We grieve other experiences beyond death and dying
We know how to grieve and, in many ways, we do it well. We have a general idea of how grief goes—that it takes a certain amount of time and usually we all do it differently. We also have familiar social rituals around grief such as funerals that support those who are grieving.
Though it is not always thought of so expansively, grief is an important model for healthily working through other experiences of change, loss, and suffering beyond death and dying. Job losses and breakups may be the most obvious experiences here. However, we can grieve many events in our lives, from our kids not getting into the school we hoped for to losing our hair to a neighbor moving away. Any experience that is a struggle to contend with can be grieved.
Grief is what we do when there’s nothing to do
We usually think of grief in relation to experiences that are beyond our control, either because they’ve already happened, because they’re inevitable, or because they’re happening as a product of forces that are more powerful than us. Grief is something we do when there is nothing to do.
Grief can be seen here as a parallel to the idea of acceptance from Eastern and new-age bents. It’s a way of contending with what is, what happened, and what is happening that we can’t control. It’s a response to the despair of, “Say it ain’t so” or, “This can’t be happening,” as well as, “I can’t believe that happened.” Because, after all, it is so, it is happening, and it did happen.
Grief presents a model of working through, not getting over
In reserving the concept of grief for select “extreme” or “unusual” events, we hold onto the idea that things are supposed to be good and easy—that losses should be infrequent. This is a fantasy of capitalism: earning a good living ought to protect us from loss (and anyway, we have insurance for the things that can’t be protected). But loss is hard. It necessarily changes us. Capitalism sold us the idea that these things shouldn’t happen and when they do, we should be able to avoid the inevitable agony of working through them.
Grief is another way—it’s a way of recognizing that suffering is a part of being alive. Grief presents a model of what therapists call “working through” as an alternative to “getting over.” When someone’s partner dies, we don’t often talk about their loss as something they need to “get over” or “leave behind” (though sometimes that language is present, which surely complicates grief). We respect this form of grief as “work,” as a process to go through.
Grief gives hope without avoiding pain
To use the word grief for all kinds of experiences articulates that this process of working through is uncomfortable. It also draws upon a familiar social ritual from death and dying that frames grief as something that can be done with others. What would it look like to bake a casserole when someone misses out on a promotion or to sit shiva after a mother’s youngest child heads off to college? What if we made a point to check in on a retired friend, not just a few weeks but months after (or on the anniversary) of their retirement?
Ultimately, grief is a concept that gives hope. When we offer to someone in pain that they’re grieving, there is a promise that the particular form of pain they’re experiencing will be productive and bring relief. While grief isn’t necessarily terminable, we can say with confidence that the reward for inviting it is that it will get easier with time. This is in contrast to messaging that suggests discomfort and pain are always to be avoided.