The Pendulum of Grieving

Windy country road lined with treesThe idea of there being stages of grief has been greatly popularized and accepted over the last few decades. It is an idea that gives us perspective on our grief, like the red dotted line going across a map in an old movie to show the itinerary of the protagonists.

However, among professionals, theses stages have been slowly phased out of use over the years for lack of evidence from both research and casual observation.

Now, the old saying that “If you have a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail” comes to mind. Our preconceptions predispose us to experience things a certain way. If we look at our thoughts, feelings, and actions during grief, surely some of it will fit into the five stages Kübler-Ross described: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This is because these are some of the reactions to loss. Yet these reactions do not tell the whole, or accurate, story of our grief experience.

Most people, according to recent research, do not arrive at acceptance last. Even when people express feeling shock and numbness, they have accepted their loss—they know that someone has died, or that they are divorced, or that they lost their jobs. Wishing something has not happened, or forgetting something that has happened, or feeling the surreal quality of what has occurred, is not the same as denying that it ever happened. To be truly in denial, we cannot consciously acknowledge what it is we deny, for the sake of our psychological well being. It is the very opposite of acceptance.

These days, new knowledge about how we grieve is beginning to filter through and influence how professionals provide grief counseling, and, it is hoped, how we support each other in grief as lay people. There is no longer any point in insisting that someone go through a stage he or she appears to be “skipping” or to feel that one is not “grieving right” if one does not experience certain stages of grief.

According to researchers Stroebe and Schut, we grieve by swinging between two main kinds of activities: loss and restoration.

Loss activities involve missing who or what was lost, crying, feeling sad, etc. This is what we usually associate with grief.

Restorative activities include feeling normal again, socializing with friends and family, enjoying good weather, remembering better times, etc. This is usually the unsung hero in grief, because it looks like what we think of as “normal” behavior, but in the context of grief, it is definitely a part of the experience of mourning and also what helps us to endure, and eventually integrate, our losses into our lives.

The back and forth of our thoughts, feelings, and actions between loss and restoration also give us a different road map for our grief. Rather than conceptualizing ourselves as “backsliding” or “getting worse when I thought I was getting better,” which happens with an idea like stages, using a model of grief that recognizes a natural and wavy progress helps us to know that we are moving forward, even when wistfulness strikes unexpectedly after some time basking in the sun.

It is natural to miss and yearn for someone, just as it is natural to feel better. We may not always want to feel better for fear of forgetting our loved ones or not showing how much we loved by how inconsolable we are, but it is part of our humanity that we can grieve and heal, lose and reconnect. Our pain helps us to remember, but let us not forget that our joy has the same capacity, too.

Reference
Stroebe, M., Henk S. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: rationale and description. Death Studies 23, 197-224.

Related articles:
Psychotherapy and the “Middle Way”
A Season of Grieving and Transformation
How to Be With Someone Who Is Grieving

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ivan Chan, MA, MFTi, therapist in Santa Cruz, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • nona

    nona

    March 1st, 2012 at 3:04 PM

    I lost my own mom a few years ago and there are times when I can think back on her and smile and then other times that I think of all of the time that we missed out on together, and it is like a pendulum swinging. There is no rhyme or reason to the grief and when I feel it more than others, but sometimes there is a sadness that can’t be explained, just in the same way that some days there is an overwhelming happiness and joy about the time that we actually did have the chance to spend together. More than anything I would say to someone else who is feeling this, don’t deny it or try to bury the hurt. Accept it and work through it and I promise you that every day gets just a little easier.

  • Anita

    Anita

    March 1st, 2012 at 4:59 PM

    kubler ross was always about making people fit into some kind of prescribed box, and if any emotion is going to not be a one size fits all, it would be grief. How can you determine who is going to grieve for how long and how it is going to affect the individual? There is just no way to predict that, and to pretend that we can in misleading at best.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    March 1st, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    I’ve never blogged so please bear with me. It’s been a year since my boyfriend of 20 yrs. died. I blame myself and wish he had taken me with him. I do try to remember the good times, but I miss him so much. I don’t have anyone to talk to. How do I get past this? I keep asking why. I’ve been threw so much pain in my life, when will it stop. How can I make it stop?

  • Lynne R

    Lynne R

    March 2nd, 2012 at 5:25 AM

    Even when you have not necessarily faced a huge loss in life, there are times that our emotions can be compared to that of a swinging pendulum, and for someone to tell you that you are not feeling things the right way is so wrong. That makes people who do not know how to process their feelings feel less than worthy, like they are doing something wrong, even though they are simply expressing their emotions.

  • Dan Bolton

    Dan Bolton

    March 2nd, 2012 at 7:42 AM

    Ivan, you hit home again!

  • Christopher Gronlund

    Christopher Gronlund

    March 2nd, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    The pendulum is a good analogy. I never fit into the Kübler-Ross model. My father died when I was 22, and there was no denial, anger, or bargaining. I missed him and was sad, but I had good memories and rebounded. My sister died 11 years later and it was more a pendulum thing. Again, no denial, anger, or bargaining, but there was some back and forth between being sad and moving on.

