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Grief Is Essential

By Shawn Healy

Grieving is one of the emotional experiences we all go through, although we each do it in our own unique way. At the height of the pandemic, we turned to Shawn Healy of Massachusetts Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, for help understanding the grieving process. Here’s his timeless advice.

understanding the grieving process

Right now, we all have many reasons to grieve. We are responding to a pandemic, adapting to working remotely, seeing friends, neighbors or loved ones getting sick and some dying, and adjusting to changes in our routines and employment options. On top of this, we have the unrest in the country, the heartache of seeing people hurt, killed, devalued and marginalized. Uncertainty and fear abound.

Times like these can call us to action, but they can also weigh us down with sadness and grief. Here’s help understanding the grieving process.

Grieving Is a Process

Grieving is a process we go through when something significant changes in our lives. This can be the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, the violation of a core assumption we had about the world, or a sudden change in our sense that we know what the future holds. No matter the cause of the grief, it is helpful to know what the general progression of the grief process might look like for you.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler developed the five stages of loss (“On Grief and Grieving”), and later, Kessler added a sixth stage to the progression (“Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief”). Some people spend more time in one stage than another as they grieve. And often people find themselves jumping back into stages they thought they had finished. The stages are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance
  6. Meaning (Kessler’s sixth stage)

Harvard Business Review has a helpful article, which includes an interview with Kessler.

If you have ever wondered why a close friend or relative who is grieving the same loss might be feeling or acting very differently than you, it might be because you are each in different stages of the grief process. Or, if you have ever felt like you have “gotten over” a loss and later found yourself sad or angry once again, this might indicate that you are still grieving and simply returning to a previous stage to process it anew.

Grief Can Be Uncomfortable, but Grieving Is Important

For those of us who are generally uncomfortable or unfamiliar with expressing our feelings outwardly, grieving can seem scary or threatening. Many times, we think that if we “allow ourselves to explore those feelings,” we might end up spiraling down a dark hole never to return. This sentiment is reinforced in our culture by the emphasis on getting over things quickly, rebounding or putting on a smile.

The truth is that grief does not have to be scary; it is part of the healing process and an essential part of our lives.

One of the best (and unexpected) examples in popular culture of seeing the value of sad emotions is the animated film “Inside Out.” If you haven’t seen it, it is worth the watch. One lesson from the movie is that our sad emotions can connect us to others. Our pain, grief and sadness can strengthen our relationships when we share them with others who care about us.

What To Do and Where to Go When You Are Grieving

Despite this being overly simplistic, here are a few things I suggest when you are grieving.

  1. Be aware of how you are feeling, what stage of grief you might be in currently, and the source of your grief.
  2. Identify helpful social supports in your life (trusted friends, family, therapist, mentor, etc.) with whom you can share these feelings and thoughts.
  3. Start to share your grief with others, both to share your experience and pain as well as to offer validation and support to others who might be grieving.

For significant losses, it might be helpful to visit a grief group in your area or see a licensed mental health clinician to process the grief. A good place to start is to contact your state’s lawyer assistant program (LAP) and ask what resources they have available or referrals they can provide. The ABA has a directory of LAPs, here.

Understanding the Grieving Process in Your Law Firm

Additionally, it can be difficult to know how best to support someone else who is grieving. When a co-worker loses a loved one, how do you support them? What do you say? These are tough questions and answers will depend on the situation and your relationship with the grieving person.

You can begin by being available. By this, I mean that you do not need to know what to say or to make them feel better. You can simply be there with them while they are grieving. Knowing they are not alone can be one of the most helpful sources of support. Conversely, feeling alone or ignored makes it all the worse.

It is common for people to feel like they do not know what to say or how to help, and based on that uncomfortable feeling they end up avoiding the person or pretending like the loss never occurred. One way around this unintended situation is to accept that those awkward interactions where you make yourself available are much better than avoiding the awkwardness altogether by avoiding the grieving person.

You don’t need to know how to make it better, you just need to be available and present.

The Most Important Things to Remember

To sum up, remember that grieving is important, it won’t last forever or destroy you, it is best shared with others who care about you, and it is part of the healing process.

Take care of yourself and others.

Originally published in June 2020. Updated September 2023.

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Shawn Healy Shawn Healy

Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist with Massachusetts Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc. (LCL). He runs stress management groups for law firms and provides training sessions on time and stress management to bar associations, solo attorneys and law firms. A frequent writer on the topics of conflict resolution, anxiety management, resilience and work-life balance, he is a contributor to the LCL blog and tweets for @LCL_MassLawyers.

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