Thought of the Day: Part 2 Grief Hierarchy- The Nature of Grief

Stan Goldberg, PhD

THOUGHT OF THE DAY. In the first installment of this series, I presented the idea grief shouldn’t be placed on a hierarchy of importance. I maintained the grief of someone who lost a dog can be as substantial as someone who lost a husband. In this second part of the trilogy, I’ll explore the nature of grief. What it is we mourn.

The Nature of Grief

It’s a common misconception we grieve the loss of a specific person, ability, or object; what we lost is so integral to who we are it can never be replaced. If this is true, why wouldn’t a woman whose abusive husband died mourn him as much as the woman whose compassionate husband was recently lost? To understand why we grieve, we need to go beyond the obvious.

In my interactions with loved ones of people I served in hospice, there were great variations in how long people mourned the loss of their partner. Often it had nothing to do with how much they loved each other. One man is still mourning the death of his unfaithful wife twelve years after she passed, while another man intensely in love with wife regained his joy a few months after her death.

Standands for Grieving

People talk about the need to have a grieving period before a person can re-enter the world. Some popular approaches even list specific steps. The acceptance of grieving “standards” often takes the form of adult children appalled when their father remarries only a few months after his wife died. Some religions even codify how and for how long a person should grieve.

“One Size Fits All” Approach Doesn’t Work

I believe many of the common beliefs about grief are incorrect and result in needless misery. I came to this conclusion after I began my cancer treatment and no longer could fly fish alone in the wilderness–an important part of my identity for more than thirty years.

Wading through fast streams became dangerous as I grew weaker–especially when no one was within ten miles of me and cell phone coverage where I fished twelve years ago was at best spotty.

I didn’t lose a “recreational” activity, but rather a part of my identity. When I could no longer fish alone, I mourned its loss as intensely as a friend did the death of her husband.

My search to rekindle joy resulted in a Eureka moment: we mourn lost emotions more than the person, ability or activity that generated them.

In the third and final installment of Grief Hierarchy, I’ll discuss how to regain the joy you thought would never again be possible.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


  1. Ken

    “Lost emotions”? mmm Let’s hear more about that concept, Stan. When I gave up booze, I grieved. When my partner of 5 years left me, I grieved. I’m now grieving as I age. I grieved the loss of numbness and the illusion that alcohol gave me that I was in control. When I grieve the ‘loss’ of my partner, I grieve over his unbridled rejection of me after having heard him tell more often than not how we were going to live “now and forever” together. When I am grieving my aging and inability to be as I used to be, do as I used to do, I’m grieving the loss of agility. Emotional, yes, but my losses weren’t around nor are about my identity, but about my powerlessness. I want to hear you explicate “emotional loss” more if you can and will. Thanks.

    • Stan Goldberg

      I’ll be doing that in tomorrow’s thought of the day. But here’s a preview. Unless I’m not reading it correctly, what you list as what you’re grieving isn’t what you lost, but rather the result of the loss. For example, you’re not grieving your partner’s rejection, but rather the love that ended with it. We don’t grieve the “negative.” I think the negative is what’s left after the positive ends. More in part III.



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