriate for members of families with a loved one in prolonged absence, like jail or work in another country.


Q14)  How can our family adults help our children become healthy mourners?

      Grow a pro-grief home and family by (a) freeing your true Selves to guide you all, and (b) studying, modeling, and teaching the basics in Lesson 3. In particular, invest time in composing healthy family grieving and anger policies. Option - use this good-grief quiz and these Q&A items as a guide to what your kids should learn.


Q15)  Why is it specially important for typical divorcing-family and stepfamily adults and to learn and practice "good grief"?  

      Most people accept that "divorce causes losses (broken bonds)" for all family members. Few people realize that forming or joining a stepfamily also causes sets of major physical and invisible losses for all adults and kids - including co-parenting ex mates and three or more sets of relatives.

      Typical adults in divorcing families and stepfamilies should intentionally form and live by healthy personal and family grieving policies because...

  • Research suggests that the intensity of loss-trauma from family separation and divorce is among the highest of human stresses, including natural disasters, the death of a loved one, and social chaos.

  • In their book Second Chances, Psychologist Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee concluded from studying a group of average Californian divorcing families over 10 years that it may some kids or adults over a decade to fully grieve (accept) these losses.

  • Most (~90%) new US stepfamilies follow the divorce of one or both new mates. The others follow the death of a former spouse. Sociologists estimate that average divorcing American adults re/marry within 7-10 years. which suggests they, their ex mate, and any minor or grown kids may not have fully grieved their respective losses when new partner say "I do - again."

      if so, they risk (a) adding new losses to old ones and (b) some family members becoming overwhelmed. Even if they aren't, these compound losses may hinder or block healthy bonding between some new stepfamily members - e.g. stepkids and new stepparents, and/ or stepsiblings.

      That weakens the new family system and lowers its nurturance level when new roles and relationships are undeveloped and fragile.

  • Re/marriage and/or co-parents cohabiting cause major new losses for most stepfamily members, including stepkids' "other bioparent," if living and active in their lives.

  • The multi-year biofamily-merger process in new stepfamilies requires all stepfamily members to make major changes in up to 16 groups of family-system elements. Some or many of these changes may involve significant concurrent broken bonds - i.e. losses.

  • My clinical research since 1981 suggests that most US divorcing and stepfamily adults are survivors of low-nurturance childhoods. They seem to be more prone to incomplete grieving than people from higher-nurturance early years.

      If a needy divorcing parent chooses a new partner before s/he and all kids and their other bioparent have grieved their losses well enough, adding a web of new stepfamily losses (Q16 below) may overwhelm one or more kids or adults. This is one of many reasons impatient courting co-parents need to soberly evaluate "Is this the right time to re/commit?"

      The self-improvement Lessons in this Web site provide practical knowledge and options for divorcing and new-stepfamily adults that can help assess and manage healthy grief among all adults and kids.

      In my clinical and classroom experience with hundreds of typical US couples, few of them knew what you just read. This leaves such couples and their kids vulnerable to significant stress from incomplete grief and three or four other hazards.


Q16)  What do typical adults and kids lose from stepfamily re/marriage and cohabiting?

      We're trained from childhood to associate marriage and "setting up housekeeping" with happiness, hope, new opportunities, and gains - not losses.

      Shifting your identity from "single" to "committed / married," and "moving in together" causes some of those prizes and a web of complex changes. Many physical and invisible changes cause minor to major losses - broken bonds. Our pleasure-seeking, over-stimulating culture tends to minimize or ignore these, which promotes slowed or blocked grief in homes and families like yours.

      For most adults and kids, new-stepfamily losses are more numerous and complex than those they experienced from divorce or death (Q4). Study this summary to appreciate how many things new stepfamily co-parents and kids must change and/or grieve as they merge their multi-generational biofamilies


  • read the summary as an adult, and then reread it as each child in your life; and...

  • thoughtfully review these checklists of tangible and invisible things that kids and adults of average divorcing-families and stepfamilies lose as they slowly reorganize and stabilize their family systems over several years.


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