Permission for All the Feelings

Sometimes a death impacts a school or community organization, like a church or Boy Scout troop, and I am invited to facilitate a one-time grief support discussion with children or teenagers. It’s a very condensed experience. We’ll start with establishing rapport and gradually (but also quickly) move into talking about death in movies and books, the difference between grief and mourning, and the person who died. We start with the person and their life because while their death and how they died was very important, even more important is the fact that they lived. After we paint a picture of the person, including both the good stuff and ways in which the person wasn’t perfect (because nobody’s perfect), we cover the basic facts of the death to ensure a common and reality-based understanding. Next, we brainstorm and discuss a list of how people feel when someone dies. Then we talk about things people do for themselves that helps a little bit—because no one thing makes all the difference. After this discussion, they write questions about anything we’ve talked about including grief, death, and the person who died. I read the questions, offer answers to the ones for which there may be an answer, and acknowledge that some questions have no agreed-upon answers, even among adults. For each question, I’ll say something like, “That’s a good question,” because it is…whether or not there is a good answer. As we come to an end, I share with them a Liberian folktale about the importance of remembering those who have died.

In recent years, I was with a church youth group a few months following the accidental death of one of their members and friends. As is almost always the case, I was impressed by the courage of the group to talk about painful things and by their insights and sensitivity. It was heavy, and I had to remind myself that it’s important to accept the heaviness and to not try to change what can’t be changed. Grieving people—children, teens, and adults—need a safe place to feel as bad as they feel.

A few weeks after the meeting with the church youth group, a mother of one of the teens shared what her child expressed when asked how the meeting went. “It was awful, but it was good.” Awful and good. Not one or the other, but both. In grief as it is in much of life, the reality is usually not “either-or” but “both-and.”

Grieving people too often get messages that don’t leave room for both-and. When feeling sad or angry or depressed, caring friends and family encourage them to feel otherwise.

“She wouldn’t want you to feel bad.”

“He’s not suffering anymore.”

“They are in a better place.”

All of these well-intentioned but misguided statements contain an unspoken message: Don’t feel as bad as you feel. Understandable, perhaps, but not generally helpful.

A few years ago this restrictive type of comforting pushed me to share this thought-experiment:

One summer when our daughter was in college, she toured several countries in eastern Europe with a professor and several fellow classmates. Supported by her college, the next summer she returned to those eastern European countries by herself to conduct research for a senior project. So let’s imagine that while she was traveling I received a phone call and the caller told me something like this: “Mr. Adams, first thing, your daughter is just fine. She is OK and she is not suffering. However, you will never see her in this life again and you can have no contact with her. No phone calls, no texts, no letters, no video calls, no visits. She will never come home and you cannot come to see her. But don’t feel bad, because she is fine.”

How do you think that I would feel about that? I would be glad, of course, that she’s not suffering (if I could believe the caller), but I would be deeply disturbed and upset. I had hoped for a very different future, one where our relationship would continue, grow, and deepen. One where I could see her, interact with her, hug her neck, and continue watching her bloom into a middle-aged adult and perhaps have a family of her own. How ridiculous to tell me that I shouldn’t feel bad.

And how ridiculous it is to tell a grieving person to feel only glad that one’s suffering is over and that they are in a better place. How, by the way, can it be a “better place” if we are apart, and why was death the only way for suffering to end? What’s the hurry, too, to be in that better place—how about a little while longer here? And more fundamentally, who says that we can only have one feeling at a time? Can’t we feel relieved that suffering has ended and heartsick that the person died and we are apart?

Grieving people, meaning you and me, need to experience permission within ourselves (and also from others) to feel as bad as we feel. And we also need to experience permission within ourselves (and also from others) to eventually feel better without feeling guilty.

When our son was five years old, we moved houses. At first he was reluctant, but after he saw the new house, he felt some excitement about the move (the new house had stairs!). I asked him at one point how he was feeling about moving. He said something like this: “At first I was sad. Then I was happy. Then I was sad again. That’s two sad’s and one happy.”

No either-or for him. He could be both sad and happy. We all can and we all are. Awful and good, sad and happy, relieved and heartbroken. Permission for all of it, and then we go from there.

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Greg Adams, LCSW, ACSW, FT
Program Coordinator
Center for Good Mourning
[email protected]

Other Voices 

Iryna Shuvalova is a Ukrainian poet who captures much of the pain, loss, and resilience in the midst of war. We need poets to help us find words and meaning in a time of great loss. In one of her works, Shuvalova uses an obscene word, so please be forewarned. Continue reading more from this poet...

