Understanding the Waves of Grief

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Sam Rennebohm, Family Services Program Manager

There are good days and there are bad days.

The phrase is simple, but speaks to one of the great complexities of grief. For many of the families we work with, the grieving process is marked by the oscillation between disruptive sadness (“the bad days”) and a more manageable moments of clarity (the “good days”).

I frequently hear people refer to the more difficult moments as waves that wash over you; sometimes without warning. The wave may be brought on by something you see or hear, by a particular memory, by a time of year, or by a date on the calendar. Once the wave is upon you, it can be overwhelming and wash away whatever hope or understanding you have carefully built up. But, like waves on a beach, these difficult moments eventually recede.  In their place, we can again find hope and understanding. Over time, grief takes on this pattern of waves that come and go. Moments of hope and moments of sadness.

Psychologists suggest that it takes time to integrate positive feelings about the future with our sadness and grief about what has happened in the past. The idea of “integrating” these complex feelings is a fancy way of describing what frequently happens for people over the course of time. I believe strongly that the “good days and bad days” are an important part of the healing process. We need both mourning and hope. Time to feel the excruciating sadness of what has happened and time to find happiness in our new lives.

For donor families, hope and sadness are even more closely connected. It can be difficult to distinguish positive feelings (related to the gift their loved one gave) from the more negative feelings of grief. I know many families who have waited eagerly to hear from their loved one’s organ or tissue recipient and then feel a great wave of sadness when the letter finally arrives.  As with more general grief, it takes time to build a life where there is space to simultaneously mourn our loved ones, and to celebrate their heroic generosity at the end of life.

It is important to note that even though we experience the good days and bad days all on our own, it is often with the help of others that we begin to do the important work of “integrating.” Talking with supportive friends, family members, counselors, and therapists can helps us to express our feelings of loss. Spending time with others can also help us to feel more grounded; more comfortable; more optimistic about the future.

Our family services department is here to help share this journey with donor families. We know well the good days and bad days of grief, and we are available to accompany family members as they navigate through those waves.

Click here more information about coping with the waves of grief.

Sam Rennebohm, Family Services Program Manager, can be reached by phone at (425) 201-6576,  or by email at sam.rennebohm@lcnw.org