    My father in law died this past Christmas morning and my wife has handled it as well as one can handle losing a parent. Again, it’s more a pendulum effect, where she goes awhile feeling good and something reminds her of her dad and she’s down for an evening and back at living her life the next day. Several days later, repeat.

    Telling people how to properly grieve and what they should feel always struck me as strange. I don’t know why, but I deal with death as well as one can. I know people who are devastated by a loss decades later; it’s always with them. My way isn’t right; their way isn’t wrong. In all cases, the pendulum effect seems to sum up the way we all deal with death and other big things we face.

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    March 2nd, 2012 at 6:39 PM

    Nona: Thank you for your comment, and sharing this gentle piece of wisdom.

    Anita: It’s true that it’s hard to predict how we will grieve! Even the same person grieves differently each loss.

    Lisa: I’m so sorry for your loss, and the pain you’re going through. I’m also glad that you decided to post your comment here for the first time, asking for help. I strongly recommend that you find a local therapist/counselor who is knowledgeable about grief and can work with you. If money is an issue, look to community mental health agencies and hospices near you; they will often offer low- to no-cost counseling. Another great place to find someone to talk to is Suicide Prevention Service, regardless of whether you’re suicidal–they’re great listeners available for free, 24/7/365 and can also help with referring you to someone who can help you effectively. Try the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to suicidehotlines.com for more numbers and information. There is a way to make it through your grief!

    Lynne: Very true! And it can also make people who are more “doers” than “feelers” feel like they’re doing something wrong, too, when they’d rather be active than express feelings. We all have our own ways of coping.

    Dan: Thank you so much! From an excellent blogger/writer like yourself, that’s quite a compliment!

    Christopher: I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your father-in-law. Please share my condolences with your wife. Thank you for taking the time to share your own experiences with grief; I’m glad what I wrote resonated with you. Your recounting of how you handled your grief from both losses, and most likely this third loss, reminds me of another important factor in grieving, which has to do with a person’s natural resilience to loss–the time it takes to “bounce back.”

  • Vanessa

    Vanessa

    March 3rd, 2012 at 1:53 PM

    I have read the article here and the comments. I like most of all the fact that the author took the time to read the comments too and to make note of everyone here. That’s pretty cool.

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    March 5th, 2012 at 11:29 PM

    Vanessa: Thanks! I try to be responsive. GoodTherapy.org is working on getting comment notification for all of us, so that we can know when someone’s posted a comment or reply (for example, I would’ve replied to you sooner had I gotten an automatic notification).

    Thanks for your compliment, and for reading my article.

  • Sandra

    Sandra

    April 13th, 2012 at 12:20 PM

    This is a lovely article. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with us.

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    May 1st, 2012 at 11:24 AM

    Hello Sandra,

    Thanks for reading the article and posting your kind comment.

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Shelly

    Shelly

    December 17th, 2012 at 6:31 PM

    There is nothing neat or orderly about grief so it will never fit into nice neat little boxes. I certainly feel the swing of the pendulum. I thought I was in a happy marriage. My husband put on a good act of being happy until recently when he decided to exit the marriage via an instant message. His reason was that we were not blossoming. I asked him to elaborate but he didn’t and I have not seen or heard from him since. You would have thought he would have let me know there was a problem of some sort. I loved my husband truly and deeply. It looks like I shall never know what really happened since he will not speak to me. Also I do not understand how someone can say I love you, be kind and affectionate one day then run away the next. It has truly hit me like a ton of bricks.

  • Ivan Chan

    Ivan Chan

    December 17th, 2012 at 10:49 PM

    Dear Shelly,

    I am sorry to hear about your loss, and the way you were treated. It is certainly confusing what your husband did.

    What happened is bigger than this blog is able to handle, unfortunately. I hope, or suggest, that you find a great therapist to work with you through this hurt, betrayal, and grief.

    Take care,

    Ivan

  • Kevin Lyle

    Kevin Lyle

    November 14th, 2015 at 2:53 PM

    Hi, Following the death of both of my Parents withing 7 years of each other, my Father first through cancer and my Mother 7 yrs later through Parkinsons & Other factors, I felt differently for both. My father was older by several years and his Lung Cancer came on suddenly and his death quickly followed, as the male head of the household I was initially strong but later faltered months after his death. Whether or not there was an element of depression is hard to say because of other factors. However I bounced back within a few weeks. My Mother simply deteriorated very slowly to begin with, but once in a Nursing home she visibly deteriorated each week we visited. Its a terrible disease sometimes she recognized us and on others she did not even speak only looked at myself and my wife with a blank stare. She was bed ridden and required constant attention. I actually got to hate our regular visits. However when she died (we we’re present at that time) I felt overwhelming guilt because I felt that I had willed it so because of her terrible condition. I knew it was irrational, but my Mum had a living will and I knew she would have hated to live through that.
    My experiences prompted me to create a website about Grief and Grieving if at all possible I would love to have you place a link to it. I would also like to link to your article about “The Pendulum of Grieving”
    Thanks
    Kevin

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