What Does Progress Look Like in Grief?


Tolulope Olajide | What does progress look like in grief | Balanced Wheel

We have different ideas of what grieving should look, feel and sound like and we sometimes put higher pressure on ourselves when the reality of our grief experience doesn’t match up with the imagined. Progress can be big or small. I am finding that celebrating the small wins contribute significantly towards healing.


What I intend to share with you in this post is what I have found progress to mean, which I hope in turns helps you to identify your progress on the grief healing journey


What is the expectation that we have before grief? Or what is our preconceived idea about grief?


I've never imagined that the death of a loved one for me will include burying my wife at a young age. Whenever we talked about the loss of a loved one, I imagined it as burying grandparents, older relatives, and at some point, in the distant future burying my parents when they are at a ripe old age.


I thought that grief was a linear process and had a steady flow.

The closest understanding that I had about grief was through one of the modules I did when I was studying for my MSC in Engineering Business Management in 2015. This particular module was on People management and HR.


We had learned many things about people management, processes, and HR management which I found fascinating. One of the topics that intrigued me was stages of grief by Elisabeth Kubler Ross.


As I recall, I sat in the middle of the lecture room on that winter evening in December 2015 with my jaw-dropping as the lecturer led the dialogue about the stages of grief. I remember nervously smiling and asking questions about what grief has to do with people management and HR?


I was nervously smiling as I said out loud in my mind, in my mother tongue that “Olorun ma ma je ki a ri ogun grief ni bi ise o” meaning “ God forbid we experience grief at work”


It was here that I first learned about the 5 emotional responses to grief with the starting point being shock & denial to anger to bargaining to depression and finally to acceptance.


We were taught that these are reactions to either an anticipated or sudden news that any employee receives. E.g. termination of appointment, redundancy, etc.


The key information I remembered from that lecture was that bounce back, or recovery is better when the time between shock/denial and acceptance is shorter.

Source: https://www.fndaction.org.uk/the-grief-cycle/


It's 3 am, my eyes are as wide open as they can be. I have stared out the window and have seen the few cars, motorbikes, and vans drive by.


I even bopped my head to some of the loud rumbling basses oozing from some of the vehicles, as I imagined that the driver increased the volume of the music so that we can share in the pleasure he/she is enjoying from the music.


Like Simon Cowell, I had also critiqued some of the drivers for their bad taste in music.

The day had begun to break, and I could hear the sweet chirping of the birds, my mind travelled back to the days when I was in boarding school. It was usually the house master’s or the house prefect’s job to wake everyone up.


I imagined if there was anything like bird master or bird prefect waking up the other birds.


I suddenly remembered the stages of grief lecture while thinking about the birds and felt the need to find out where I was on the stages of grief. I also wanted to know how long each stage was going to take and where possible compare with other people to know how I was doing.


I had imagined that following Chidinma’s death, my grief journey would be linear and neat, and I thought it has been 3 weeks now so I must be on the steep upward climb out of depression because the funeral was near which meant I can finally get closure and be at the acceptance stage. Meaning I have gone through full grief work in 5 weeks.



At first, I tried to shoe-horn I wanted to fit the model and then thought if the model started with shock and denial, surely by week 3 I should be in the depression stage.


I would revisit the framework each night with the hope that I could figure out where I was and would wonder what the feeling at the acceptance stage would feel like.


I would ask myself questions like does it mean that I can start to feel normal again in the next 2-3 weeks? Would this rollercoaster of emotions suddenly come to an end? Amongst other questions


I wasn’t able to relate to the stages of grief as I felt that some of the emotional reactions I am experiencing weren’t on this model. I struggled with where to place envy and loneliness. This led to further reading which I will share findings with you in a different blog post.


What I wished someone told me was that grief is not linear and it’s messy, or could it be that someone did tell me, but I didn’t hear it? It reminds me of when Anisa shares her artistic artwork with me.


I can now see why parents believe that their toddlers are the best artists in the world. Almost always she would include a subtle variation in her artwork. If you pay closer attention to your toddler’s artwork, you will see these differences too.

”Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” – Vicki Harrison

How do I know that I have begun my grief healing journey?


My experience with grief so far is that its waves especially in the early days kept dragging me deep below the surface to the ocean floor. I have come to an understanding that it is from this bottom experience that we can start to heal back up to the ocean level.


To do this, we have to permit our soul, heart, and body to experience the pain of grief right to the bottom.

I found that hope kicked in when I got to the bottom and discovered I could still be alive despite the intensity of the pain I was experiencing.

You see, we often think that the bottom experience is an adversary that must be resisted. Pain has an authoritative way of getting our attention. One of the mistakes we can make is attempting to relieve it by the idea of or comparing it with bigger or small pain.


Your pain deserves to be recognised because I have found this to be the place where healing truly begins.


3 ways that helped me know that I was making progress


Reduction in pain


When healing starts, you will begin to experience a slight reduction in the frequency, intensity, and duration of the emotions of grief.


There will be times when you will experience major shifts, like when I was able to overcome my grief-related guilt when I was able to accept that everything I did was done in good faith, that I did all I could have done based on the information I had.


I couldn’t have reached this conclusion if I hadn’t let go of my preconceived idea that grief was linear.


I have found long walks helpful in managing my pain and there are times when lying still on the floor for hours brings me the therapeutic grief relief that I need.


Shift in focus


I found that my attention shifted from the pain when I was able to move my attention away from the circumstances surrounding the death of my spouse, Chidinma.


What this did was that it allowed me to begin to accept my loss and began to think of ways of honouring Chidinma’s memories.


Being able to ask for and receive help


I thought I had failed as a friend and a husband, following Chidinma’s death. I felt the need to prove that I could cope and do things by myself.


I felt like a failure each time I asked for help about anything including asking for help for a glass of juice. I knew that I was making progress when I could ask for a cup of tea without feeling that way.



Why does it feel like I am taking 2 steps forward and three steps backward?


You may notice that I mentioned “grief is not linear” several times, I want you to truly understand and accept that it isn’t. I also found this to be true with progress.


There were days when I thought I had made significant progress only to find myself regressing worse than I started from. The feeling could be likened to taking two steps forward and 10 steps backward.


I don’t know why this happens, but I am choosing to believe that it’s part of the healing process, what I have found is that the intensity of what I am going to describe as the barber’s chair experience wears off over time.


Can I speed up the progress?


Don't place pressure on yourself either because you want to prove that you are strong or because other people think you should feel better or move on.


The dilemma is that grief can't be rushed away. There is no grief cure or an easy way of getting through it. In reality, short-cuts appear to shorten the process and potentially produce painful long-term consequences.


How long does grieving take?

Whilst grief is universal, it is also unique to each individual which will affect the intensity and duration for each person.


I don’t think there is a universal answer to how long grief should take but, I am finding these three factors play a major role in how intense and long your grief can be:

  1. Your life experiences

  2. Your relationship with the person who has died

  3. The circumstances around their death

I have concluded from lived and read experience that grief is not linear, grief is messy, grief can’t be rushed and please try not to get hung up on a formula.


I believe that you can also measure your progress in grief if you are willing to observe, recognise and make note of some changes you’re experiencing in your feelings, behaviours, and attitude.


Progress in normal grief looks like forward and backward + spiral movement. It is dependent on how you have learned to deal and cope with grief.


Sometimes you can be “grief free” for days, other times it could be hours, other times minutes, other times moments or sometimes breathing could be progress. Be kind to yourself and live in the moment.


Please remember that baby steps still means progress and movement.





To Be Continued Next Wednesday...

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