English Spanish

The Work of Grief

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.


"There isn't a vocabulary to describe the pain that a suicide causes. It's beyond words and beyond human help. So many people asked what they could do to help me, but there wasn't anything, because no one could bring him back.

I would give anything to change the last few weeks. That guilt was so huge. And no one wanted to hear it. 'How can I help? Listen to you? No, not that...' No one wanted to hear how I felt, and I don't blame them."

– NAMI Utah Suicide Survivor


The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.

~ Harriet Beecher Stowe

What are some of the needs of Suicide Survivors?

Let us be who we've become -- people changed by tragedy. Just try to "be there" and support whatever form our grief takes. Trying to understand is okay, but just caring is enough. Realize that you can't possibly relate to what we are experiencing. You don't have to. 

Mourning a death by suicide is a lengthy, intense and confusing process. It is also unique; each of us experiences grief in our own way.

Because suicide is a sudden, unexpected and often violent loss, the grief it causes is excruciating, prolonged, and still often stigmatized. This may cause us to withdraw socially. We may even feel responsible for our loss. Those who witness the suicide or find the body may suffer post traumatic stress.

We don't "get over" a suicide. The effects may stabilize, but the loss is forever felt. Our personal values and beliefs are shattered and we are changed emotionally.

Every suicide survivor needs immediate support at the time of the loss. Individualized or family counseling, medical care, and participation in on-going support groups can be extremely helpful.

To read a heartbreaking first-hand account of the aftermath of a loved one's suicide, click HERE.

Suicide Survivors

"There are always two parties to a death; the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved."
-Arnold Toynbee

A suicide survivor is an individual who has lost someone he/she cared for deeply to suicide. The victim may have been a parent, child, spouse, sibling, other relative, partner, or friend. It is estimated that every suicide leaves six to eight "survivors."



More YouTube Videos:

Dedicated to Suicide Survivor's

Katie Couric's Notebook: Teen Suicide

National Survivor's of Suicide Day

Lidia's Story: Suicide Loss Survivor

Survivor's of Suicide Day

Clip from AFSP's National Survivors of Suicide Day Program (2009)

Abraham: Son's in Non-Physical

"One often calms one's grief by recounting it." ~ Pierre Corneille

It's okay to talk about "it" because that's all that's on our minds. Let any statements we make about respon-sibility, blame, or guilt just flow. It will sort itself out over time. Please mention our loved one, whether it was a child, spouse, sibling, parent or other loved one. Avoid setting any timetable for recovery as there isn't any.

Some suicide survivors find it uncomfortable to speak about the loss. With this in mind, it's wise simply to ask, "How are you feeling? Can we talk about it?" And then be willing to listen.


Taken in part from lifegard.tripod.com.

NAMI Newsletter

To get event, training, and advocacy updates from NAMI Utah, please sign up for our enewsletter list.

Join Our Email List

Contact Us

1600 West 2200 South, Suite #202
West Valley City, UT 84119
(801) 323-9900

Map it and get directions

If you have an emergency, please call 911.

Suicide Prevention

If you have an emergency, please call 911.

If you or someone you love is in need of suicide prevention support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the website for more info.

For local support please call the UNI Crisisline at 801-587-3000.

Resources are also available on the Utah Department of Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health website.