[This is one post I've written in an upcoming sequence on what I call "yin". Yin, in short, is the sub-art of giving perception of truth absolutely no resistance as it updates your implicit world-model. Said differently, it's the sub-art of subconsciously seeking out and eliminating ugh fields and also eliminating the inclination to form them in the first place. This is the first piece I wrote, and I think it stands on its own, but it probably won't be the first post in the final sequence. My plan is to flesh out the sequence and then post a guide to yin giving the proper order. I'm posting the originals on my blog, and you can view the original of this post here, but my aim is to post a final sequence here on Less Wrong.]

In this post, I'm going to talk about grief. And sorrow. And the pain of loss.

I imagine this won't be easy for you, my dear reader. And I wish I could say that I'm sorry for that.

…but I'm not.

I think there's a skill to seeing horror clearly. And I think we need to learn how to see horror clearly if we want to end it.

This means that in order to point at the skill, I need to also point at real horror, to show how it works.

So, I'm not sorry that I will make you uncomfortable if I succeed at conveying my thoughts here. I imagine I have to.

Instead, I'm sorry that we live in a universe where this is necessary.

If you Google around, you'll find all kinds of lists of what to say and avoid saying to a grieving person. For reasons I'll aim to make clear later on, I want to focus for a moment on some of the things not to say. Here are a few from Grief.com:

  • "He is in a better place."
  • "There is a reason for everything."
  • "I know how you feel."
  • "Be strong."

I can easily imagine someone saying things like this with the best of intentions. They see someone they care about who is suffering greatly, and they want to help.

But to the person who has experienced a loss, these are very unpleasant to hear. The discomfort is often pre-verbal and can be difficult to articulate, especially when in so much pain. But a fairly common theme is something like:

"Don't heave your needs on me. I'm too tired and in too much pain to help you."

If you've never experienced agonizing loss, this might seem really confusing at first — which is why it seems tempting to say those things in the first place, I think. But try assuming that the grieving person sees the situation more clearly, and see if you can make sense of this reaction before reading on.

If you look at the bulleted statements above, there's a way of reading them that says "You're suffering. Maybe try this, to stop your suffering." There's an imposition there, telling the grieving person to add more burden to how they are in the moment. In many cases, the implicit request to stop suffering comes from the speaker's discomfort with the griever's pain, so an uncharitable (but sometimes accurate) read of those statements is "I don't like it when you hurt, so stop hurting."

Notice that the person who lost someone doesn't have to think through all this. They just see it, directly, and emotionally respond. They might not even be able to say why others' comments feel like impositions, but there's very little doubt that they do. It's just that social expectations take so much energy, and the grief is already so much to carry, that it's hard not to notice.

There's only energy for what really, actually matters.

And, it turns out, not much matters when you hurt that much.

I'd like to suggest that grieving is how we experience the process of a very, very deep part of our psyches becoming familiar with a painful truth. It doesn't happen only when someone dies. For instance, people go through a very similar process when mourning the loss of a romantic relationship, or when struck with an injury or illness that takes away something they hold dear (e.g., quadriplegia). I think we even see smaller versions of it when people break a precious and sentimental object, or when they fail to get a job or into a school they had really hoped for, or even sometimes when getting rid of a piece of clothing they've had for a few years.

In general, I think familiarization looks like tracing over all the facets of the thing in question until we intuitively expect what we find. I'm particularly fond of the example of arriving in a city for the first time: At first all I know is the part of the street right in front of where I'm staying. Then, as I wander around, I start to notice a few places I want to remember: the train station, a nice coffee shop, etc. After a while of exploring different alleyways, I might make a few connections and notice that the coffee shop is actually just around the corner from that nice restaurant I went to on my second night there. Eventually the city (or at least those parts of it) start to feel smaller to me, like the distances between familiar locations are shorter than I had first thought, and the areas I can easily think of now include several blocks rather than just parts of streets.

I'm under the impression that grief is doing a similar kind of rehearsal, but specifically of pain. When we lose someone or something precious to us, it hurts, and we have to practice anticipating the lack of the preciousness where it had been before. We have to familiarize ourselves with the absence.

