The ‘Rules’ of grief


Don’t feel like there is a hard and fast set of rules to grief after i have spent much of this book telling you that we all grieve in our own unique way and that there is no right or wrong. The rules i speak of in this chapter are the ones you actually impose on yourself.

We subconsciously give ourself a chain of commands and instructions that shape the way we manage our grief, or fail to manage as the case can often be. A verbal example of a constructive rule would sound like “I know i’ll feel better once I’ve spoken about it” or a negative rule we self impose would sound like “I can’t forgive myself for arguing with him before he walked out the door”.

You may be wondering how a ‘comment’ can carry such significance? Belief’s of any nature are actually agreements we make with ourselves, contracts if you like that state what we think and feel about certain subjects. If we continuously give ourselves the same command, we will inevitably grow to believe its the truth.

Our truth is therefore not always entirely accurate because sometimes we make those agreements based on assumptions and a tendency to reach for the worst case scenario not realising that we can be responsible for making our journey through grief slightly more complicated than it already invariably is.

Our language is incredibly influential on us and probably predetermined before we even experience the loss. Some people are typically kinder to themselves with the words they choose for example “I will be as honest as i can about how i feel” Where as some are incredibly harsh with their instruction and opt for a limiting version such as “I can’t see myself ever being happy again”

The most important part of these sentences are the verbs we use such as cant’t or won’t. these are so rigid and un-opportunistic and are so limiting in their effects, how do we know we cant or we won’t until we try? The softer more flexible presuppositions we could use are ‘might’ or ‘could’.

Wether its your language that is imposing the rules by which you grieve or your propensity to be quite closed and inflexible in your coping with the situation, the following case study will help you fully understand my message by applying it to a real life situation that i encountered with one of my clients James who was very much imposing rules on himself that were not going to help him navigate through his grief.


Anniversaries and special occasions.

It had been 4 years since James lost his Mum to bowel Cancer and his nephew to a brain aneurysm at just 10 years old. There was barely months between the losses and it had understandably led James to admit that he struggles with the big occasions.

For him the build up starts at the beginning of December. He feels down, he blows his fuse more so than usual, he has knots in his stomach and cant work out why. He then realises its because he has this run of anniversaries and birthdays to deal with. His command in language pre-christmas period is “I need to get it out the way and then i can feel more positive” (Rule/Command 1)

After christmas, Mum’s Birthday is the 29th of December, the anniversary of her passing is then on the 28th of January and only then does he allow himself to think “Right, now the year starts here.” (Rule 2)

James’ rule is almost suggesting to me that he therefore loses 2 months of the year. After the event he describes his relief by thinking “Right – its done.” (Rule 3)

When I ask James what his family and he do on these occasions he gives me a little clue as to why he is in the mindset he is in. “We don’t talk about it we just get together.” (Rule 4)

I wanted to question some of these rules that i was hearing. ‘Get it out the way’? i ask. Its more of a reminder, doesn’t feel like a celebration even though i know it should.

Would you rather forget? “No but i do go for long periods of time not thinking about them between these anniversaries which are not convenient for me? (Rule 5)

Whats a convenient moment then? “Convenient Moments are ones that are in my control like talking to you now and thinking of Mum when i look at the photo next to my bed. Inconvenient is when it takes me by surprise, its not my choice.”

Firstly this is quite an unrealistic expectation to imagine that grief will fit in with when you feel its a good time is setting yourself up for many inconvenient moments. I feel it appropriate to tell James about the ‘facing the waves’ metaphor and how what he has just told me might be easier to understand through visual means.

I put him on the beach and he knows he is facing inland. There are constant (inconvenient) waves of grief soaking him from behind. He accepts how he is refusing to turn around and acknowledge the sea (his loss) even though it would mean he could see them coming and it would be less of an inconvenience to him. If you wont face the waves its acceptance you’re looking for.

Grief certainly has a consistent ability to send waves in your direction, to know its there and to know they’re coming yet to refuse to acknowledge this certainly and them complain about each waves arrival is how our stubbornness is more of a detrimental hold up for us than it is a holding off of the facts.

Grief can be perceived in many ways, i happen to believe it works with or for us and actually plays a vital role in the recovery from an attachment that has been lost. I asked him (and i would like you to consider) would he prefer if grief didn’t exist?

If the loss happens and we don’t feel grief and its waves didn’t exist what would stop you from forgetting about your Mum and Nephew? Ok you wouldn’t fear losing people but you wouldn’t ache or agonise over someones memory if there wasn’t something reminding you what you’d lost?

The turning point was when i asked James about how in not wanting to be reminded he was in his words, happier to be in a state of forgetting about them. He didn’t like the idea of forgetting about either of them, it seems disrespectful to do that doesn’t it?

He realised that in order to remember them he was going to have to accept the reminders were they were in his control or not because without grief’s tap on the shoulder that would be the direction he would drift to.


What is Strength in loss?

Maybe more typical of a male suffering from a loss i wanted to highlight another area that self imposed rules are commonly found. James described how he didn’t like the idea of someone at work potentially asking him what he was doing on mothers day for fear of being ‘reminded’.

When i asked why, it was because he didn’t like the idea of letting someone in to his pain, he didn’t want someone feeling sorry for him because to him that felt like weakness?

