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  • Merrill Hawkins

Defining Grief: What it is . . . and Isn't

For the next two weeks, we will take a break from sharing stories of grief and loss and instead focus on what grief actually is and how to deal with it. In our culture today, many of us struggle to with how to grieve. Some push their grief aside to deal with at a later time. Others do not even realize that grief is something which must be processed. We may speak about "grief" often, but do we actually know it means? This week and next, Dr. Merrill Hawkins will help us better understand grief, first by defining grief and then by discussing different types of losses and how we process those losses. We are so grateful to Dr. Hawkins for sharing his knowledge with us! We hope these posts are helpful to you as you deal with your own grief.


Since 1995, Merrill Hawkins has been a member of the faculty at Carson-Newman University,

currently serving as Professor of Christian Studies in the School of Biblical and Theological

Studies. In addition to teaching several different classes required first year classes in the Liberal

Arts Core, he teaches upper division and graduate classes in religion, spirituality, and health, with a particular focus on spirituality and mental/emotional well-being. His wife, Kimberly, is Dean of

the School of Education and Graduate Counseling. They have two adult children, Anna Lee and

Conner. When they are not working, they are grilling, eating out, reading, and watching either the

Houston Astros or something on Netflix. They travel as much as they can!



"Because being a human involves change, and change always involves a loss of something, I have grieved even before I knew what it was, and you have too. Grief is how we respond to loss, and while it is a universal, natural, and normal human experience, our individual experiences will differ. Grief helps us process a loss and get through the loss. Resisting grief keeps us from dealing with the change, whatever it may be, in a constructive and helpful manner. When we process our own griefs in healthy and constructive ways, we are able to accompany other persons in their journey of grief in ways that help them with what they need, which is usually simply our non-anxious and attentive presence. If I haven’t tended to my own griefs, then one way or another, my unfinished business will get in the way of being the best presence I can be to my fellow humans as they experience their own losses.


"So, what is grief? It’s more than being sad. In fact, some people will not feel sad very much at all, depending on how they personally process their own losses. Grief is the complex interaction of our feelings, thoughts, spirituality, bodies, and actions to losses that arise because of a change. Those losses, of course, can involve death, deaths are not the only losses we face and typically not the first losses. In addition to losing people because of death, we lose people because the relationship changes or ends. A changed relationship comes in many ways. Your first thought may be about relationships that change because two people have a fight or a disagreement. True, that causes a change and grief. But a relationship can change because someone moved away. Relationships change when two coworkers who have a wonderful relationship experience change when one of them gets a promotion and becomes the supervisor to the other. Both persons may be glad for the new opportunity, but the change is definitely there in the formal relationship at work. When seniors graduate from high school and proceed constructively and normally to the next stage of life, which may be college or the workforce, a positive new opportunity has unfolded, but an old way of being has ended and relationships have become different as well. Even if this change is welcome, a loss of the old way has happened and grief, however subtle, is present. When acknowledged and understood, grief in all contexts helps process the change. Grief in all its many forms allows a person to say goodbye to what has been lost and to move toward a new way of being.


"Grief is complex because humans are complex. We exist as physical, mental and emotional, spiritual, and social beings. A self consists of all of those dimensions and all of those dimensions will experience grief in some way, but it will take on an individual shape based on a person’s individuality. We typically associate grief with feeling sad or down, and all persons who have a loss will feel some level of emotional sadness. For some persons, feeling sad will be the dominant way they experience a loss, but grief is not limited to feeling sad. Some will experience grief as thoughts or a cognitive experience. They think their grief more than they feel it. Grief also has a physiological dimension. It shows up in our physical bodies. When grief shows up in our physical bodies, we feel tired or drained or have unexplained aches and pains or we lose our appetite. We may not feel like dressing up and we don’t have much energy. The formal term for experiencing grief in your body is somatization. Everybody will feel grief in the body in some ways. For some of us, feeling tired and lethargic may be the main way we experience grief. Of course, headaches and lethargy and exhaustion can be signs of many things, including physical and mental illnesses. You should always get any symptoms checked out by a doctor, who can rule out an illness.


"Grief is not a sickness. It is not exhaustion. It is not a mental illness, including depression. Grief can, however, feel just like illnesses, depressions, or exhaustions, although it can also manifest in other ways (remember: some people think their grief). And grief can also coexist with those conditions. Grief can feel depressing or sad, and a person can have a mental illness AND have grief. People with mental illnesses do have losses and, thus, will grieve. Grief, though, will have a clear fill-in-the-blank object that can be identified. I have lost _________ (any number of things), and I am experiencing grief. Once I have identified my loss and understand that I am grieving, then I can get on with cooperating with the grief to help me process the loss."


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