A Theory of Grief

Short Reads

I have a theory that I have been kicking around for a while.

If you have ever had an in-depth conversation with me there is a good chance that you’ve heard that my favorite topic of conversation is grief and death.

By favorite, of course, I don’t mean that I enjoy grief or death. Instead, I think grief and death are the most important (and prevalent) forces in our daily lives and most people avoid talking about them at all costs.

My theory is quite simple: everyone is grieving all the time.

Every person is in an almost constant state of grief. I would even go as far as to say that grief is the basic human condition.

We often assume that grief is the emotional response to the death of a loved one. This is one place that grief is very common. However, by definition, grief is so much more.

Grief is the emotional reaction to loss or change.

That’s it.

All of the emotions that come up with you lose something or experience change are considered grief.

Traffic made you late for a meeting? Grief.

The restaurant is out of your favorite menu item? Grief.

You fear for the future of our climate? Grief.

Your spouse or friend has different plans? Grief.

You see your kids growing up in an increasingly confusing world? Grief.

We are all grieving all the time.

When I was a hospital chaplain in seminary I drew up a diagram to help me explain grief.


Gwin’s Theory of Grief (illustrated)

The solid line shows the trajectory of a life. The dotted line represents our plans, hopes, and aspirations. The horizontal line is the moment of interruption: the death, diagnosis, firing, divorce, traffic jam, etc.

Grief is not a phase or thing to be gotten through. Grief is a new reality, a new path. No matter how far away you get from the interruption you can still find yourself looking back with the pang of grief. The sharp tinge may decrease over time but it is always there.

Grief is what happens when we find ourselves walking a path we had not planned. Grief is all of the emotion that emerges as we gaze longingly at the path we can never walk; the life we can never live.

Healing comes not when we “get over” what has happened, but when we ground ourselves in the present moment. Though it may not be what we envisioned, this moment is where we actually are. This moment is where God is present to us – not as we wish it were but as it actually is.

Nothing ever goes as planned. It seems like life is constantly serving up evidence that we are not in control. We are constantly losing things and people. Every time we finally feel like we are on solid ground the tectonic plates of our lives shift again.

We are constantly grieving because things are constantly changing.

I talk about grief and death a lot because I have felt a lot of grief in my own life but I am not a special case: Everyone is walking around carrying a burden of grief most of the time. In fact, if we could see the depths of grief and pain many people walk around with we would kneel down and weep.

One of my goals for 2020 is to write more about grief and how this theory of grief can change how you interact with yourself and with those around you. I’ve got some big dreams for taking this message to a world saturated in grief. I would love for y’all to come along and help spread the word.

When we acknowledge what we are feeling and put a name to it we can learn to work with it instead of against it. We can welcome our grief as a natural response to the ever-changing world outside and inside our own heads.

In times of acute stress and anxiety in the community, the Dean of my seminary would say “Be gentle with yourselves”. That message applies to all of us as we navigate a grieving world as grieving people.

Be gentle with yourself.

Your life (or day or hour) has not gone how you planned. You find yourself on a path you did not intend to walk. God is with you on this path – at this moment – right here.

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