A Beginner’s Guide to Grief

Grief is not a one-size-fits-all process. Everyone grieves in their own way but if you experience unresolved grief, that process can take decades. Prince Harry was only 12 when Princess Diana died in a tragic car accident. He admitted that he could not grapple with the painful loss initially: “…shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but also my work as well,” Prince Harry said in an interview. He credits his brother, Prince William, for guiding him to seek professional help.

When you grieve, you may not meet your basic daily needs. Your energy level may flag, your previous discipline for school/work may be compromised, your creativity is on-hold, your belongingness suffers (often fearing the loss of other relationships), and you feel stymied in meeting your ability potential. Speaking from its own version of sign language, your body’s immunity may lower. Intense emotions bluster through you and/or a protective numbness can blanket any emotional expression.  

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stage-theory of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – was never meant as linear stepping-stones. You may or may not experience every stage. Thoughts flip-flop, making you feel ill-equipped for life. All of us are beginners with grieving.

A helpful model of grieving, the Pinwheel Model of Bereavement, is based upon nursing research of Susan Carter and clinical work of Ann Solari-Twadell and colleagues at Loyola University, Chicago. There is no specific resolution, or one set of stages to master in grieving.

Picture a toy pinwheel set into motion by an initiating wind of loss. To not only survive, but to thrive after loss, consider the very center of the pinwheel as your personal history. The turning and spinning of your grieving depends upon your core resilience as built up over your lifetime so far. Consider these aspects when loss blows into your life:

Being stopped or interrupted;                                                                                                    Pain and hurting emotions;

A missing or yearning for all that has been lost;

A holding desire, often holding onto what was good about someone;

A seeking of meaning, comfort, support, and

Valuing what matters most and provides meaning in life.

While a smell, place, or season of the year can trigger fresh grieving, you turn more and more toward an openness to present moments with time. My heart goes out to the people of Ukraine and the relatives/friends of Russian soldiers. The winds of war devastate countless families over millenniums.

Grieving is a whirlwind of conflicting emotion that whiplashes every aspect of life. However, consider how the whirlwind is an ancient symbol of some First Nation people. A whirlwind was believed to sweep out old crevices to allow openness to the “new.” Can that “new” be peace? Hope is possible. Alongside U.S. and German astronauts, Russian cosmonauts collaborate peacefully at the International Space Station.

Pearls of Peace (PoP) Quiz:

 72. When have you experienced a whirlwind of grief?

73. What “new” possibilities were you able to embrace?      

By Janis Johnston

Janis Clark Johnston, Ed.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She has worked with children, families, and groups (ages 3-83) with presenting issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and relationship concerns. She initially worked as a school psychologist in public schools and was awarded School Psychology Practitioner of the Year for Region 1 in Illinois for her innovative work. She was a supervising psychologist at a mental health center, an employee-assistance therapist and a trainer for agencies prior to having a family therapy private practice. Recipient of the 2011 Founder’s Award for her dedication to the parenting education of Parenthesis Family Center (now called New Moms), and the 2002 Community Spirit Award from Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter and education center, Johnston is an active participant in numerous volunteer activities supporting children and families in her community. A frequent presenter at national psychology and educational conferences, Johnston has published journal articles, book chapters, and two books -- It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development (2013, hardback; 2019, paperback) and Midlife Maze: A Map to Recovery and Rediscovery after Loss (2017, hardback; 2019, paperback). In addition to augmenting and supporting personal growth in families, Johnston is a Master Gardener and loves nurturing growth in the plants in her yard.

6 comments

  1. NPR did a segment on this very topic (on 4/10/21; I have no details) and my minimal take-away is that there is no one pattern of grieving, as you said, and that when faced with decisions on how to move on, rather than thinking about what other people might think is appropriate, taking a mind-set of “what is best for me” is the way to proceed. Example: is it too soon after my loss to do something light-hearted, what will people think of me? Forget that, choose what is right for you. Choose “joy” whenever that is possible. Go to that event. Take that vacation. Ignore thoughts of the judgement of others. Maybe that is what people mean when they offer encouragement such as “It’s what your loved one would want for you.”

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  2. Thank you for your thought-filled comments. Yes, one must continue to LIVE life after loss! The wisdom of the Pinwheel Model acknowledges taking an intimate look at your values — consider what really matters to you and then follow those values in pursuing ongoing meaning in your present life.

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  3. Thank you for this beautiful and helpful piece on grieving! I like the Pinwheel Model so much more than talking about stages of grief which don’t seem to hold true for me…there is not a complete passage to a new stage but many steps forward and backwards. I love the vision of the pinwheel blowing in the breeze with the center holding still and firm. I am going to pass this onto my children as the 2nd anniversary of their father’s death nears.

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  4. Thank you for sharing your loss experience. Recognizing a centered self-essence is to remember to have compassion for oneself as well as compassion for others. Feel free to share these Pinwheel Model tips with anyone you know who may be in the tender time of grieving.

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  5. Another Pearl, Jan.
    Thanks again for sharing your perspective. I agree with the previous comments and have experienced each stage — in random order.
    Pearl is the name of my father’s twin, who died when they were 2.
    He told me when he was in his 60’s that her loss stayed with him years later and that his biography would be entitled “Twin Alone “

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