When I watch myself grieve, I typically don't find myself just thinking "This person is gone." Instead, my grief wants me to call up specific images of recurring events — holding the person while watching a show, texting them a funny picture & getting a smiley back, etc. — and then add to that image a feeling of pain that might say "…and that will never happen again." My mind goes to the feeling of wanting to watch a show with that person and remembering they're not there, or knowing that if I send a text they'll never see it and won't ever respond. My mind seems to want to rehearse the pain that will happen, until it becomes familiar and known and eventually a little smaller.

I think grieving is how we experience the process of changing our emotional sense of what's true to something worse than where we started.

Unfortunately, that can feel on the inside a little like moving to the worse world, rather than recognizing that we're already here.

It looks to me like it's possible to resist grief, at least to some extent. I think people do it all the time. And I think it's an error to do so.

If I'm carrying something really heavy and it slips and drops on my foot, I'm likely to yelp. My initial instinct once I yank my foot free might be to clutch my foot and grit my teeth and swear. But in doing so, even though it seems I'm focusing on the pain, I think it's more accurate to say that I'm distracting myself from the pain. I'm too busy yelling and hopping around to really experience exactly what the pain feels like.

I could instead turn my mind to the pain, and look at it in exquisite detail. Where exactly do I feel it? Is it hot or cold? Is it throbbing or sharp or something else? What exactly is the most aversive aspect of it? This doesn't stop the experience of pain, but it does stop most of my inclination to jump and yell and get mad at myself for dropping the object in the first place.

I think the first three so-called "stages of grief" — denial, anger, and bargaining — are avoidance behaviors. They're attempts to distract oneself from the painful emotional update. Denial is like trying to focus on anything other than the hurt foot, anger is like clutching and yelling and getting mad at the situation, and bargaining is like trying to rush around and bandage the foot and clean up the blood. In each case, there's an attempt to keep the mind preoccupied so that it can't start the process of tracing the pain and letting the agonizing-but-true world come to feel true. It's as though there's a part of the psyche that believes it can prevent the horror from being real by avoiding coming to feel as though it's real.

The above might seem kind of abstract, so let me list a very few examples that I think do in fact apply to resisting grief:

  • After a breakup, someone might refuse to talk about their ex and insist that no one around them bring up their ex. They might even start dating a lot more right away (the "rebound" phenomenon, or dismissive-avoidant dating patterns). They might insist on acting like their ex doesn't exist, for months, and show flashes of intense anger when they find a lost sweater under their bed that had belonged to the ex.
  • While trying to finish a project for a major client (or an important class assignment, if a student), a person might realize that they simply don't have the time they need, and start to panic. They might pour all their time into it, even while knowing on some level that they can't finish on time, but trying desperately anyway as though to avoid looking at the inevitability of their meaningful failure.
  • The homophobia of the stereotypical gay man in denial looks to me like a kind of distraction. The painful truth for him here is that he is something he thinks it is wrong to be, so either his morals or his sense of who he is must die a little. Both are agonizing, too much for him to handle, so instead he clutches his metaphorical foot and screams.

In every case, the part of the psyche driving the behavior seems to think that it can hold the horror at bay by preventing the emotional update that the horror is real. The problem is, success requires severely distorting your ability to see what is real, and also your desire to see what's real. This is a cognitive black hole — what I sometimes call a "metacognitive blindspot" — from which it is enormously difficult to return.

This means that if we want to see reality clearly, we have to develop some kind of skill that lets us grieve well — without resistance, without flinching, without screaming to the sky with declarations of war as a distraction from our pain.

We have to be willing to look directly and unwaveringly at horror.

In 2014, my marriage died.

A friend warned me that I might go through two stages of grief: one for the loss of the relationship, and one for the loss of our hoped-for future together.

She was exactly right.

The second one hit me really abruptly. I had been feeling solemn and glum since the previous night, and while riding public transit I found myself crying. Specific imagined futures — of children, of holidays, of traveling together — would come up, as though raising the parts that hurt the most and saying "See this, and wish it farewell."

The pain was so much. I spent most of that entire week just moving around slowly, staring off into space, mostly not caring about things like email or regular meetings.

