May 8, 2018

When a Dream Dies: how to Process the Grief no one Talks About. 

“Grief…is a sneaky thing, because it can disappear for a long time, and then pop back up when you least expect it.” ~ Lemony Snicket, The Carnivorous Carnival


I remember learning about Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief in graduate school. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—it sounded about right to me.

As a hospital chaplain, I witnessed individuals and families go through all five stages—not necessarily in order—and I saw some go through the same stage more than once. It provided a helpful framework at times for understanding where people were in their process, especially for the terminally ill.

But, for me, the model became a bit too prescriptive, a one-size-fits-all approach to grief. I don’t think that was Kübler-Ross’s intention, but it began to feel like grief had been wrapped up in a lovely little box with a bow on top.

My personal experience with grief has been anything but lovely. It’s been more like a wound that refuses to heal completely, or an ache that returns when the weather changes.

A therapist I worked with once told me that grief was a lot like walking in the ocean: sometimes you’re facing the waves and can brace yourself when a big one comes at you, but sometimes you’re wandering along just fine, enjoying the journey, then a wave comes from behind and knocks you off your feet.

We most often associate grief with the death of a loved one. And, no doubt, death is a predominant cause of grief. But one thing I’ve learned is that death comes in many forms, and grief is a pervasive experience.

Sometimes we grieve the death of a dream, a life we imagined that will never be. Sometimes we grieve the past, a life left behind that exists no longer. We grieve loss in all number of forms.

My dad died almost three years ago, and the depth of grief I experienced was overwhelming. But, it is often the grief less obvious to others that haunts me most. Broken relationships. Lost hopes. Shattered dreams. A life I assumed I would live that has not been.

When someone dies, it’s obvious why we’re sad. Often our friends check in and ask how we’re doing, what we need. When we’re quietly grieving lost hopes and dreams—lives most would know nothing about—we are isolated and alone.

I had a client talk to me once about her marriage not being what she had assumed it would be during this phase of her life: shared vision, travel, coffee on the porch, time enjoyed together. She was grieving the death of a dream. Once she had the opportunity to name her grief and work through it, she could reenvision her relationship.

I guess some grief feels okay to talk about while other grief feels taboo. It’s a natural tendency, I think, to judge and rank grief as if it’s stock traded on the exchange. This particular kind of grief is worth mentioning and shouldn’t be left alone.

Grieving can be an exhausting and lonely process. It can tear at our souls and leave us with bruised hearts and egos. We tell ourselves we shouldn’t be sad about that dream not coming true.

It’s probably our own fault anyway.
We shouldn’t have counted on that relationship lasting.
We should have seen divorce coming.
Plenty of women never become mothers.
Scores of men never get the job they want.
What’s so important about promotions anyway?

Before we know it, we’ve talked ourselves into believing that our grief is unacceptable and our own fault. We can minimize our feelings of loss to the point that they get stuffed down, only to overtake us like giant waves we didn’t see coming.

When we feel grief and sadness welling up inside, it’s good practice to talk about it, reach out for help, write about it in a journal, reflect on what the loss means to us. Giving ourselves permission to experience our feelings, rather than trying to ignore them, frees us up to do the work of moving through the grief to the other side.

The truth is, there is no formula for grief or a one-size-fits-all process. Whether we are grieving the death of a loved one, a dream, or a lifestyle, our process will likely resemble a petulant sea. Let’s be gentle with ourselves and others as we navigate the journey.



44 Metaphors for Grief.

This is the Best Response I’ve ever Heard about How to Process Grief.


Author: Marjorie Avent
Image: Matteo Lunardi/Flickr
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Sara Kärpänen

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