The Work of Grief

By Therese Rando, Ph.D.

As a griever, you need to appreciate the fact that grief is work. It requires the expenditure of both physical and emotional energy. It is no less strenuous a task than digging a ditch or any other physical labor. The term “grief work” was coined by psychiatrist Erich Lindemann in 1944 to describe the tasks and processes that you must complete successfully in order to resolve your grief. The term shows that grief is something you must work at actively if you are to resolve it in a healthy fashion. It demands much more than merely passively experiencing your reactions to loss: you must actively do things and undertake specific courses of thought and action to integrate and resolve your grief.

However, grief is not commonly perceived as work. You probably are not prepared for the intensity of your emotional reactions and do not fully understand the importance of accepting and expressing them. You probably do not expect to have to work so hard to accommodate yourself to your loved one’s absence or to build a new identity and world for yourself. Grief can deplete you to such an extent that the slightest tasks become monumental, and what previously was easily achievable now may seem insurmountable.

Since most other people are similarly unaware about grief and how much work it involves, they may not provide you with the social or emotional support you need during your grief. In fact, society’s unrealistic expectations and inappropriate response to your normal grief reactions may make the grief experience much worse than it otherwise would be. For instance, if people did not tell you to “Be brave,” “Put this behind you,” or that “You shouldn’t be feeling that way,” along with other unhealthy suggestions, you probably would have fewer conflicts about expressing your grief. You also would have more realistic expectations about the grief process and in general would have fewer problems in recovering naturally from it. This is why it is so crucial that society be given realistic and appropriate information about grief. It is time that other people become a support to grievers, not a hindrance.

Your work of grieving entails mourning not only the actual person you’ve lost but also the hopes, dreams, wishes, fantasies, unfulfilled expectations, feelings, and needs you had for and with that person These are significant symbolic secondary losses that you must identify and grieve. They include not only what is lost in the present but also what is now lost to the future as well. The widow must grieve not only for the present loss of her beloved husband, but also for the retirement they will not share, their special dreams that will be unfulfilled, his absence at his grandson’s birth, and more. This doesn’t mean you must do this all at once. That would be overwhelming. Instead, you need to do this gradually through the mourning process so you can let go of what is necessary to give up from the past, healthily experience the present, and prepare for the future.

Sometimes the death of a loved one brings up not only grief for what you lost, but also grief for what you never had and now never will have. For example, if you had a very conflicted relationship with your mother, when she dies you may grieve not only for what you have lost, but also for the fact that you never had a better relationship with her, that she never was the kind of mother you wanted her to be, and that now you will never have even the hope that it could change and you could get what you want. In such a case you grieve for the past, present, and future.

Another issue that can complicate your grief work is the fact that major loss always resurrects old issues and unresolved conflicts. The pain, emptiness and sorrow caused by your separation from your loved one frequently reawaken your earliest and most repressed feelings of anxiety and helplessness as a child. The terror and power of these reawakened memories can be overwhelming to any of us. Old conflicts about dependency, ambivalence, parent-child relations, and security, to name but a few, are also stirred by your experience of loss. They, too, can interfere with a successful resolution of grief. Finally, this is a time when your other not-so-old but still unresolved (or perhaps resolved, but nevertheless still sensitive) losses can come back to haunt you. These can make you feel even more deprived, more vulnerable, and more powerless and out of control. It is terribly unfortunate, yet past issues often arise at the precise moment when you are struggling to confront a current loss. They add to the burden of the grief process. Therefore, when you are dealing with the death of a loved one, you frequently are contending not only with the present loss but also with old losses and unfinished emotional business as well.

Tilly’s husband died at age sixty, following a two-year battle with cancer. Tilly was left alone in her home, since her three adult children lived out of state. After the death, Tilly was surprised to find herself not only feeling grief over the death of her husband but also preoccupied with memories and feelings about her adolescence when her beloved father had abandoned the family.

Tilly thought about how she had reacted then, and she experienced in the present her earlier feelings of loss, fear, insecurity, and confusion. She felt like the fourteen-year-old girl for whom it seemed as if the earth had been shaken when her father walked out the door. Although she knew better, she felt like she was as helpless now as she was then, when she had few resources to help her cope and the world was so frightening. She wanted her father back again, even though he was long dead. It seemed like she was in shock again now as she was when her father left, even though she had anticipated her husband’s death. Her present loss had resurrected the long-buried thoughts and emotions from an earlier loss of a significant person in her life.


