The Seven Healing Milestones of Healthy Grieving

May 2022

As a bereavement counselor, I often get asked, “Is this normal?” The grieving process is both a very individual and a universal experience. Everyone’s experience is as unique as the relationship with the person who passed away, yet some of what we experience is relatable and commonly shared. Instead of focusing on what might be “wrong” with one’s grieving process, let’s look at seven healing milestones identified by Dr. Kathy Shear, one of the world’s leading grief experts. She is the founding Director of the Center for Prolonged Grief at Columbia University. Hopefully, these will help you identify if your healing is underway.

Understanding and accepting the grief

It’s essential that a grieving person learn about it and accept that grief is a healthy part of recovery. Allowing grief is necessary to process it. What you resist persists, so let the tears flow. You release the stress hormone cortisol within your tears when you cry, making it a helpful emotional and biological process.

Managing painful emotions

Experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion during the grieving process is expected. However, in time, individuals should be able to manage the painful feelings to the extent that they are not interfering with a person’s daily functioning. This usually happens within six months to a year. It doesn’t mean the grieving is “done,” as it is never really “over,” but it’s no longer regularly interfering with daily living.

Planning for a meaningful future

After a significant loss, individuals may feel stuck in a holding pattern. However, most grief experts urge caution with making major life choices within the first year. Loss can cause a significant reordering of one’s value system and perhaps a reflection on one’s life path. It’s common to start contemplating how to find more fulfillment after sustaining a significant loss, and this might include considerable life changes.

Strengthening ongoing relationships

It’s vital to double down on our lasting relationships or establish a new support system by seeking pastoral care, counseling, or a support group. Solid and nurturing interpersonal connections are one of the most helpful keys to resiliency in the face of loss.

Telling the story of the death

You may be avoiding telling the story, but telling it helps weaken the power it can have over you. Please share it with trusted loved ones and a trained therapist. Getting through the death story without becoming emotionally flooded is a telltale sign that the healing process is underway.

Learning to live with the reminders

At the beginning of the grieving process, it may be tough to see clothes, photos, or hear a meaningful song. Eventually, these reminders should evoke more loving vs. painful remembering. Instead of avoiding them, individuals will begin to cherish reminders.

Establishing an enduring connection with the memories

Eventually, the griever finds ways to keep their connection with their loved one, and the memories shared alive. How they do this is different for everyone and can happen organically, but it might be worth spending time thinking about how this can look for you. (Shear & Charney, 2021)

If you or a loved one are struggling in your grieving process, we are here to help. Sharon S. Richardson Community Hospice offers individual and group bereavement support. Please call us at 920-467-1800 and ask to speak with a member of our Bereavement Care Team.

Writer: Elizabeth DenDekker, MSW, LCSW, Spiritual Care Coordinator

Sources: Shear, K., & Charney, M. (2021) The Big Picture Workshop: Prolonged Grief Disorder Therapy Principles and Procedures. [PowerPoint Slides] May 7, 2021