What does successful grief look like? When my mom died, the Kubler-Ross grief model was the road map for mourning. Friends and family measured every tear and angry outburst against the five-stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
However, modern psychology research points to the Kubler-Ross theory being dated. Grief is not a linear process. Yet, despite this recent shift, many still draw on linear grief models when offering support to the bereaved.
Why are outdated grief models still popular?
Perhaps this is because defined stages of grief offer a sense of measurable order along with the emotional promised land of ‘letting go’, ‘recovery’ and ‘closure’. So it begs the questions. If these theories are outdated, and letting go is no longer the endpoint of grief, what is successful mourning?
The consensus is successful mourning is multifaceted. Now the focus is on the sum of processes that turn the lights on after the death of a loved one. Seemingly the new endpoint is to deepen the connection with the newly departed while visualizing and planning for a positive future without them.
Marie Tillman – grieving the way to success
After the death of her first husband, football star-turned service member Pat Tillman, Marie Tillman used grief as her motivator. While mourning, Marie established the Pat Tillman Foundation to provide academic scholarships to veterans and their spouses. Through this process, she found love again and remarried. Then, when on maternity leave, Marie started a small online kids clothing venture from her garage. Today, Mac & Mia is a multi-million-dollar business.
Not everyone mourns in the same way. Guilt, regret and anger often come packaged with grief. For some, these emotions hamper successful mourning and keep them in grief’s holding pattern for years or decades.
Recognizing grief’s holding pattern
For the last ten years, I’ve had the privilege of co-writing books with Australia’s most trusted psychic medium, Mitchell Coombes. Working alongside his gift for passing on messages from departed loved ones allowed me to see grief from a new perspective.
While collaborating on Mitchell’s first book, Sensing Spirit, I offered to be a runner for the audience microphone at one of his sell-out seminars. Halfway through the evening, Mitchell felt drawn to a couple in their late sixties seated in the front row. They reminded me of Nancy and Ted Regan in their senior years.
Messages from the other side
Mitchell asked if the name John meant anything to anyone in the front row. Nancy half-raised her hand. ‘John’ was Nancy’s late first husband. He died at home after Nancy left for the grocery store. Something she never forgave herself for.
When explaining Nancy’s love for her dead husband, Mitchell put his hand to his heart. A bittersweet scene. For next to Nancy sat Ted, her second husband of three years. His warm and protective posture said he doted on Nancy. Yet, at the mention of her first husband, John, Nancy stiffened and pulled away from Ted.
“John is telling me guilt consumes you because you were out when he passed.”
Fresh tears streamed down Nancy’s cheeks.
“John says it’s not your fault. He knows how much you loved him.”
Ted handed Nancy a clean handkerchief from his pocket.
Mitchell paused, giving Nancy a moment.
“Also, John wants me to say—‘Ted is twice the husband I ever was’.”
At that moment, the grip grief had on Nancy let go.
Nancy turned to Ted with halting sobs and said, “I’m so sorry. I’ve held back giving you my heart.”
Ted, with the microphone in hand, wiped tears from his eyes and hugged Nancy.
“I know,” he said. “But I never gave up hope that one day, you’d love me as much as your dead husband.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience, including mine.
Nancy’s story is one of many I’ve been witness to. They all end with the same message. Our departed loved ones want us to be happy and continue to live joyful lives without them.
Aim to keep departed loved ones present and absent
There is no longer the push to sever bonds with a departed loved ones or ‘let go’ to ‘recover’ and get ‘closure’. Rather than saying ‘goodbye’ psychologists recommend thinking of a departed loved one as both present and absent.
In Marie Tillman’s case, she acknowledged her departed husband, Pat, as present by founding a scholarship for veterans in his name. Yet, Marie accepted Pat’s absence. She busied herself, building a new happy without him.
In comparison, Nancy’s grief processes kept her departed husband, John, ever present. By not accepting John as absent, Nancy’s second chance at love and happiness with Ted almost passed her by.
Building a new life after the death of a loved one takes courage and time. Moving past the initial devastation and heartache is hard. Both Marie and Nancy felt sure they couldn’t cope, but they did. They both arrived at a new and happy beginning despite different mourning processes.
Recognizing successful grief
If you’re grieving, aim for maintaining a good bond with your departed loved one, yet accept he or she is both present and absent. Have faith imagining and planning a happy future is what your departed loved one wants you to do. Then, when you re-engage in daily life, reconnect to others, and experience hope and joy again, know grief is behind you. Your mourning is over. And trust your departed loved one is willing you to make the most of a new and happy life.