Key Takeaways

    • Grief is a natural complex response to a meaningful loss. It is not only a mix of emotions, but a powerful whole-body response.
    • Like snowflakes, each grief experience is unique, but there are universal commonalities among them. 
    • Grief is tied to love and attachment, the role close relationships play in our life.
    • Grief is permanent but evolves over time as the griever learns to live with the loss. It continues to ebb and flow depending on reminders around us.
    • Most bereaved people are able to gradually regain their footing in life, but some might struggle with intense, debilitating grief for years.
What is grief?

Grief is the natural response to a meaningful loss. Whether it’s the loss of a person, a dream, a sense of stability, or something else, it is the way we as humans accept, adjust, and heal ourselves. It’s something that every person is likely to go through at some point in their life. It is uniquely universal and extremely personal at the same time. It can also be a very confusing experience – how can something with such depth and breadth of impact feel so isolating and individualized? We can start to make more sense of the universality of grief when we think of it as a form of love. Grief and love are nearly inseparable; and, just like grief, love is something that is widely experienced but never exactly the same from person to person. 

We define acute grief as the initial form of grief that is often intense and dominates the mind of the bereaved person. We can think of acute grief as a severe thunderstorm that completely takes over our life. The type of storm that cancels plans and makes the power go out. During the power outage, you can do everything possible to get by, like lighting candles and using flashlights, but it would be extremely difficult to live this way forever.

Understanding grief through understanding love

While grief is unique to every person and every loss, there are important commonalities that appear universal, cross cultures and continents, and defy time. Understanding love and how it is mirrored in grief can help us better understand the shared core of grief experiences. Attachment theory helps us do that. It is one of the psychological theories that emphasize the importance of close relationships rooted in our biology. 

According to attachment theory, we are biologically driven to develop close connections with a few special people throughout our lifetime. Those are the people we turn to for support when things are tough, and they are the ones cheering for our success when we try new things. It feels good to be together, and we prefer not to part for long. We also want to take good care of them. They are the suns of our personal universe. Yet behind the scenes, out of our conscious awareness, complex physiological and psychological processes are involved in regulating and maintaining that universe. Often, only an earthquake of a loss and its disruption and devastation make us realize how important that relationship was.

How the attachment theory-based model can support healing

When we think about grief as a form of love, it is easier to understand that it never really goes away. Over time, we learn to live with grief, find a place for it in our lives, rebalance the disruption it caused in our bodies and minds, and revel in happy memories while remembering that our loved one is gone. While grief never really goes away, it does change over time. Many explain it like the ocean – there will always be waves. Some are so small that they don’t even reach your feet on the sand. Some are so strong and intense that they knock you to the ground. What’s important is that you allow grief to be a part of your world in such a way that you can return to your life, have enriching experiences, foster relationships, and reflect on times with your lost loved one with peace and joy amid inherent sorrow.

Thank you to our contributors

Kelsey Cottingham & Natalia Skritskaya

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