Photo of woods in the fog.

Like Love, Grief Belongs to Poets and Mystics

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the study of grief is best left to the poets and mystics among us.

Grief has more in common with love than with any diagnosable disorder. With every attempt to define grief with symptoms and timelines, we end up diminishing our understanding of the grieving process rather than deepening it.

Because it is so painful and because it makes everyone squirm, and because it mimics things like depression and anxiety disorders (but isn’t), it has largely fallen into the realm of psychologists and psychiatrists to define its nature and the interventions (how’s that for a clinical term) to ease it.

We’ve got an entire profession waiting for the DSM committee to make their proclamation in 2013, about what grief is and what it isn’t. From the look of things they will make it appear significantly more disordered than it actually is.

Photo of woods in the fog.

We love the checklists of symptoms and the linearity of the stages of grief because grief is so huge and so incomprehensible. Grief is a dark, brooding mystery so anything to make it feel more manageable is welcome. Anything that can make us feel like we can alleviate that dreadful pain, makes us feel less helpless.

The truth is grief does bring us to our knees. Grief does makes us feel helpless. Grief does shatter the sense of general well being we have as we go about our daily lives. Indeed, grief even shatters our fundamental sense of self. Grief is something we can’t fix. And grief certainly doesn’t fit into any sort of neat little cubby.

Grief is also an experience that will touch us all. Sooner or later we will all go through it no matter how hard we try to avoid it. If we’re lucky we get some practice with lesser losses before we go through a big one, but no matter how it comes, it will find us.

Like love each experience of grief is unique. No two losses are exactly the same any more than two experiences of love are exactly the same. No two recoveries are the same. No time frames exist that can tell us exactly when we”ll be through the worst of it. No list of symptoms exists to tell us whether we’re grieving normally or not.

The truth is there are no objective criteria for understanding, evaluating and treating grief.

Do we treat love? Do we consider love a disordered experience? Just because one is generally considered pleasurable and the other not, does not make them terribly different. Grief like love is a matter of the heart and the heart knows how to heal from grief.

Grief is to be trusted not treated.

No amount of research is going to enlighten us. No amount of “treatment” is going to change the outcome. Grief is a mysterious process programmed into us for the purpose of healing.

Grief is a magnificent healer when we give it the time and space it needs to flow into all the nooks and crannies of our hearts when those hearts have been broken by profound loss.

Yes, definitely the realm of poets and mystics.

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8 thoughts on “Like Love, Grief Belongs to Poets and Mystics”

  1. Avatar

    Hi Susan,
    I appreciate the point of view you’ve expressed here and I hope others take note.

    If I may, I’d like to point you to a couple of other items that also touch upon the subject of this post. Both are concerned with the male experience of grief and grieving.

    First, the Grieving Dads project ( has some material I think you’ll find interesting if you haven’t already seen it.

    Second, there is a post on my blog entitled “Poetry on video: ‘falling through'” that I think you might like to see.

    Thanks again for this important reminder about our need to honor, respect, and call forth the mystery element in the grieving process.


    1. Avatar

      Rick, thanks for your comment. I’ve followed Grieving Dads for a while now. Highly recommend it. Thanks for sharing your poem.


  2. Avatar

    Hi Susan,

    Thanks for moving us from the clinical to the vast range of definable emotions! I’d like to think we are all poets of our own grief, as well as experts in our own grief – that’s trust!

    Like love I see there is universality in love and grief, yet a uniqueness in the individual’s love or loss. The relationship to the grief (and love) seems all important to me.

    Write on! I enjoy your musings.


  3. Avatar

    Before doing hospice work, I was a midwife. I like to think that birth and death are the same street, just different directions.

    Following this analogy, I would suggest we think of grief as we think of the pain of childbirth. For some, the pain is too much, and the best choice for them is treatment. Mercy would not have it any other way.

    For others, the pain is part of the process, perhaps the tempering of life, and the best choice for them is the natural method (e.g., natural childbirth). That doesn’t necessarily mean no intervention. But it means choose coping responses that best fit the individual.

    In midwifery, we used to say that a woman will give birth the way she lives. Why would that be any different? In hospice, I notice the same thing, we seem to die the way we lived. Grief, as well, will show us manifesting our personality and values.

    From my perspective, there is no right or wrong (not that you were passing judgment at all! I love your posts for their inclusive, compassionate approach!) I hope that we leave all avenues open so people can choose what best fits their nature.

    1. Avatar

      Tasha, I totally agree. I, too, worked for hospice and made similar observations. Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation.


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