Forget the Stages of Grief

Sorrow isn't a process of recovery; it's a full expression of our love.

“Getting Grief Right,” Patrick O’Malley’s op-ed in the New York Times was shared by thousands of readers, and with good reason. As a grief counselor—and as someone who lived through the death of his infant son—his approach resonates.

That op-ed inspired O’Malley’s new book, Getting Grief Right. The core message: we grieve because we love. Grief is love. That’s so simple and so true, but too often we get caught up in the myth that grief is something we have to get over. What would happen if instead, we found the story of our love through our loss? That’s the healing process that O’Malley guides us through in his book.

It’s such an essential read because all of us will grieve in this life, and all of us will be called upon to support someone we love who’s grieving.

One of my favorite chapters is “Help for the Helper.” In it, O’Malley talks about what to do—and what not to do—when someone is bereaved. He invites us to avoid clichés. We slip into them when we’re trying to help, but they can hurt. So many clichés imply that there’s a timetable for grief or that being positive is the “cure.”

• “Time heals all wounds.”
• “You have to move on.”
• “Grief happens in stages.”
• “I hope you find closure.”
• “Be strong.”
• “He wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
• “It’s important to stay busy and productive.”
• “You can’t dwell in the past.”
• “Count your blessings.”
• “Others have it worse.”
• “This will make you stronger.”
• “You seem to be holding up really well.”
• “Look for the silver lining.”
• “I know just how you feel.”
• “You have your whole life ahead of you.”
• “At least you’re young enough to have another child/remarry.”

Most of us make the mistake of trying to take away a grieving person’s pain. Of course, that’s impossible. Consider being a companion in their grief instead. Just be there. Clear your mind and open your heart and be there for them, wherever they are, without judgment.

Listening helps. Saying, “I’m very sorry” helps. As O’Malley coaches us: “just mean it and then be quiet.” But most of us (understandably) still feel the need to do something for the person we care about when they’re grieving.

In Getting Grief Right, O’Malley shares some things that his clients have told him meant a lot. Here are a few:

• Bringing a meal on the two-month anniversary of a death.

• When you’re with the bereaved person, say the name of the one they lost. Grieving people love hearing it from the lips of someone else.

• Don’t assume there’s a timeline to grief. An email a year after a loss could be more meaningful than one a week later.

• Be curious about the grieving person’s relationship to the one they lost. Ask how they met, where they traveled together, what they miss most, about the day it happened.

• Bring up your own memories: “Remember that time we double-dated in college?” or “You may not know this, but your dad was a big influence in my life.”





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