The meaning of healing and the roots of long-term grief

Updated 4/11/2021 9:34 AM

This column is named Grief and Healing, and I thought it might be useful to explain what I mean by "healing."

As many know, I am concerned about grief and especially in what I call "long-term grief" because many people, including myself, experience this. Basically, this is grief that does not "go away." It is not something you "go through" or "get over." In some ways, it changes with time but does not disappear.


So in my experience, and that of many others, "healing" is actually a process of learning how to cope with and manage grief in a way that allows us to establish and sustain a new life each day without our beloved partner, parent, friend, sibling or child. It took me quite a while to understand this and write about it.

Basically, we all need to find coping mechanisms to help move us along the way; we need to find a path. A path is the discovery or dedication to some calling, interest, meaning or purpose that makes life seem worthwhile and sustaining. For some who are grieving, it takes a long time and it is a gradual process.

When I first started facing this problem myself, and later first started writing this column, I made lots of recommendations about getting out into the community; going to festivals, lunch or dinner with friends; finding social events, joining groups and organizations. Basically being "out there" with friends and in the community.

But of course, COVID-19 changed all that, and still does. Now we Zoom, FaceTime, email, text. It's so important for the bereaved to stay in contact with social life.

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But there is another aspect to grieving that has worried me for a long time, and that is this whole concept of five stages. I do not hesitate to advise that you, or someone close to you, shouldn't be worried if you do not go through the highly publicized five stages of grief.

I greatly respect the work of Kubler-Ross, who pioneered the understanding of death and dying decades ago. But she was working with terminal patients and based her five stages on their experience coming to grips with their own deaths. Somehow this got picked up as a general framework and applied to everybody -- especially to the bereaved whose loved one dies. Odd how these ideas get reused and repurposed over time.

In my experience, grief for the bereaved (the survivors) varies greatly from person to person. There are many different responses and grief depending on the individual, the circumstances, personality and other variables.

I believe fundamental roots of "long-term grief" are found in the nature of the relationship with the one who died. There are certain relationships that are so bonded, so tight, that grief is just overwhelming and lasting. This could be a partner or spouse, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a child, or another dear one.


And, of course, not all grief is long term. People cope according to their own experience and personalities, and often find a way to understand and manage their grief more quickly, or they simply do not experience the same type of grief. For example, not all relationships are very close.

People may experience some of the feelings (denial, anger, bargaining, etc.) that are part of the stages, but not necessarily in a certain order or all five. Many find a way to move on. But many don't. They need to find a path to manage intense grief that may last a lifetime.

In the mid-1990s, many still related intense grief and long-term grief as an illness or medical condition -- usually thought to be some kind of "depression." So the bereaved were treated as sick people. My own Grandmother Anderson, who was devastated when my grandfather died, was treated that way for two years. He died at age 59. They had been married since they were 19. She had no idea how to manage without him. She was very dependent on him. She didn't even know how to drive. Her domain had been raising my father and tending the home and her gardens.

Luckily she eventually got a grip on how to cope with the grief and manage, and was able to travel and be with friends and family. Thank goodness there is more understanding today, and grief is called grief, not illness, but we still have a ways to go.

In the case of long-term illness, there may even be a sense of relief and peace after a death, and happiness that a loved one is freed from the suffering. In the case of bad relationships, a sense of being released from that relationship.

The point is: Grief for the bereaved is very complex and one size does not fit all. There is a depth of understanding when friends have shared experiences, of course, or have had similar challenges after a death. I've noticed people who have lost their own beloved spouse understand what other widows or widowers face.

There is a whole range of feelings and intensity depending on the strength of the relationship with the one who died, and many other circumstances. But I do believe the roots of long-term grief are in the nature of the relationship and bond between the bereaved and their dear one. This awareness helped me understand my own grief.

• 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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