I made it clear what weakness and strength was in that specific situation by pretending to be him in that conversation. I answered for him by saying back to the colleague matter of factly that “on Mothers day ill be doing something for my Mum because she isn’t here anymore sadly” I then answered the way he maybe would feeling the way he did and said “ah nothing much” whilst looking down at my feet and awkwardly shuffling out of the conversation. He could see that my first response was much stronger, it required bravery and honesty and to look the colleague in the eye and state the facts whereas the alternative, to avoid and deflect from saying what was really going on was in fact a weaker strategy.

For every command or rule we impose there is an alternative. We chose the rules based on previous life experiences and also our expectations on our ability to cope coming into grief. Let me show you the options James had in his choices of language and supposed belief.


Rule 1 – “I need to get it out the way and then i can feel more positive”

For starters, you don’t get grief ‘out of the way’ You get car’s out the way when its blocking your driveway, you get your tax return ‘out the way’ so you don’t have a load of stress on your shoulders at the end of the financial year. Grief is something we learn to cohabit alongside.

It becomes part of our daily routine’s so a kinder and more accurate view would be to say “I’m going to plan something for the anniversary that the person i lost will be happy with and whatever emotion i feel on the day ill accept as being natural. I will feel more positive when i have expressed my feelings through talking, remembering or crying.”


Rule 2 – “Right, now the new year starts here.”

If you’re happy to let everyone else in the world get a months head start then that rule is ok. If however death has taught him that life is precious and every day should be made the most of James would probably want to reclaim his December and January  Yes it has some tricky dates to navigate but when those dates become celebrations of what you had instead of inconvenient reminders of what you lost, it wouldn’t feel like a part of the calendar you wish didn’t exist.

A healthier representation of that quote would be “Now we’ve come through another batch of big occasions i know that we are remembering Mum and Nephew the way they would like to be remembered. Because I’m being respectful to the person I’ve lost I’m now glad for the opportunities to release some grief with the people i shared their memory with. There is no start and end to the times when i can miss that person, time goes on and so does my love for them.


Rule 3 – “Right – its done.”

Whats done? Having to remember because its painful? Its never done. The more you do share openly and honestly your loss, the less painful it becomes. i remember sharing with James how avoiding the memories is a short term solution to a long term journey.

In the short term you may feel like you’re outrunning grief but you’re simply contributing to the additional issues that you’ll need to recognise on top of your grief sooner or later. Delay and denial also creates other issues for those around us, some need to act less naturally in order to enable your rigid belief’s, some may feel unable to share their grief because you wont share yours and they’d do that for you in order to protect you?

We show relief at getting the bathroom cleaned at home, we say “Right – Thats done” when we have cleaned out the attic or braved the supermarket on a Saturday afternoon. Do we want our loved one to be thought of in that way?

The alternative here is that “We are grateful to have had such an incredible person in our lives that gives us the reason to get together and share so many happy thoughts and memories about how they influenced our lives and truly made them better.”


Rule 4 – “We don’t talk about it we just get together.”

The family give us the support we need and there is still solidarity in silence but a family that don’t talk is like a culture of suppression, one member may want to talk but doesn’t for fear of upsetting the others and in the end it becomes ‘the norm’ for the family to deal with their loss in this way.

Getting together is a lovely gesture but not talking to each other about the ‘elephant in the room’ is like going to a football match and facing the back of the stand, going to a train station but not boarding a train and going to school to not listen to a word a teacher says to you.

How would you feel if you were the person who died? if they were looking down at that get together, would they be upset that nobody mentioned anything about them that ever made them happy? I would personally prefer to be remembered joyfully with lots of talking about how i touched the lives of the people i shared my journey with. The thought of my boys sitting in silence terrifies me, i must make sure they know that!

I get it, we don’t want to hurt someone or ourselves by mentioning the wrong thing. Can anything, anything at all actually come close to reciprocating the feeling of pain and trauma that you experienced on hearing about the loss in the first place?

No you’re right. You’ve done the hard part and nothing will come close to that until you go through it again. Remembering however, see it as a privilege that you had that person in the first place and that our love and respect for that person should make it an absolute given that the very least we do is talk about their existence. Because you wouldn’t want them to feel forgotten would you?


Rule 5 – “I go for long periods of time not thinking about them between these anniversaries which are not convenient for me”

Convenience by definition is the state of being able to proceed with something without difficulty. If you are expecting to proceed without difficulty with the loss of someone very special to you then you’re seriously underestimating the challenge ahead.

Unrealistic expectations just set yourself up for failure. Its like trying to jump 3 double decker buses on a roller skates, not paying your bills and expecting your electricity to not be cut off and not putting petrol in the car but expecting it to go on for ever and ever.

Do we want to go long periods without thinking about them? What happens if we think about them little and often? Would we have the huge crashes if we didn’t leave it for such long periods of time? The ideal alternative to the meaning of this rule would be “I think about my loss all the time, sometimes i create the thought, sometimes it just springs up on me. Either way its up to me wether that memory is pleasure or pain because i control the continuation of my thoughts even if i didn’t ask for it to be there.”

“I understand that these waves may not come at the opportune moment and i might need to leave the class or excuse myself from the office to catch my breath but I’m being realistic by understanding that i don’t have to be at my best all of the time, it would be unrealistic to think that i could, so if i do feel the effects of grief, ill let it come and let it pass and accept that this is part of my journey through loss.”


Leave A Reply