Taken from Therese A. Rando, How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books, 1991, pp. 16-18.

Related articles:

The Grief Experience

Do Men Grieve Differently From Women?

How Long Is This Grieving Going to Last?

What About This Thing Called 'Acceptance'?

The Physical Stress of Grieving

Also by Therese Rando, Ph.D.:

The Purpose of Grief and Mourning

What 'Recovery' Will and Will Not Mean

Sudden Death

Family Reorganization After a Loss

Dr. Therese Rando, author of How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, is a psychologist in Warwick, Rhode Island, where she is the Clinical Director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss. Having published 70 works pertaining to the clinical aspects of dying, death, loss, and trauma, Dr. Rando is a recognized expert in the field and has appeared on numerous television programs, including “Dateline,” CBS “This Morning,” “Today Show,” “Good Morning, America,” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Image credit: Art Valero/Getty Images


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Comment by Ruth Colburn on March 25, 2012 at 9:36am

Hi...I haven't been here for a while.  I am taking a grief class at a church and find it helpful.  I go with another lady who lost her husband less than a month from when I did.  Since I have stopped trying to move and do too much for my energy, I am feeling much better than before. 

Comment by Nadine Marie Majenty on October 27, 2011 at 3:39pm

I am sorry all I wanted to do was post this and I didnt know that I was following anyone this is the first time I have ever wrote this and it took a long time to finally do this and now I feel foolish for doing this thanks

Comment by Nadine Marie Majenty on October 27, 2011 at 3:35pm

Hello, I am writing because I am still grieving and it feels like it's been forever. I just read an article about Grief works and I wish I had read it alot sooner. It's wasn't kidding when it stated that grieving is taxing, it takes alot of work both mentally and physically. I know when I say that I hope I never go through this again but I know I will. It's just that I had never truly grieve over someone close like I am doing now. When I lost my partner and best friend in life I was denied being with him when he passed. He had liver cancer and I believe that he was holding on until I got to him but I was denied seeing him for whatever reason and I wasn't told anything, I knew I just had to get to him to be there to hold his hand and I wasn't granted this even though he was my family. You see, we never got married but we produced and raised 2 fine young men our boys are currently 22 and our oldest just turned 25, his sisters who I really don't have anything to do with and we were together for 26 years, decided that they had and wanted control over him thought it was a good thing to do and never thought about what it was doing to me. I am disabled I have literally no knees and have lost literally all the strength I used to have when I WAS younger. Our days were passed with watching movies and tv sitcoms. In the 26 years together he didn't have time to watch tv or even be around, staying home with me. Somewhere our world got fast or at least we like to believe this and there was no time for us. Needless to say I got to see that once young handsome and caring individual one more time and I am ever so grateful for the last 13 months where we were practically inseparatable. I never watched a movie like this one "Return to Me," but that one movie had us both in tears and that was the first of many during those heartful 13 months. I got to know him so much more, there wasn't enough time. Not enough time, I keep reliving the last time I got to be with him and that was 2 days before he died. The most enduring memory we have is that we first met when I was about 9 and he was 11. It was at a public pool and for no reasoning but that I just didn't want to let this shinny kid swim, I kept splashing him in the face until got out and this preceeded to go on until I think I got tired of it. Many years later, my buddy decided to tell me of this one story about how girls used to chase him and he begins to tell me about a little girl who chased him one day at a park pool. He is telling me this and I begin to notice that this is familar sounding, he then turns to me and says THAT WAS YOU,HUH... Now He has caught me by surprised and I didn't want to tell him yes that was me but instead I told him NO I DON'T CHASE BOYS. Where I was going with this is one the very last time I saw my buddy I told him then. I asked him to open his eyes and look at me. I told him this, LOOK AT ME, this might be the last time we see each other, he nodded head no but I finally told him remember that little girl who chased you that one day at the pool, that was me, he smiled. I said don't ever forget that little girl b

ecause she will alway chase you. It was our destiny I said to the end. Then I got my very last kiss. I didn't know then that those sisters of his had power of attorney over him and didn't want near him and the nurse that was taking care of him that day to me I had to go. Never told that I was banned from him and the worst of it all was when she called me his girlfriend. I don't about anyone else but I haven't been referred by that name since I was in my teens. I just thought Hoiw dare you, then I told her that I have been with this man for almost 26 years and we have 2 grown sons and if she wants to refer me to anything it will be by my name. I have been reliving this  pain ever since. And not only that, the hospice that he went to also denied me too. I didn't know this so when I tried to go to him and it was hard because these days I walk with pai

