We need to gain a better understanding of not only “what” people experience after a loss, but also “why” grief affects people so uniquely and individually. We have come to realize that people do not passively and inevitably go through a series of stages or tasks. Rather the grief process involves many choices, with numerous possible options to approach or avoid the situation at hand.
In other words, any good paradigm of grief will not simply propose some futile attempt to re-establish pre-loss patterns of emotion or behavior, expressed in comments like “getting back to normal.” Life has changed and will never be the same again! But that does not mean it cannot be good. The challenge is how we can support the person in integrating these changes into their life as it now is.
Perhaps we can illustrate it this way. We all write a script for our lives. I remember writing the screenplay for my life when I was a teenager. As the main character in the production, my draft scenario included going to school and university, having a career, meeting and marrying the most beautiful woman in the world. As the plot progressed, we would work hard, have children, do things as a family and when the kids were grown we would travel, then retire, and ride off into the sunset together. Think about YOUR script … most of us have one.
Every human being constructs a unique world of meaning. We all make assumptions about “how life is going to be” in the course of daily living. We are sustained by the network of explanations, expectations, and enactments that shape our lives with ourselves and others. These assumptions provide us with a basic sense of order regarding our past, awareness regarding our current relationships, and predictability regarding our future.
And most of us, at the end of the script, whatever the final details, add the words … “and they lived happily ever after.” Because that is what most of us would like to think is going to happen. While the particulars may change from time to time, we all want to think that life will be orderly, predictable, and go “according to the script.”
But sometimes life does not go according to the script. Not everything works out the way we planned. And then we find ourselves struggling to come to terms with “the grief of unmet expectations.” Any loss can be interpreted as disrupting the continuity of this assumed narrative. When this occurs, we have one of two choices: either we revise the plot by rewriting the script and assimilating the loss into pre-existing frameworks of meaning, ultimately reasserting or justifying the viability of our pre-existing belief system, or we accommodate our life narrative to correspond more closely to what we perceive as a changed reality in the violation of our assumptive world.
It is vitally important to realize that “who we are” is determined not just by genetic makeup, but also by our experiences and how we allow them to affect us. In this statement, we find an important key for life and living. We do not have a choice in how we are born and our genetic or cultural influence. We may have a choice over some difficult events and negative experiences that affect us. Stuff happens! But while we may not have a choice over certain circumstances, we do have a choice about how we are going to allow them to affect us. The key is in enabling people to make good choices about what they are going to “do” about what has happened.
So, we need to place the loss in the context of meaning. We can do this in one of two ways. First, we can reaffirm what we formerly believed about life; or secondly, we can establish a new belief system about the meaning of life. In other words, does this experience make sense according to what I believed about life before, or do I have to adapt my way of interpreting how life can be meaningful. The challenge is to find ways to integrate the experience into life as it now is and to adopt new assumptions about our world which have been shaken and even violated by the loss.
The implication of this idea for caregivers, families, and those seeking to support grieving people is that we need to recognize the unique and personal meanings of loss which will take us beyond clichéd expressions of support or preconceived ideas of what a particular loss “feels like” to any given griever. The particularity of any loss should prompt us to listen intently for clues as to the unique significance of the bereavement experience for each individual.
Thus I contend that helping people through the grief of bereavement is not simply a matter of understanding the emotions that they may be expressing. Rather it involves supporting them through a reinterpretation of “how life can be meaningful even in the light of loss,” and empowering them to define life as it now is and to find ways to make the most of what they have left.