Two things really stand out for me from that experience.

First, there were still impulses to flinch away. I wanted to cry about how the pain was too much to bear and curl up in a corner — but I could tell that impulse came from a different place in my psyche than the grief did. It felt easier to do that, like I was trading some of my pain for suffering instead and could avoid being present to my own misery. I had worked enough with grief at that point to intuit that I needed to process or digest the pain, and that this slow process would go even more slowly if I tried not to experience it. It required a choice, every moment, to keep my focus on what hurt rather than on how much it hurt or how unfair things were or any other story that decreased the pain I felt in that moment. And it was tiring to make that decision continuously.

Second, there were some things I did feel were important, even in that state. At the start of this post I referenced how mourners can sometimes see others' motives more plainly than those others can. What I imagine is the same thing gave me a clear sense of how much nonsense I waste my time on — how most emails don't matter, most meetings are pointless, most curriculum design thoughts amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I also vividly saw how much nonsense I project about who I am and what my personal story is — including the illusions I would cast on myself. Things like how I thought I needed people to admire me to feel motivated, or how I felt most powerful when championing the idea of ending aging. These stories looked embarrassingly false, and I just didn't have the energy to keep lying to myself about them.

What was left, after tearing away the dross, was simple and plain and beautiful in its nakedness. I felt like I was just me, and there were a very few things that still really mattered. And, even while drained and mourning for the lovely future that would never be, I found myself working on those core things. I could send emails, but they had to matter, and they couldn't be full of blather. They were richly honest and plain and simply directed at making the actually important things happen.

It seems to me that grieving well isn't just a matter of learning to look at horror without flinching. It also lets us see through certain kinds of illusion, where we think things matter but at some level have always known they don't.

I think skillful grief can bring us more into touch with our faculty of seeing the world plainly as we already know it to be.

I think we, as a species, dearly need to learn to see the world clearly.

A humanity that makes global warming a politicized debate, with name-calling and suspicion of data fabrication, is a humanity that does not understand what is at stake.

A world that waits until its baby boomers are doomed to die of aging before taking aging seriously has not understood the scope of the problem and is probably still approaching it with distorted thinking.

A species that has great reason to fear human-level artificial intelligence and does not pause to seriously figure out what if anything is correct to do about it (because "that's silly" or "the Terminator is just fiction") has not understood just how easily it can go horribly wrong.

Each one of these cases is bad enough — but these are just examples of the result of collectively distorted thinking. We will make mistakes this bad, and possibly worse, again and again as long as we are willing to let ourselves turn our awareness away from our own pain. As long as the world feels safer to us than it actually is, we will risk obliterating everything we care about.

There is hope for immense joy in our future. We have conquered darkness before, and I think we can do so again.

But doing so requires that we see the world clearly.

And the world has devastatingly more horror in it than most people seem willing to acknowledge.

The path of clear seeing is agonizing — but that is because of the truth, not because of the path. We are in a kind of hell, and avoiding seeing that won't make it less true.

But maybe, if we see it clearly, we can do something about it.

Grieve well, and awaken.

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23 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:48 AM

(I'm Pete, I work for CFAR, and I'd like to post things, so please upvote this comment to 20 karma.)

I'm happy to see more posts from CFAR people on LW :)

I feel like this comment belongs on the LessWrong 2.0 article (to the point that I assumed that's where it was when I was told about it), but it doesn't actually matter.

Thank you.

One thing I've found to be helpful when continuously deciding to look into the pain is remembering that I don't have to (or don't have to right now, at least). Staring into the pain is exhausting, and trying to force yourself to do it faster than you're ready for can add to the pile of pain to deal with.

At the same time, the reasons to do it (and do it now) don't go away. It's just easier to do it without distraction or self-deception when you're allowed to take a break if need be.

Great post. A few gut level thoughts before chewing on it.

