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“You’re just going to have to let them go…”

By Hester Ng, Provisional Psychologist

What is grief? It seems pretty obvious. “Something that happens when you lose something or someone that matters to you…”

Ok, so what does grief look like? The answer is less obvious… but still it’s easy to pull up some ideas. Crying. Losing sleep. Sleeping too much. Not eating. Eating too much. A deep sense of loss.

How long should grief last? Now this one starts to get much harder to answer. Should the length of grief be directly related to how long you were connected to the person or thing lost? Or does it not matter? Someone might grieve the loss of their 3 month relationship for 2 years, whilst another may grieve the loss of their 30 year marriage for 2 months.

What do people grieve about? Well there are obvious answers that come to mind. Death. Marriage. Pets. But what about more ambiguous losses? Sometimes losses come and people around you have no idea that you are grieving. Or they have no understanding at all of the loss you have experienced. Things like miscarriage, chronic or terminal illness, dementia, violence and missing people.

Grief. Something that none of us can escape. It’s a universal experience that unifies us. But it’s also deeply personal and the way it plays out in each person is very unique. No two people grieving will look the same.

Grief has been understood in a variety of ways in psychology literature and these have strongly influenced how we as a society think about what grief is supposed to look like.

There are those who say that grief is something that works through stages. Then there are those who see grief as a fluid experience – which means that it doesn’t follow any sort of structure or pattern.

The view which has gained a lot of momentum in our culture is the idea that grief is experienced in a predictable process of five stages (shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). If someone fails to experience the fullness of each stage, then that means that something has gone wrong with their grieving process.

If grief worked like this, it would be much easier to manage! It takes something extremely intricate and complex and turns it into something predictable and manageable. But the biggest problem with seeing grief in this light is for people who don’t follow these stages in their grieving. We end up making people feel ashamed or labelling those who might grieve differently.

What is interesting is that there has been a real movement away from looking at grief in that way. In fact, the whole idea of telling someone to ‘let go’ of their loved one actually be unhelpful. Grieving well doesn’t necessarily been cutting ties, but it could look like maintaining some sort of relationship with the person who has passed.

So, in the case of losing a loved one – what can you do to help someone grieve well?

  1. Rather than ‘letting go’ or ‘cutting ties’, encourage the person to see their life as a story, with their loss as one of the many chapters in the story. Not something that has to delete or destroy previous chapters.
  2. Rather than getting ‘closure’, it’s about helping the individual redefine their relationship and bond with the person who has passed. One way to do this is to encourage them to keep a journal where they can write letters to their loved one.
  3. Encourage the individual to process the loss by talking and expressing themselves. This will help them to find meaning in what has happened and also recreate a new way of looking at their world as it is now without the person they have lost. Finding a counsellor or psychologist who is well trained to provide an empathetic ear could be extremely helpful.

Some questions to ponder:

  • How do you understand grief?
  • Is it more or less helpful to see it as something to experience in stages?
  • Have you ever encouraged someone to let go of a loved one? How did they respond?

Bottom line:

It’s something we will all have to experience at one time or another, but every individual’s grieving process is going to look different.


Klass, D., Silverman, P. R., & Nickman, S. L. (Eds.). (1996). Continuing bonds: New understandings of grief. Taylor & Francis.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan.

Neimeyer, R. A. (2006). Making meaning in the midst of loss. Grief Matters: The Australian Journal of Grief and Bereavement, 9, 62.

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