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Grief is a Roller Coaster: The Grief Recovery Institute's Advice for Recovering After a Loss

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Some helpful thoughts from grief specialist Stephen Moeller

Two of the most popular sayings about grief are that it happens in five defined stages and can be cured by time. But The Grief Recovery Institute, whose mission it is to help grievers and give them the tools they need to recover, knows better than anyone that these things simply aren't true. We chatted with Stephen Moeller, a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist at the Grief Recovery Institute, about his experiences with grief and any insights he has for those who are struggling with the loss of a loved one.

What’s the one piece of advice you give the most often?

Grief will tend to control your ability to enjoy any fond memories of your relationship lost as long as let it. By that I mean that unless you take personal action to effectively deal with the emotional pain of your loss, that pain will persist. No matter how you try to suppress those feelings, they will continue to disrupt your life. If you find that whenever you see or hear something that reminds you of that person, you find that your fond memories are swept away by all the things that you wish might have been different, better or more in that relationship, it is a sign that you have unresolved grief issues, no matter how much time has actually passed since that loss. Taking action to deal with those things that are still “incomplete” in that relationship will allow you to be able to remember those joyful memories without that deep sadness. Taking effective action is the cornerstone of The Grief Recovery Method, and is spelled out in The Grief Recovery Handbook. The authors of that book, John W. James and Russell Friedman, will walk you through that process, hand in hand, to guide you on your journey of recovery.

What are some of the universal experiences you’ve seen in your work?

Most grievers really want to feel better! They want to move beyond the overwhelming sense of loss! These are a few of the experiences we see most often:

1. Grievers tend to spend a great deal of their time focusing on regrets of what happened in the past or fearing what their future is going to be, since it is not the future that had planned.

2. They tend to stuff their feelings, because no one ever taught them how to effectively deal with any kind of loss in their lives. 

3. Most people, who they counted on to be their best support, tend to fail them, because they haven’t a clue as to how to really help them. These friends give them platitudes, rather than real assistance. They often say such things as “I know how you feel,” when that it truly impossible, even if they have experienced a similar loss. Another bit of advice that they offer is telling a griever, “You need to get over it!” A griever never “gets over” their loss, but with the proper assistance, can learn to survive and thrive in spite of it.

4. Grief can be very isolating. Grievers often feel very much alone in their pain, even when they are surround by others who have experienced the same loss. Since our personal grief is based on our own unique relationships, it is rare that they find someone who has any real concept of their level of emotional pain.

5. Once a griever has taken effective action to move beyond the emotional pain of their loss, such as utilizing The Grief Recovery Method, they are amazed that they can actually look forward to the future once more. 

6. Many times, I have heard a friend (or even a clergy person) tell a parent who has lost a child, particularly at birth, that they can always have another one! No loss is replaceable! It might sound like a logical comment, but in truth it is a very painful one to hear, since each child is unique! Likewise, grievers often find it very painful when people tell them that they should be thankful of whatever time they had with whoever it was they lost. Most grievers are thankful, but still wish they had more time to share!


What’s one thing you’d like to share with a new griever?

There are no stages of grief, other than feeling overwhelmed. I cannot begin to count the number of times that I have had a griever tell me that they know they cannot get better until they go through the “5 stages of grief.” What they do not understand is that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross originally identified those “stages” as phases that people went through once they were diagnosed with a terminal illness, and have nothing to do with the survivors of emotional loss. Most people have heard of the “5 stages” and are convinced that if they do not proceed through them in exact order, they will never recover.

I also like to share with them that “time” is not a factor in recovery. May people have heard people say that "grief just takes time,” or that a certain amount of time needs to pass before they can feel better. In truth, time just goes by, but has nothing to do with recovery. The passage of time, more than anything else, simply makes them used to feeling bad, but offers no real relief.

What are some ways others can help support someone in their grief?

Perhaps the best thing someone can do for a griever is to simply ask them to share what happened, and then listen without analysis, criticism, or judgement.  The majority of grievers want to retell their story, but very few people offer them the opportunity. Often, when people do ask this question, and the griever begins to share, that well-meaning friend then gives them reasons why they should not feel bad, or tells them the story of another griever who suffered even more. Telling someone why they should not feel bad never makes them feel better. If anything, it only encourages to stuff their feelings. Hearing that someone else suffered even more leaves the griever feeling discounted in their emotional pain, which likewise offers no assistance.  Just listening to them tell their story and letting the griever see that you are emotionally touched by what they have to say, is one of the best things you can do, as a friend. (In my case, I may then tell them about the Grief Recovery Method program.)

Rather than telling the griever to call them if they need anything, a better plan is to offer to do something specific, such as providing a meal, helping with child care, or something else. Most grievers rarely ask anyone for anything, but will often willing accept specific offers of help.  
When you are trying to “be there” for a griever, keep in mind everything that was said in answer to questions 2 and 3!

Are there any aspects of grief others may find surprising?

Most grievers are surprised at the odd times and things that can re-trigger their grief. It can be a favorite song on the radio, an item on a grocery shelf or even a smell that offers a reminder of that relationship and leaves them in tears.  

Many grievers are often surprised by the roller coaster ride that grief often is. Their emotional mood swings can often be both surprising and frightening.

Is there anything else you’d like to share that you think can help others?

On this subject, I could write a book, but most of what I would want to say is covered in The Grief Recovery HandbookWhen Children Grieve, and the other books that are part of the Grief Recovery Institute collection. Perhaps my greatest wish is that people might be given better tools when they are growing up in how to deal with the emotional pain of any kind of loss. Most children are told to not feel bad, replace the loss (when it is a pet or toy), be strong, keep busy and that grief just takes time. None of these things are really effective in dealing with emotional pain. More than anything else, such comments cause people to stuff that pain inside.

The problem with grief is that it is cumulative. If you continue to stuff your painful feelings, you eventually run out room to experience joy in your heart! Learning to effectively deal with that emotional pain is a true gift that can make every new day a positive adventure worth living. I know that for a fact, because once I learned how to better deal with the grief in my life, I was able to find the joy that I had been missing!

Stephen Moeller has been a licensed Funeral Director since 1978. Steve established one of the first Grief Recovery Method Support Groups over thirty years ago. Since then, thousands of grievers have gone through his programs. Steve was the Director for Community Relations at Floral Haven Crematory, Funeral Home, and Cemetery in Broken Arrow, OK, prior to resigning to form Grief Recovery Resources, Inc. He has also served on the Tulsa County Task Force on Infant Mortality, the Tulsa Human Response Coalition, and was a member of “Ask the Experts” on Aurora Casket’s Funeral Plan. Steve is a featured grief and recovery speaker at hospitals, churches, civic clubs and many other organizations, but spends the bulk of his working time focused on Certification Trainings.

Learn more about The Grief Recovery Method and Grief Recovery Institute at GriefRecoveryMethod.com


 

Are you grieving the death of a loved one? Find support from others in one of our private grief support groups.
 


 

Related: 'Tell Your Story': Grieving Dads Project Founder Talks Mourning The Loss of a Child