Grief Is Not Linear

By Susan David

No one makes it through life without experiencing grief. It is the heart-wrenching flipside of that which makes life worth living—love. When we open our hearts to love, it adds some technicolor brilliance to the black-and-white of the everyday.

But living with an open heart also means loss.

Whether through the death of a loved one, the end of a once-treasured relationship, or another less tangible form of loss, grief is an experience that none of us can escape forever.

The lived experience of grief doesn’t conform to a clear linear path of “moving forward.” It’s a raw and difficult struggle—one that can be utterly unpredictable. 

There is no one way to process profound loss, and the idea that you should be meeting external benchmarks (“I need to move from anger to bargaining by year’s end!” or “I should be over this already.”) is both unrealistic and counterproductive.

When I lost my father as a teenager, a particularly kind teacher provided me with a notebook to write about my experiences. It was a tremendous gift. One of the best things we can do in times of loss is to consider our emotions and label them precisely. 

“Grief,” like “stress,” can become a catch-all word for a whole range of feelings. You might feel regret over a harsh comment that you will never have the chance to apologize for. 

You might feel abandoned, left to navigate the world without someone who was once your north star. Particularly if the loss comes at the end of a long illness, there might even be a sense of relief that the ordeal has finally ended, and then guilt as a response to that relief.

Once you’ve discovered what you’re feeling, remind yourself that it’s perfectly fine to feel that way.

There’s no right way to grieve.

While it can be tempting for people to numb their pain with alcohol or other intoxicants, the only way out of grief is through it. Let yourself feel how you feel and you’ll begin to process those emotions. Nurture yourself by prioritizing exercise and the right amount of sleep, and accept whatever social support is available to you.

When dealing with loss, show yourself compassion. The despair you’re feeling is real, so let yourself feel it. The last thing you need is to judge yourself against overly tidy models that fail to capture the messy truths of grief. 

I take a deep dive into grief in my conversation with Rob Bell, including personal reflections on the loss of my father. If you’re currently grieving, perhaps it can be of some help or comfort.

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