  1. This feels richly entangled with conscientiousness somehow.
  2. Refusal to deal with a world full of horror seems potentially superrational to me, IIRC charity workers dealing directly with the magnitude of suffering in the developing world commit suicide at pretty high rates, although I'm having trouble sourcing this now and I imagine this is difficult to get good numbers on.
  3. Tearing away illusions all at once is itself traumatic, avoiding the pain and only taking it in doses, especially if it can be taken in doses with qualified supervision, seems better than many alternatives. In particular, one interpretation of stuff like this that I've seen is something like "it is virtuous to try to take the pain all at once." Law of equal and opposite advice applies there, some people need to lean in more, but others likely less. Calibrating this is exactly what a good therapist can do.

I'd like to suggest that grieving is how we experience the process of a very, very deep part of our psyches becoming familiar with a painful truth. It doesn't happen only when someone dies. For instance, people go through a very similar process when mourning the loss of a romantic relationship, or when struck with an injury or illness that takes away something they hold dear (e.g., quadriplegia). I think we even see smaller versions of it when people break a precious and sentimental object, or when they fail to get a job or into a school they had really hoped for, or even sometimes when getting rid of a piece of clothing they've had for a few years.

Worth noting that a pretty mainstream emotion research theory agrees in that it suggests that the function of sadness seems to be to disengage from goal pursuit:

What is appraisal theory? In simplest form, its essence is the claim that emotions are elicited by evaluations (appraisals) of events and situations. For example, sadness felt when a romantic relationship ends may be elicited by the appraisals that something desired has been lost, with certainty, and cannot be recovered (Roseman, 1984; see, e.g., Frijda, 1986; Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987; Scherer, 1993b; Smith & Lazarus, 1993; Stein & Levine, 1987) [...]

In contrast to early work that viewed emotion as disorganized and disorganizing (e.g., Young, 1961), contemporary analyses maintain that in many cases emotions are likely, at beyond chance levels, to have adaptive value in coping with the situations that elicit them (e.g., Izard, 1977; Lazarus, 1991b). For example, the behavioral passivity of sadness (which involves a diminution in approach behavior) is often an appropriate response to the death of a loved one, whereas angry protests would be a futile waste of energy. In contrast, the protest and attack behavior that is characteristic of anger seems an appropriate response to physical or psychological harm inflicted by another person (insofar as it can alter the harm-doer's behavior or deter its recurrence), whereas passive acceptance might well perpetuate or exacerbate the injury (see, e.g., Milgram, 1974; Staub, 1989). [...]

Physically dissimilar events (such as the death of a parent and the birth of a child) may produce the same emotion (e.g., sadness) if they are appraised in similar ways (e.g., as involving a loss of something valued). An infinite number of situations can elicit the emotion because any situation that is appraised as specified will evoke the same emotion, including situations that have never before been encountered. Thus, the loss of one's first love or first cherished possession is likely to elicit sadness; and if people develop the ability to clone copies of themselves, a man who wants this capability but believes that he has lost it will feel sad. [...]

Several theorists maintain that the appraisal system has evolved to process information that predicts when particular emotional responses are likely to provide effective coping (Ellsworth & Smith, 1988a; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Roseman, 1984; Smith, 1991). Appraisals then guide coping by selecting the emotional responses from an organism's repertoire that are most likely to help attain important needs and goals under those conditions

For example, as discussed earlier, the typical response profile of sadness involves passivity and failure to pursue reward (Klinger, 1975; Roseman, Wiest, & Swartz, 1994; Seligman, 1975), whereas anger prototypically involves protest or attack responses (e.g., Averill, 1982; Roseman et al., 1994). In several appraisal models (e.g., Roseman, Antoniou, & Jose, 1996; Scherer, 1984a), one appraisal distinguishing sadness from anger is whether the person perceives control potential in the situation to be low versus high. This makes functional sense because if nothing can be done about a motive-inconsistent situation, then the passivity of sadness conserves resources— resources that protest or attack would waste; whereas if something can be done, then protest or attack could deter, reduce, or prevent the recurrence of another person's harmful action while passivity would result in a suboptimal adaptation (see also Perrez & Reicherts, 1992)

-- Roseman, I. J., & Smith, C. A. 2001. Appraisal theory: Overview, assumptions, varieties, controversies. In Appraisal processes in emotion: Theory, methods, research.

Thank you!