Iryna Shuvalova (b. 1986) is a poet, translator and scholar originally from Kyiv. She holds an MA in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth College (2014) and a PhD in Slavonic Studies from the University of Cambridge (2020). 

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In the Spotlight

Recently, our program coordinator received requests for video suggestions for adults supporting grieving children. The National Alliance for Children’s Grief has a selection of brief videos just for this need. This site covers topics such as, "What should people know when talking to children about death?" and "Why are people afraid of grief?" See More

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Living All the Way

Dr. Sunita Puri, author of That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour, encourages us to not turn away when confronted with grief brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Sometimes we must endure the discomfort of seeing the pain of others without being able to intervene.” This is part of our calling and part of finding a way forward.  Learn More
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Particularly for Parents

With the recent celebrations around Father's Day, it’s a good time to hear and consider perspectives from grieving fathers. A recent poll on social media asked grieving dads to say what they would tell another grieving dad: "What would they share to help someone else understand their deep Father’s Day grief and everyday grief?" provides space for a few of these grieving dads to speak for themselves…… Read More 

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For Your Library

Hope Edelman was 17 years old when her mother died with cancer in 1981. As an adult, Edelman searched to find a book that captured the experience of losing a mother at a young age. Finding no such book, she interviewed dozens of daughters who had experienced the death of their mother and wrote a bestselling book, Motherless Daughters, which has been helpful to many. Almost forty years later, Edelman has again filled an unmet need.

The Aftergrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss by Hope Edelman, Ballentine Books, 2020. 

Much that is written about grief focuses on the experience immediately following the loss. Sometimes the description of grief is expanded to the first few years, but what about many, many years later? What changes, and what does not, in grief when the loss was many years before?

To answer this question, Edelman went back to many of her interview subjects—those who could be found—for follow-up interviews. She also interviewed other grieving people along with grief researchers and thought-leaders. The result is an insightful, practical, and helpful description of grief years after loss.

One of the benefits of The Aftergrief is its review of how we came to think of grief in the United States and how these ideas have often fallen short of reflecting the reality of grief for many, if not most, people. Edelman offers her own “rings of grief” model of grief with active grief in the center surrounded by a rings of everyday life and growth. It is a more inclusive model than most and provides lots of space for one’s individual experience.

Another strength of The Aftergrief is its descriptions and exploration of “new grief,” “old grief,” and “new old grief.” These categories strive to encompass the variety of ways grief is experienced over a period of many years. Many long-time grieving people will find these descriptions helpful.

Edelman’s description of grief narratives is also a rich section of the book. She describes how our grief narratives are often unconsciously fit into a classic story framework with an “inciting incident,” which can be a life-threatening diagnosis or the death itself, and a “dramatic high point.” After exploring the varieties of narrative perspectives with loss and grief, she encourages the reader to consider the losses experiences as part of the middle of one’s story—neither inciting incident nor dramatic high point. Our lives are more complex and complicated than any single incident or high point can fully express. Instead of seeing a significant loss as “the story” of our lives, it can be one of the many influential stories that we experience.

Part of the insights and support provided at the end of The Aftergrief are worth quoting here. This will be a book that I will have on my “highly recommended” list when asked for helpful books about grief.

"The pain you feel today won't go away entirely, but it will turn into something else. It will, over time, become something more bearable. It can become your traveling companion rather than your burden...Until that day happens, hold out both of your hands. Place your grief in one. In the other, accept the capacity to feel gratitude and awe for what you have witnessed and become. Now bring them together, palm to palm, in front of you. This is what Francis Weller calls 'the prayer of life.'

When you do this, you can feel the wholeness of your humanity. You will join others in this quest, and by doing so, you will start smoothing the sharp edges of your loss. Your story will begin to soften, expand, and change. Your identify will follow. The tragedy and sorrow of your past will not disappear, but its impact on you will lessen. The hardship and the suffering and the longing for your loved one will always be real. And good things will grow out of it.

These two things will always be true.”

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Taking Questions

What should people know when talking to children about death?

Please see the video “What should people know when talking to children about death?" with Bethany Gardner, MA. The National Alliance for Children's Grief has a portal available to caregivers, which provides many helpful resources so that no child has to grieve alone. Watch now.


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