What we get wrong about the “grief journey”

There is something quite flawed in the way that we talk about and conceptualize grief. The grief process is often described as a “journey” or a “path.” Both professionals and lay people use terms like “moving forward” or “moving on.” Maybe you’ve used those terms; I know I have.

The problem with that type of language is that it implies that grief is linear. The starting point is the profound emotional pain of the loss, and over time we will move toward a place of healing or recovery. Sure, we can acknowledge that some days will be better than others, that there may be some ups and downs, but the general direction will always be forward. What the concept of a grief journey does is create a narrative that we have to move away from our grief over the loss of a loved one. We think of it as something akin to a car trip: get in, leave one place behind, and travel to a new place.

My clients are often surprised that they are actually quite reluctant to let go of grief. They don’t want to get in the car to begin the journey. Why? Grief can be so powerful, so painful, so all-consuming; why would anyone want to hold on?

Because grief also serves as a powerful connection to the lost loved one. Grief is the emotion we experience at the very end of our loved one’s life. It can seem like a marker of our devotion and love. Moving away from grief can feel like moving away from the person we loved so much. The “grief journey” can feel like getting setting out on that car trip and leaving the lost loved one behind.  As a client said “I’m afraid to move away from the grief of my wife’s death. It’s all I have left of her.”

We would do well to replace the concept of a linear journey with one of ever-expanding outward growth. Think about the rings of a tree. Over time, the tree expands, forms new bark and branches, and grows wider. But deep within is a record of everything the tree has gone through. Every year, every drought, every bountiful spring is still there, etched into the grain and part of the very makeup of the tree. Grief is like that, too. It leaves its mark, changes us permanently. We can carry that experience inside, keeping it in a gentle heart-space, forever changed by our loved one and their loss. And we can grow around that experience. We can open ourselves up to each new season, to the droughts and bounties of life, all while carrying the precious and painful memories of our grief.