I resonate with a lot of this, and it's really reassuring to hear that this is a common human experience. In particular, I've been choosing amongst job options lately, and I notice that I grieve for the choices I've passed over: I imagine the futures that could have been. For a while, I tried to ignore the pain - avoid confronting the fact that I could only choose one of a few possible futures - by prolonging the decision. And I found that, with time, I came to confront the true state of the world, and that at that point I had a better understanding of who I am and what matters to me.

Great read!

This article made me realize how far I've gone in healing myself. My mother abused me. As a coping mechanism when I was about 15 years old I became disattached from pretty much everything I have/can have, in order to not feel much of a loss when it is taken from me. In order not to grieve.

And the fragment about two kinds of grief after a relationship ended made it even more clear. I never imagine the future. I tell myself I live so much in the present that it just doesn't occur to me, but the thing is that I learned not to. Because anything I imagine or want - can be taken away from me, and I would look stupid for being angry at the world/fate for taking away from me something that was not even yet mine. There are parts of my life where this seems a reasonable thing to do, for example my son has a diagnosis of a genetic disease that kills 90% of affected people in infancy. He's almost 7 years old, so he's already an outlier. Any day the disease can activate and the dying will start. Not planning a future for and with him feels reasonable. In autumn I finally visited local association of deaf people with a vague intention of giving him a community, in which he'll be able to feel compatible in the future, but that doesn't count as a plan. It's a vague intention. "I'll put him in one place with the people that are a bit more like him than me and he'll have a better chance of fitting in".

Last year, for the first time in my life I bought for Tadek and me a week-long holiday in Greece. And when it was close to the end, I started planning: I want to do that again, maybe a bit closer to the season than mid-May. And in two years I want to take the kids with us for this kind of holiday. I keep that thought, I return to it. It's very strange to me, I've never had one like this. I've never made plans for me or my family and here I am making them. Making it. One plan.

Recently another plan has shown up. About owning a flat, provided that my parents give me a lot of money once they sell their valuable house (one version of this plan has them not giving me money, but buying a flat and then renting it to me at no charge for a few years until we move out of the area). There is a proverb in Polish: nie dziel skóry na żywym niedźwiedziu (do not divide the skin of a live bear), warning against planning too far in the future or basing your plans on something that is not particularly likely to happen. This plan feels a lot like a live bear. Add to that my craving for emigrating caused by gaslighting politics of the new government (I've been gaslighted over half of my life and seeing it happen on this scale makes me quite anxious). But I keep it. I've even looked at some offers, to get the idea of prices. And just now I realized there is even a third and fourth plan.

So altoghether it seems that I'm finally allowing myself to care. I'm finally allowing myself to get attached and (at least to some extent) ignore the all-pervading fear of losing things and people.

I think the first step to this revelation was rephrasing the classic greek "panta rei". Earlier only temporal permanence could give things reason to exist (since nothing is permanent, nothing had the reason to exist and I was not entitled to "have" anything) and I managed to change that a few years ago. Everything passes. But you know what? For now, for this year and maybe next and maybe even some years more - this boy is mine. Everything passes and everything will be lost, but this is my home now, even if it will not be the last, final home of my life. Impermanency does not make it any less of a home than the final one. There was the thought "therefore I am allowed to attach myself to owning this car/having this child" but I never truly believed it. Until recently, that is.

This is a superb post: very well written, pointing to a skill of extreme importance for every rationalist.

I just want to add my two cents on the modality of grieving.
In my life I've been quite lucky, having had to mourn only the death of my grandparents, of two dogs and one relationship.
All but the last have had little emotional impact on my life: thanks to technology and modern medicine, they happened very slowly, and I feel that I had the time to adjust to a life without those beings, taking a little dose of grief every day until the loss eventually happened.
Losing that relationship instead was much harder. It happen very abruptly, and the woman chose to cut completely the contacts with me afterward. It took me years to process it completely, although the pain subsided in weeks, there was always a process gnarling at the corner of my subconscious. I guess this means there is a kind of inertia, an emotional quality that must be digested, and when it can happen slowly it becomes far easier.

