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~ Thoughts on "Letting Go" ~
New Paradigm for Grief for the 21st Century

A distinctive feature of contemporary grief theory is its re-evaluation of the traditional assumption that successful grieving involves "letting go" of one's emotional attachments in particular to the deceased. This article explores the changing of traditional views on grief and the new paradigm for grief in the 21st century.

Changing Traditional Views on Grief [1-4]
For most of the 20th century, the modern view of bereavement involved "letting go" of one’s attachment to the lost loved one, "moving on" with one’s life, and gradually "recovering" from the grief response to the loss, resulting in a return to "normal" behavior. When a person experiences a major loss, it is a life altering event and they are forever changed by that loss. In the last 50 years, the emphasis in grief study has been a focus on universal phases, stages or tasks that must be progressed through or completed. These traditional views on grief and mourning have been changing particularly in the last decade of the 20th century. Several notable changes have been:

  • The long-held ideas that people need to "get over it" and "let go;" grief is eventually "resolved" by "detaching" and "moving on" to new relationships.
  • Breaking ties to the deceased is key to healing. Instead, the current thinking now suggests that maintaining emotional bonds enriches the survivor's life.
  • The notion that grief progresses in an unvarying sequence of stages. Instead recognizing that the grieving process is a highly individualized unique process that may be a very different experience even for those experiencing the same loss.
  • Sensing the presence of the dead or communicating with the deceased are no being longer viewed as abnormal, "hallucinations" or a pathology of mourning, rather communication, dreams, sensing the deceased are considered an important means of sustaining the bond with the deceased loved one.
An increasing number of grief scholars, researchers and counselors began recognizing the limitations of conceiving of mourning as the relinquishment of emotional ties and a stagic progression toward recovery. In addition, scientific studies failed to support any appreciable sequence of emotional phases of adaptation to loss or to identify any clear endpoint to grieving that would designate a state of "recovery." Critics have begin to draw attention to ways in which conventional models indirectly dis-empower both the bereaved person and the would-be caregiver by implying that grieving people must passively negotiate a sequence of psychological transitions forced on them by external events. [2]

The "new wave" of grief theory that is emerging reflects a changing zeitgeist about the role of loss in human experience. The common elements of these newer models include: [2]

  • Skepticism about the universality of a predictable emotional trajectory that leads from psychological dis-equilibrium to readjustment, coupled with an appreciation of more complex patterns of adaptation.
  • A shift away from the belief that successful grieving requires withdrawal of psychic energy from the one who has died, and toward a recognition of the potentially healthy role of continued symbolic bonds with the deceased person.
  • Attention to broadly cognitive processes entailed in mourning, supplementing the traditional focus on the emotional consequences of loss.
  • A de-emphasis on universal syndromes of grieving and a focus on local practices for accommodating loss among specific categories of the bereaved or various (sub)cultural groups.
  • Greater awareness of the implications of major loss for the individual’s sense of identity, often necessitating deep revisions in his or her self-definition.
  • Increased appreciation of the possibility of life-enhancing "post-traumatic growth" as on integrates the lessons of loss
  • A broadened focus not only on the experience of individual survivors but also on the patterns and processes by which loss is negotiated in families and wider social contexts.
The New Paradigm for Grief and Journey of HeartsHeart
Every person’s grief experience is unique, even for those experiencing the same loss. Our role at Journey of HeartsHeart is to support the person on their personal journey of grief on whatever path it may take.
Journey of HeartsHeart™ was designed to be a Healing Place with resources and support to help those on their personal journey of grief following a loss or a significant life change. At this site visitors are educated about the "normal" grief response, including what to anticipate in the transformational process that occurs following a loss. This website contains a variety of different Grief AIDEs to support vivitors through the grief process following a loss, how to survive present and past losses and how to cope when old losses become felt anew, or new losses occur. In addition, the grieving person is encouraged to draw upon or discover their internal source of strength to get through the shock and the grief reaction.

The path to healing from a loss is different for each person,
one which may have many unexpected twists and turns,
but a road that has been traveled by many.

Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, MS

Each person travels on his or her own unique journey in experiencing of the loss. It is important for those who are grieving and those supporting them to realize that people often cope with loss very differently. The bereaved should be allow their diverse and unique coping styles and supported in whatever healthy-nondestructive manner works for them and then let friends and family know.

With time as the grieving person begin to heal from the loss, the intense initial emotions lessen to a level that allows him/her to function. The grief is no longer a daily all-consuming emotion. They learn how to cope with the loss, rather than "letting go" and adapt to a life forever changed.

1. Walter T. On Bereavement: The Culture of Grief. Philadelphia, PA: Open Court Press, 1999, p. 57,161-3.
2. Neimeyer RA. (ed) Meaning Reconstruction & the Experience of Loss. Washington DC: The American Psychological Association, 2001, p.2-4.
3. Stroebe MS, Hansson RO, Stroebe W, Schut H. (eds) Handbook of Bereavement Research: Consequences, Coping, and Care. American Psychological Association, 2001.
4. Neimeyer RA. Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss. American Psychological Association, 2001.

This article is part of the syllabus created for the Professional Course on the "Somatic Aspects of Loss & Grief" offered in summer 2001 through the University of California Berkeley Extension.

At every point in the human journey
we find that we have to let go in order to move forward;
and letting go means dying a little.
In the process we are being created anew,
awakened afresh to the source of our being.
Kathleen R. Fischer

See the Emergency 911 Page for links to immediate resources
if you are feeling helpless, hopeless, overwhelmingly depressed, or suicidal.

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Last update Sept. 11, 2002