Grief 101: Does grief follow the same pattern for everyone?

In short, No. More evidence for the “grief is unique” discussion is that grief manifests in various patterns, further confirming that we can’t (and shouldn’t) tell others that we know exactly what they are going through and that we have the perfect solution to “fix” them.

George A. Bonanno, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, categorizes grief in three patterns:[1]

  • Prolonged or Chronic Grief Pattern: an extreme, enduring grief response that can last years and does not seem to improve.
  • Recovery Grief Pattern: an experience of intense suffering for a short amount of time (a few months to a year), after which the griever returns to the person they were before loss.
  • Resilience Grief Pattern: the most common pattern (found in one- to two-thirds of grievers); a struggle with initial loss but then can put the pain aside, adjust, and continue with life.

Because Bonanno identifies three patterns we might be tempted to say “Surely, we can GUESS which pattern someone is following and tell them how to grieve accordingly!” Still NO. While these patterns may help identify the form recovery may take (and even then, a period of time must pass before the pattern appears), they do not show us how a griever’s mourning process will manifest.

Furthermore, psychiatrist Ralph Ryback notes two other forms of grief: anticipatory grief (which occurs before a person dies when we find out, for example, that a loved one has a short time to live due to illness) and traumatic grief (when the loss is sudden, unexpected, and/or traumatic in some way).[2] These categories describe less how long grief might appear and touches more generally on the way in which the way loss is experienced affects grievers. Whether we deal with a long-term illness or lose someone suddenly matters to the way in which grief appears.

Identifying patterns into which grief falls may tempt us to further label grievers in our lives . As grief supporters, this isn’t our job. And it sure isn’t the job of a griever to try and figure out what pattern their individual grief matches. These categories are probably more helpful from a clinical perspective where the type of grief someone suffers greatly matters to the treatment applied in efforts to initiate healing.

For the rest of us non-clinical folks, we should avoid the temptation to categorize fellow grievers in the name of “helping” them through grief. So why am I posting this and why did I include this information in my book? Because knowing these grief patterns helps us decode and understand the mysterious nature of grief even more. It helps us tear down the myth that grief is some unknowable, amorphous monster bent on destroying us from within. Grief has patterns and other identifiable features that, when broken down, make grief more of a manageable experience.

Published by ancarroll

Alexandra N. Carroll is an Adjunct Professor at St. Michael's College in Vermont. She writes on grief and self-care from her home in Burlington. In her spare time, Alexandra crochets, reads, and explores.

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