I'm sorry for your pain, and glad you didn't, so to speak, waste it.

I wonder whether statements like "He's in a better place" might not be helpful to people who really believe it?

But I also wonder whether people grieving over a death are really grieving over the person's death, or over their loss of that person. Resentment of "he's in a better place" might be resentment of making the griever aware that she doesn't really care if he's in a better place.

As to humans, well, I suspect the best chance we have of not destroying ourselves is genetic or machine augmentation of intelligence on a massive scale in the near future. We may be smart enough to come up with solutions for our problems, but we aren't anywhere near smart enough for half of the population to agree on practical solutions to difficult problems. Practical solutions are inherently unpopular. The main message taught by our movies and literature is that you can solve all problems without making compromises, because that's what people will pay money to hear.

(I didn't say it was a good chance. I said it was the best chance.)

Of course, we'd then quickly come up with new, more-complicated ways of destroying ourselves more thoroughly.

I agree that resisting grief is a very bad idea. Resisting negative emotions strengthens them and prevent us from processing them. I feel that suffering is mainly about resisting emotions.

Pain alone doesn't cause suffering. Suffering comes with resisting the pain.

A while ago a hypnotist told me that a feeling takes around 90 seconds to be processed if it doesn't get restarted. I think the loss of a loved one does take 1 to 2 orders of magnitude more time but, it's still not that long provided one doesn't resist the process.

After that point the feeling is dealt with and the whole body still needs time to integrate the change and come back to full power, but feeling don't need much time if you feel them intensively instead of resisting them.

I could instead turn my mind to the pain, and look at it in exquisite detail. Where exactly do I feel it? Is it hot or cold? Is it throbbing or sharp or something else? What exactly is the most aversive aspect of it? This doesn't stop the experience of pain, but it does stop most of my inclination to jump and yell and get mad at myself for dropping the object in the first place.

I do think that first order perception like that has value but I don't think it's enough. Second-order effects or the relationship to the experience is also important.

Good guiding questions are:
What is this experience doing with me?
What changes for me through having this experience?

90 seconds [...] the loss of a loved one does take 1 to 2 orders of magnitude more time

So ... "the loss of a loved one", in your view, takes maybe as much as two and a half hours before "the feeling is dealt with"?

That seems far enough from most people's experience (at least so far as I can judge most people's experience) that I think it calls for a Wikipedia-style [citation needed].

So ... "the loss of a loved one", in your view, takes maybe as much as two and a half hours before "the feeling is dealt with"?

I qualified the time estimate by speaking about time spent fully attending to the feeling without avoiding it while being stable. The average person doesn't want to feel sad when a loved one dies and does all sorts of different things to resist it.

David Burn's The Feeling God Handbook is a resource for the general principle of the "acceptance paradox". I don't have citations for the specific numbers. I gave a time estimate is based on my own experience.

As a reference you might look at Brienne estimation that cured her crippling social anxiety in three minutes. My claim is that the loss of a loved one takes roughly an order of magnitude more time than that.

I admit that without having a mental model in which Brienne's three minute claim makes sense it will be difficult to follow the argument. On the other hand I do know that Valentine (who wrote the OP) has an understanding of hypnosis and is therefore more likely to be able to follow. That's why I make this point in this thread.

As a reference you might look at Brienne estimation that cured her crippling social anxiety in three minutes.

That isn't what she describes. She describes a lengthy process of contemplation and self-modification, whose last step happened very quickly.

Actually she does start by explicitly saying This post explains how I cured my social anxiety in three minutes. Of course again, as I said above you likely have no mental model in which that fits. When there's no mental model where that's a sensible thing to say, it's natural to read a post like Brienne's as saying something else.

Actually she does start by explicitly saying [...]

Yes, indeed she does. And it makes an effective headline, in the same sort of way as "10 Cute Kitten Pictures! What happened next in #7 will shock you and restore your faith in humanity!" does (but for a somewhat different audience).

As for your repeated attempts (I think we're up to maybe five in the last few weeks) to pull the "of course your criticisms needn't be taken seriously because you just don't have the mental equipment to understand" move, see e.g. this.

I'm reminded of Ozy's posts on radical acceptance, specifically this one.

