Monday, April 25, 2011

Good grief. Bad grief.

Recently, I’ve been working through a bit of grief counseling.  “Good grief” and “bad grief” are terms I’ve coined as a result of what I’ve learned thus far. Good grief helps me be at peace with the changes in my life while bad grief negatively affects my relationships in the world - whether they be physical, emotional or spiritual.

After attending a funeral last week, my good-bad-grief process went into overdrive. I have been successfully bereaving for the person who passed away (and their family), while also working some of my own unresolved issues - ranging from dead relatives, to accepting my mother's passing to understanding how to grieve for my children.

When I became a parent of one special needs child - simultaneously losing a twin when she was born - I thought my grief process was exceptionally unique, but I now realize that all losses are equal. Until I figured out that I was in control of my own grief process, I wanted to blame my parents for not addressing this life-long issue in my upbringing.

At just eleven years old my view of death was skewed after I lost an aunt at a very young age (cancer). I attended her funeral but didn’t understand the reason for the ritual - other than it was a religious custom.  Also affecting my understanding was that my parents never really talked to me about the emotions, loss, stages, feelings, guilt - with exception to saying “[person] is in a better place now.”  

That first event shaped me because I watched other men in our family never show or talk about their grief, as they felt the need to “show strength” for everyone else. As a result, I forgot to let my own emotions show and tended to push my feelings down into a dark corner of my being, suppressing them, carrying them around like some burden that I had to bare until I found myself at the end of my days.

Working deep into my thoughts, what I realized is that I had created obstacles for not grieving over the loss of my twin daughter. I felt I was too busy ‘trying to support’ everyone else, using what I had learned from others while also trying to figure out how to raise a daughter, who would later have the diagnosis of cerebral palsy.  I never grieved over my hopes, dreams and expectations for her twin sister who passed.

What’s more, is that my relationship with the twin who died was unresolved - having not realized I had been building a relationship with her ever since we found out we were having twins. I had made numerous physical connections and built something up in my mind but because I never had the physical connection with her, I didn’t think the relationship ever existed.

That realization may not seem like much, but when I started this process I thought I was going to be dealing with unresolved grief for my mother who passed away of lung cancer four years ago. But because I wasn’t afraid to really dive in a deal with my feelings, I found grief where I didn’t know it existed.

Now, I can move on and begin the process with my one-year old, who also has cerebral palsy. I can resolve my issues of failed dreams, hopes or expectations that she will not be a normal child - all of the criteria created as I envisioned a child fulfilling the unlimited capacity of my imagination.

To me, the difference between good grief and bad grief is that good is the kind that you don’t bury.
Instead, you pull it up to the top by talking about it, sharing it with others, writing about it and learning to accept it for what it is – a physical, emotional or spiritual end that needs to have resolution in order for you to peacefully move on (with special needs children it can certainly be categorized as hopes, dreams and expectations or much more).

Bad grief, on the other hand, is the kind that can fester and cause you to live life harder because you have emotions or communications that are unresolved. The bad affects all of your relationships over the long haul. Think about loss of any kind – physical, emotional or spiritual – and you might find that they have had a dramatic affect on your life.

While I’m by no means an expert in grief counseling, I can tell you that I’ve had plenty of experience with death and loss.  As such, I recommend reading The Grief Recovery Handbook (I have no affiliation, but I believe in the process) and doing the work it requires.  If you follow the framework, you will start to see a difference in how raising a special needs child is one of grieving on many different levels.

The best thing I've learned is that even though we parents have a physical relationship with our children, there are tremendous types of losses we endure. However, when we don't deal with them, we not only do a disservice to ourselves but also our children and families. So far, my work has been very hard, but it’s been well worth the effort and taught be the difference between good and bad grief.

Tim Gort writes about raising his two daughters with cerebral palsy and his familie's life at The Gort Family blog.


  1. Your post had me on the verge of tears throughout. I too tend to try to bury my feelings. If they are not there you don't have to address it and it may seem easier at the moment until they bubble up like lava and that can be worse sometimes.

  2. Dear Tim,
    We’ve read your excellent article , Good grief. Bad grief.
    We believe you do a great service to the community of people who are raising special needs children by pointing out the grief/loss aspects of living with the broken hopes, dreams and expectations about the future they had envisioned with them.
    We appreciate you mentioning our book, “The Grief Recovery Handbook,” and putting a link to our website – thank you.
    We would also like to point out that our other book, “When Children Grieve”, would be a helpful addition for many of the families with special needs children, especially regarding their other children, whose lives are also affected by the circumstances. The sub-title of that book is, “For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving and Other Losses.”
    Thanks again and warm wishes,
    Russell Friedman
    John W. James

  3. Hi Tim -- another insightful post as always!
    This is a real toughie for me. I feel like I've done a lot of grieving but perhaps there is a "proper" way to do it? I believe in the concept of chronic sorrow, where grief re-emerges at different times.
    Has your work enabled you to let go of some of the grief you've experienced, or put it in a different place?
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. @ Louise - I've been able to let go of it, without losing my memories that cherish the person, whether they are physically here or not. I'm at peace with many of my losses and working daily to be at peace with my youngest child (it's still a bit fresh, but I've begun the process). What I've learned is that when I can see outside of my situation, I can mindfully change my perspective, thus creating new habits that support that perception. I hope that makes sense.