Grief is unique and personal to each individual

  • In order to understand a person's grief, consider the circumstances and try to provide support accordingly.

    In order to understand a person's grief, consider the circumstances and try to provide support accordingly. Stock Photo

Posted7/17/2021 7:00 AM

It's important to remember grief is unique and personal to every individual.

Coping with grief, and the intensity of grief, varies a lot depending on many factors, including circumstances of the death, the relationship, personality, life experiences and others. Even finances play a role in reaction and coping.


In my experience, a big factor in the nature of grief and managing our grief is whether death is the result of long-term illness or happens suddenly. When my dear Baheej died, heartache set in. He died suddenly and unexpectedly. After a stroke -- and seven weeks later another stroke -- he died. I was devastated.

Two years later, I realized my grief may never pass. Now I know part of the trauma was that it was so sudden and unexpected. I really had not made any emotional preparation. He had overcome a couple serious illnesses and he came through OK. So I was I was pretty much convinced he could overcome anything. But of course, he couldn't.

I have since learned that when death occurs after a long terminal illness, instead of a sudden heart attack or stroke, it's a whole different experience. Especially if the person was taken care of at home by a spouse or grown child or other close relative. The in-home caregiver has had two, probably three years, to absorb the reality of what's happening. In that situation the person is both caregiver and caretaker.

They are consumed with the daily tasks of caregiving while also taking care of everything else to maintain the household -- all the practical matters of daily life, being both caregiver and caretaker. When the end comes close, and the beloved goes to the hospital or hospice, it's understood he or she will never return home. Or if hospice takes place at home, the caregiver knows the end is coming soon. They have a little time to prepare and fulfill some of the last wishes of their loved one.

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I was reminded of this difference at a recent meeting of my Monday morning women's support group. A new member of the group had just lost her husband six months earlier. I was worried she was just at the beginning of her journey of grief. She said: "You think so?" I thought about this all that night and realized, no, she was not at the beginning. She had been on this sad journey for three years before her husband actually died. Of course she was sad, but somewhat prepared.

She said something else important. She said: "I tried to keep everything normal for him." She talked normally to him, cooked, helped him -- tried to maintain a normal atmosphere so he would feel more comfortable. Such a loving and good idea. When he went to the hospital, she was "at peace" because she knew she had done all she could, and could not change the outcome. "Love makes you continue," she said.

So I realize I must be careful about generalizing from my own experience, or other sudden death experiences, to every bereaved -- even when the relationship was very close. A person who has cared for a dear loved one for a long time knowing it is terminal has already been grieving for two or three years before the death. That doesn't mean it's easy, just more emotionally prepared.

So the point is: In order to understand grief -- your own grief or the grief your friend or relatives face -- think about the circumstances of the death and the relationships involved. Try to support according to the circumstances. Grief is indeed unique and personal to the individual, not a certain series of stages.

In my experience, grief changes with time, even if it doesn't go away. We learn how to manage it, how to cope and that helps.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at or see her blog See previous columns at

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