Grieving from a Choice Theory Perspective

When someone we love dies, it triggers a grief process that everyone experiences. It’s best described by Elizabeth Kublar-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. In it, she discusses the five stages that people go through: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.

No one can predict how long a phase will last, and there is no rhyme or reason to your experience. You may think you are in the anger phase, jump to depression, and then back to denial again. The process is about what feels right for each individual at the time. If a well-meaning person suggests that you shouldn’t be feeling what you are feeling in your grieving process, kindly thank them for their concern, but know that you are exactly where you need to be. However, you may become aware of something not feeling right. You may think, “I should be over this by now” or “I don’t like feeling this way.” When you recognize that it is time to move forward, trust and follow that feeling.

Choice Theory® tells us that all behavior is purposeful, and that everything we do at any point in time is our best attempt to get something we want to meet one or more of our five basic needs. From a Choice Theory perspective, grief is no exception. Once you understand that grief is a purposeful behavior used as a person’s best attempt to get something they want, then it becomes easier to know what to do about it.

What could we possibly be trying to get by grieving? Most people would say that there isn’t a choice—when someone we love dies, we have to grieve. While it is natural to miss the person’s presence in our life, grief isn’t inevitable, at least not in the way most people understand the grieving process.

The first thing we try to get with our grief is the person who died. It is our best attempt to keep that person alive, at least in our perceived world. We know they no longer exist in the physical world, but thinking about them, pining for them, and mourning their presence keeps that person active in our perception. This feels better to us than the full weight of that person’s absence.

Grief is also a way to express to others just how much we loved the person who died. It says, “See what a good (husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, mother, father, sister, brother, friend, etc.) I was?” I’m not suggesting that people are being manipulative in their grief, just that it shows others how much we cared.

Our grieving encourages others to support us during our time of bereavement. People do things for us that we would normally be expected to do ourselves. Again, please don’t think that I am suggesting that people wake up and “decide” to grieve so someone will stop by the house with a meal.

We typically aren’t aware of these benefits, so it’s important to point out the potential advantages of grief. Once we do become conscious of what our grief does and doesn’t do for us, we’ve reached the hard part. It is time to make decisions about how we want to live.

There are always at least three options in every situation you face: change it, accept it, or leave it. With death, you may wonder how someone can leave it. It could involve major denial of the loss, suicide, drugs and/or alcohol abuse, or sinking deep into mental illness, among other possibilities.

When we get caught up in changing things, we may continue in our grief as our best attempt to get the person back. That might look like constant trips to the cemetery, frequent conversations with the deceased, refusing to believe he or she is truly gone, constantly talking about the one who’s gone. There are many things we can do in an attempt to change the reality of the loss.

If and when we come to accept it, we can experience some measure of peace and rejoin the living. A healthy step in this process is finding a way to somehow maintain that person’s presence in our lives. Now, this is something unique to every individual and you must be very careful not to judge the choices of the bereft.

Many people keep the cremated remains of their loved ones in spaces they live in, like on their living room mantle. Others place some ashes in a necklace and wear it around their neck. Some will set up scholarship or memorials in that person’s memory. When my husband died, his family and I created a wrestling scholarship fund for a local high school wrestler. When my friend lost her eight-year-old son, she had the Houston zoo name the frog exhibit after him.

There are all kinds of creative ways to maintain the person’s presence. There is no wrong way, and whatever comforts the bereaved should be supported by those around them. Just because a person is choosing something that may be distasteful or wrong to you, doesn’t make it wrong for that person.

After acceptance, the grieving person can begin to assimilate back into their life and the lives of those around them, but it won’t happen overnight. We need patience and loving understanding for those coming back from grief.

Another possible path of grief is a grieving person who doesn’t appear to grieve at all. There may be many explanations for this behavior; the person may be very private and won’t grieve where others can see, or that person may be trying to be strong for everyone else. I know I wanted my children to know that I was going to be okay. I didn’t want them to believe that they had to take care of me. To some, it seemed that I wasn’t grieving enough.

If you are grieving, or you are involved in the life of someone who is grieving, please don’t judge yourself or them. Understand that all behavior is purposeful and the person is getting something out of what they are doing, whether they are aware of it or not. When they understand that there is a choice, then they can make a conscious decision about which of the three choices they want to make. Once they know the direction they want to take, they have to flesh out the details of their plan.

Be patient, be tolerant, and be supportive. Perhaps you are worried about someone who is grieving and would like to ask a question.

If you are interested in learning about Choice Theory and grief, or you’re seeking help for yourself or someone you know who is experiencing grief at this time, you may be interested in Kim’s ebook, Prepare to Love Again.


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