It looks to me like it's possible to resist grief, at least to some extent. I think people do it all the time. And I think it's an error to do so.

It is only an error if it continues on too long. Avoidance in most circumstances is a natural and innate part of the process of dealing with grief.

Avoidance is sometimes an adaptive strategy in coping with adversity and sometimes maladaptive. In the case of bereavement, experiential avoidance usually plays a role in facilitating the healing process. The emotional pain associated with new information that a loved one has died is so severe that people need time interspersed with periods of respite in order to be able to fully acknowledge the unwanted reality. Respite can be achieved using cognitive avoidance, and sometimes by also avoiding contact with triggers of emotion. When avoidance is used adaptively, it facilitates processing of the painful information as well as restoration of the capacity for a satisfying ongoing life. As processing and restoration are achieved, the need for avoidance diminishes and the strategy must be relinquished. If it is not, or if avoidance is over-used in the wake of bereavement, the strategy can backfire. Processing difficult information is impeded rather than facilitated and acute grief is prolonged. (Shear, p. 357)


I could instead turn my mind to the pain, and look at it in exquisite detail.

This sounds potentially dangerous to me. You could easily retraumatize yourself or deepen your grief by doing this. It is probably best to try to do this when with someone else and also not too early in the grief process. This does not mean that you should never do this, however, as this is something that has to happen eventually.

The feelings from grief have an undulating or wave like motion. There will be times where you can face your feeling and times when you cannot. This is totally fine. It does, however, become important as more time progresses for you to make sense of the loss and find benefit in it, which fortunately often becomes easier as time progresses:

Those who were able to make sense of their loss typically did so by seeing the death as predictable or as a natural condition of life or by suggesting that the death was comprehensible within the context of their religious or spiritual beliefs. On the other hand, those who were able to find benefit in the experience tended to report that they had learned something important from it, about themselves (e.g., that they had the strength to cope with the adversity), about others (e.g., the value of family and relationships), or about the meaning of life (e.g., learned what is important in life). (Davis, C.G., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Larson, J. p.570)


I think the first three so-called "stages of grief"

I don’t think these stages are currently accepted anymore as they are seen to be too rigid. See here for some recent developments on the understanding of grief and bereavement.

It required a choice, every moment, to keep my focus on what hurt rather than on how much it hurt or how unfair things were or any other story that decreased the pain I felt in that moment. And it was tiring to make that decision continuously.

I think the power from this actually comes from the perspective that you are taking on the loss rather than the simple fact that you are thinking about it. For example, I think there was a big benefit from not thinking about how unfair it was.

In summary, I think your post is describing something that should happen in the later stages of the grief process. It might also not be suited for people with avoidant attachment styles. There is no doubt that they are some ways to do it better than others, for example this looks pretty good. My opinion, though, is that if you were trying to find out how to handle grief well, then it would be more important to look at things like what your strategies are: to handle it, to seek help from others for it, to compartmentalise it, to challenge the unhelpful thinking it will induce etc. See here for more.

P.S. can you please add a summary break somewhere in your post.

I don’t think these stages are currently accepted anymore as they are seen to be too rigid.

"Stages" was probably never the right word in the first place: they're more like strategies we use to avoid acknowledging unpleasant truths, and therefore have no required order or progression between them.

"I think skillful grief can bring us more into touch with our faculty of seeing the world plainly as we already know it to be."

Perhaps. But I think grieving need not do so, grieving can be destructive. I also think "skilled grieving" can often mean let it go, move on. I think "skilled grieving" is another aspect of thinking clearly. It seems we agree, so far.

But then "skilled grieving" is a positive aspect of grieving. I think it possible to argue that avoiding grief is another way of saying "skillful grieving". Embracing grief, wallowing in grief, those are to be AVOIDED, skillfully.

If grief simply means realising the painful truth of something and getting over it then, of course, we're all in favour of that. But that isn't all what grief encompasses, it's more than that. It's often unavoidable, emotional not rational. The term "skilled grieving" seems to ignore that aspect.

Beautifully written; thank you for sharing this.


"When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” - Lao Tzu


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