Comment by River of Tears on April 20, 2011 at 4:12am

It also feels as time passes on that the work include almost feeling like you are reapplying to a life you do not know of .  A life once that you knew when you family was here as I did .  Now the with out them it seems like I do not even know who I am or what I have to offer as to say the work of life .  Before I knew I was a daughter and sister , .  Something that some may say that became to en-grained into who I was . But how could it not . They are who were there all the steps of the way in my life , even when s of miles away . Some how you just know the touchstones of life are there .  When the good or the bad of life should occur they were there .   I can hear the roar of others say you needed your own life . I ponder to say , and the only response from my heart is it included them . Why is it that through life so many feel that you have to exclude those in life that are basically your roots of life to say they now have not meaning . This to me is why families fall apart and do not have what they used to .  What we always knew no matter what was love.  Do I feel that this is gone , this is a good question if asked .  The love that they gave and the love I have for them is and will forever be with me . As to say is there love out there to be found again .  To be honest for me , I don't believe you ever can find the same of anything in life . If you do or believe so then is it real or is it what you really hoped to be .  The love of a Mother a Father and a Sister who was my best friend I believe the first time I knew she that we were sisters  ( as she was 2 years older )

This will never come again . So am I sad  yes is the pain one I thought that I could feel one day Yes but yet never knew what it would really be like at all . For I had this thought that It would never happen , silly huh as to think my family would always be there . Maybe it was that they were so young and I thought why ? They have yet had a chance to live for themselves . They have been just here doing or all when is it their chance to be .  Maybe it was me to give them that .  Yet you know I did not , because I thought I had all the time in the world to love them .   I still do but not the same way . I can call them or visit them or run up and hug them . What I do now in the silence is just listen , listen beyond the deafening silence of them not being here anymore . To sometime be so surprises that a tear comes that I almost truly feel that they are all there . Is this true ?  Who knows .. But for me at least for that moment I had a chance to feel I was hugging them each again as I only wished I had .  If only time had told me that it was running out . Maybe this is all apart of that "work of grief " one that does make on weary and sad . but is one that if only to listen to the silence may hear or have just another moment in time .

Comment by River of Tears on January 31, 2011 at 6:34am

This all is so true , more then I even knew . Reflecting not just now with in the pain I feel but of the yesterdays when my Parents learned of their Mother and Father passing and Brothers and Sisters.  I thought then I understood  but now I know I did not . I did not realize the strength inside they must have had to take care of all of us and still go to work and move through life . That in  their loss and incredible pain they still were able to some how go on.   Though wishing then that they could have shared more of how they were feeling knowing that they were holding allot in they never shared it . Now I know why , it is a pain that may not for many be put into words .  Though with my Parents you could read it on their faces or how they started to react to things . Wishing now I had know the words to offer to give them comfort if only to let them know I was there .  I must be very much like them though shutting down my emotions seem to come easy at times especially when I see that others may be effected or may just not want to hear what you may feel .  If only we , could move through life knowing these things so when they happed we can be there for one another even if they have never happened yet . Why for some is learning only from their own experience or even then . Or for me why did I not have what my parent may have needed when they were in such pain as I know is the worst pain known now that they just passed and my sister who thought to be my best friend just passed .. Why is it now that they are not here for me to give back . 

As in love we all love each other deeply and differently so will we grieve .



Comment by Violet Hayward on November 19, 2010 at 6:01am
It is very true that the loss of a loved one gives rise to old grief and unresolved conflicts; about what could have been, and the failures and disappointments. It is a big burden that needs to be resolved with acceptance

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Comment by john studdard on November 13, 2010 at 10:06am
Loved this article. One piece of advice that was given to me when going through the grieving process was the simple advice that "this too shall pass". Time is a great healer and eventually life moves on. This may seem harsh but we all ultimately know it's true.

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