Grief has no end. It merely transforms into something we learn to live with as we progress through the healing journey. When we think of death, we know that everyone will someday die. We look at the end of life as something logical, and it will happen when a person reaches the end of their natural life span or gets sick.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Definition of Integrated Grief
- What Does Integrated Grief Look and Feel Like?
- Examples of Integrated Grief
- How Do You Get to the Point of Feeling Like Grief Is Integrated Into Your Life?
However, we seldom see death as something that can occur to young people, ourselves, or those we love. As a result, when faced with the death of a loved one that happens outside the natural order of things, we react with shock and disbelief.
Eventually, we complete the stages of grief, pick up the pieces of our shattered lives, and learn to live with our losses. We integrate our suffering, which becomes a permanent part of who we've become after loss, into our new lives, where it remains a permanent fixture. Not everyone gets to finish grieving successfully.
Definition of Integrated Grief
Some individuals will get stuck in their grief for years after their loss, maybe even forever. But for those who successfully get through the grieving process, their grief transforms from acute grief into understanding and accepting their loved one's death.
The bereaved adapt their grief behaviors to allow for remembering and honoring the deceased in healthy ways that lead to healing. It doesn't mean they've forgotten their loved ones or moved on from their grief. This stage of grief signals an end to the debilitating suffering that's typical of when a person first learns about their loved one's death.
Integrated grief follows the acute stage of grieving and is characterized by these common psychological or emotional behaviors:
- Feeling adjusted to the loss
- Having a renewed sense of interest and purpose
- Finding joy and satisfaction in life post-loss
Other characteristics of integrated grief include:
- feeling sad and lonely
- longing for the deceased person
- continued thoughts about the deceased
- renewed grief-related feelings on holidays and other occasions
Although the bereaved might fluctuate between feeling good about life to regressing to experiencing some of the emotions felt when bereaved, they don't get stuck in their grief. People from their pain and suffering might still have lapses as they remember their deceased loved ones. Doing so is considered healthy and normal as one quickly recovers from those thoughts and feelings.
What Does Integrated Grief Look and Feel Like?
Grief looks different for each individual suffering through loss. No two people will ever have the same grief experience. But, their grieving process might take on a similar approach or characterizations, which allows mental health professionals to gauge how a person might react to a similar loss.
Integrated grief is grief remaining once a bereaved individual finishes processing their grief, learns the meaning of and accepts their loss. At this stage of the grieving process, people begin rebuilding their relationships, forming new ones, and participating in activities they enjoy.
One misconception among those unfamiliar with grief is that bereaved people can forget about their loved ones that died and move on with their lives as if nothing happened. While this is characteristic of a different type of grieving style, it doesn't define integrated grief.
Individuals who learn to weave their grief into their lives continue to think about their loved ones and feel sad about their loss. Still, because they've accepted it, they can healthily bounce between moving forward in life and remembering their loved one without these thoughts being emotionally crippling.
Examples of Integrated Grief
When a person reaches a point in their grief when they’re okay talking about their loved one without breaking down emotionally, they’re getting closer to integrating their loss into their life.
This transition marks the beginning of when thoughts of the deceased are no longer disabling, and the bereaved individual can participate in their lives without grief consuming them. Some examples of what grief integration might look like are explained below.
A bereaved mother resumes her friendship with other parents
The first example could be a mother who’s suffered the death of her only child resuming her friendships with the mothers of her deceased child’s friends. She finally does this without feeling resentment, envy, or anger toward them.
When a grieving parent experiences grief reactions that are uncharacteristic of who they are, it’s usually because grief still has a hold on them. It’s challenging to reason when consumed with grief. A bereaved mother will feel angry at the world and the unfairness of losing her child when all her friends still have their families intact.
A grieving father learns to open up to others about his loss
Similarly, a bereft father might finally learn how to open up to others about their loss experience and share his story without breaking down emotionally. At the beginning of grief, it’s challenging to talk about your loss, especially if you can’t yet make sense of it or accept it.
You might cycle through weeks in denial and disbelief and be unable to talk about what’s happened or how you feel. A parent who can finally speak about their loss while maintaining emotional control shows signs of successfully moving through grief.
A spouse commits to moving forward, even when they still take time to feel
Lastly, a spouse who’s experienced the death of their life-long partner who’s committed themselves to move forward in life still experiences sadness whenever their wedding anniversary comes up each year. These grief-related thoughts and feelings that emerge during holidays and other special days of the year are typical in a person who’s suffered a significant loss in life.
