May 17


Normal Grief is Complicated.

By Natasha Dongell

May 17, 2020

This is an excerpt from my grief book manuscript:


Grief touches everyone’s life. It is embedded in the seasonal rhythms of nature. It is mingled throughout all of life’s natural ebbs and flows. We all have a story of loss. Despite our best efforts, it remains a companion to the earth and all human existence.

Many of us can remember the devastating loss of a pet. Or we remember moving to a new neighborhood, trying to embrace a new life while longing for the one that was. Many of us have lost grandparents, changed jobs, or retired. We’ve experienced heartbreak and disappointment, loss of dreams, and failed expectations. We’ve watched our children grow to eventually leave the nest and witnessed the slow decline of our parents’ health as they age toward their last days on this earth. All of these losses are laced with grief and deeply touch our souls. Still, they fit into the natural ebb and flow of living and dying, growing and changing, gaining something new while saying goodbye to something old

In this way, grief is normal. It is natural. It may not be considered the norm in western, post-Enlightenment, modern society. But in the experiential hunger of a rising post-modern age, and in the broader, universal spectrum of all that it means to be human, it is normal for people to grieve. It is the way of humanity to ride the natural rhythm of life and loss throughout their lifetime.


Most counselors suggest two kinds of grief. There is normal grief, as mentioned above, that stings of pain and sadness. It causes at least a momentary stillness, a pause of reflection, but does not necessarily hinder the griever’s development, growth, or his capacity to move forward in life. Normal and healthy grief may impact a person very deeply, but without paralyzing his ability to go on living.

Sometimes, though, and all too often, we as human beings are launched into a grief so inordinate, with sudden and aggressive force, that it overwhelms our capacities, de-rails our normal sense of living, and threatens our ability, or desire, to survive. This is considered “complicated grief,” and represents that state of being overwhelmed and paralyzed by the magnitude of one’s loss. The griever is overcome, unable to heal, or move forward in life. In his book A Grace Disguised, Jerry Sittser calls this grief catastrophic loss, the kind that “wreaks havoc like a massive flood. It is unrelenting, unforgiving, and uncontrollable, brutally erosive to the body, mind, and spirit.”

Catastrophic loss invokes a dark and destructive force. It catapults a person’s life beyond the boundaries of normal into a complicated mess of brokenness, trauma, and unrelenting pain.


A myriad of social and cultural factors influenced the way we approach death today. Whether we blame the Age of Reason and our disconnection from spiritual mystery or the deceptive glint of America’s wealth, we go about our lives in distinct separation to the realities of death, assuming that we can control our lives through grit, money, or acquiring knowledge. And so, where a loss would be common and natural, or when we encounter a death that has been anticipated, even prepared for... still, we find the mind, soul, and spirit completely overwhelmed and incapacitated. The unwelcome visitor of death breaks down the walls of our enlightened worldview, derails our lives driven for success, and shatters our ability to cope. Our capacities are laid waste, and society offers little help. The result is so much shock and trauma that wreak terrible havoc in the griever’s psyche.⁠

In some ways, we’ve created a culture in North America where all loss becomes complicated and every death becomes sudden. Therefore, most people are unprepared for what the finality of death is really like, how it unveils our total lack of control, and how it ushers us in a lifetime of excruciating pain and separation that contradicts everything we believe in.

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