Contrary to popular belief, momentarily falling back into their grief doesn’t mean that they haven’t moved on from it. When these feelings reemerge during particular days of the year, it’s a normal part of suffering from a loss that you can expect for years to come.
How Do You Get to the Point of Feeling Like Grief Is Integrated Into Your Life?
Grieving takes time to process and heal from. Everyone’s grief journey is unique, and there’s no prescription for getting through it to get to the point of feeling like it’s integrated into your life. Still, there are certain practices you can undertake to help relieve your pain and sadness to help you move forward from your grief. The tips below guide you to healing, one step at a time.
Give yourself time
There’s no rushing the grieving process. For most bereaved individuals, it’s typical to experience different types of grief in stages that can cycle from six months to upwards of two years. These stages range from the initial feelings of shock and disbelief to anger and acceptance. Everyone experiences grief differently.
While some individuals will get through the initial stages of grief rather quickly, others will get stuck in their sorrow until they learn to master it. There’s no timeline and no wrong way of grieving. You’ll need to process your loss at every stage that shows up in your grief journey to give your feelings and emotions the necessary time and attention required to get you through.
Accept your personal grief journey
Grief is a highly personal experience that no two people will share identically. You may have experienced a significant loss alongside your spouse, partner, or siblings, but everyone’s reaction to that loss is unique. Your grief will differ from your spouse’s or your siblings because everyone’s relationship with the deceased is special.
When you compare your grief to others, you’ll wonder why they’re not grieving as profoundly or as much as you are. You might notice they’ve moved on much quicker than you but can’t understand why. Your perceptions of how they’re grieving will ultimately adversely affect your relationships with your loved ones, especially if you don’t approve of or understand their grief. Focus only on your grief and understand that there’s no wrong way of grieving.
Find ways to stay connected
The death of a loved one doesn’t signal the end of the bond and relationship you had with them, even though they’re no longer here physically. Bereaved individuals who successfully move on from their grief find ways of staying connected to their deceased loved ones through small rituals they incorporate into their lives.
You can stay connected with simple yet effective methods like greeting your loved ones each morning, talking to them when you need their advice, or including them in your holidays and special celebrations. As you look for new ways to stay connected, your subconscious mind will eventually accept that your loved one’s no longer here physically but still occupies a special place in your life.
Acknowledge your grief
Grief comes and goes in stages. One day you might feel back to your usual self, and suddenly a wave of grief takes you down in an instant. During the first weeks after your loss, you will go through these ebbs and flows almost daily. As time passes, they’ll become less and less frequent. To survive through these emotional ups and downs:
- Take the time to acknowledge your grief, feelings, and reactions
- Pay close attention to what was happening that day at that particular time
- Write it down so that you can remember what you were doing and what happened that triggered your grief
Learning about what sends your grief spiralizing helps you understand your feelings better. In time, you’ll notice specific patterns, and you’ll be able to manage your grief more effectively.
Practice your new life
Returning to your life after a significant loss can feel overwhelming and impossible. Many things happen after the death of a loved one. You react to your grief in ways that cause you not to recognize yourself, say and do things that are out of character, and withdraw from well-meaning friends and family.
Then, when your suffering eases, you begin to recognize all the changes which took place when you weren’t feeling like yourself. Getting back to living your life can be challenging. You might feel ashamed or embarrassed about how you acted or what you said, making it awkward to reach out to others to let them know you’re doing better.
You can take small steps in reconnecting with your loved ones until you feel confident that your emotions won’t get the better of you.
Get the support you need
Reach out to your friends and loved ones and update them on how you’re doing. Many are probably wondering how you’re holding up but might not know what to say to you or how to approach you. You can help them by making the first move in repairing your connections and relationships when you’re ready to talk about your experience.
Getting grief counseling is also an excellent way of working through your loss to get you where you’re prepared to integrate your grief into your life story. A trained counselor can help you recognize where you are in your grief journey, put things in perspective, and introduce you to new concepts and ideas on coping with your grief long-term.
Learning to Live With Grief
A suffering individual will eventually process their loss and begin to understand and accept it. They'll realize that they're no longer the same person they used to be due to their trauma.
There's no way to get back to being exactly who they were before their loss experience, so they look for ways of coping with their grief and making it a part of their lives.
- Susan Stuber, Ph.D. at the Philadelphia Society of Clinical Psychologists continuing education conference at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, March 22, 2013. Thelossfoundation.org