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Life with Liz: No one-size-fits-all with ‘proper grief’

I was mindlessly bingeing some TV show the other night when a phrase that gives me nightmares came up. “I’m worried that you haven’t grieved properly.” I had to rewind the show a little to get the full context. Sure enough, the main character was a mom who was barely holding it all together, trying to go through therapy after a devastating loss. What I liked best about the rest of the scene was that her face and comments reflected my own, when I was confronted with that same phrase.

I’ve tried therapy two different times now. The first time, it only lasted two sessions, and I knew I clearly wasn’t ready to continue down that road. A few months later, I gave it another go, and really tried to stick with it. But I kept getting that same lecture. “You need to properly grieve.”

The first time I got hit with it, I asked what the steps were. I kept hoping for some kind of guide or step by step instruction to how to get through this grieving process. Unfortunately, although you’re supposed to “properly” do it, there isn’t one “proper” method to follow.

The next several times I got hit with it, I responded with my default demeanor: snark. It’s impossible for me to hear the word “proper” and not immediately adopt some sort of snooty British affectation. “Proper spot of tea to go with your proper grief, Ma’am?” Apparently, when you use sarcasm, therapists think you’re avoiding a subject.

I put therapy on the shelf, decided to just muddle along with my own devices, and didn’t think about “proper” grief until I was watching a fictionalized version of it. Of course, over the course of a season, the plucky heroine was finally able to talk about the person she lost, thereby heralding “proper grief” and she and her therapist had a nice hug and that was that.

I’ve watched the kids so closely, trying to gauge how they’re handling things. From the beginning, A has seemed to have the wisest approach: trying to best honor Steve’s legacy by forging ahead with the life and plans that he and his dad talked about. G has quietly incorporated bits and pieces of Steve into his life, from using his Dad’s old bow to hunt to wearing some of Steve’s old clothes. E has struggled the most, finding her own way, while following both of her brother’s leads. I can always tell when she “needs a moment” when I find her wearing his old pajamas to bed. One phrase that has started popping up in all their vocabularies is “If Dad were here, he would. ...” I wish they didn’t have to imagine it, but it seems healthy that they can.

I’ve watched Duncan go through his own grief process. For weeks after Steve died, he waited at the door for him to come home. Then, one day he didn’t. More recently, he has started climbing up on my lap, the way he used to climb on Steve when he walked in the door. In just a few weeks, he will have been my dog longer than he was Steve’s, and for the most part, I think he has come to terms with that.

Is any of this proper? I don’t know. It seems to be working for the most part. The kids still have days when I can do or say nothing right, when I have no answers, when they want nothing to do with anything around them, and just need to be left alone. Dunc still sniffs the hunting clothes when G pulls them out of storage. Maybe I imagine it, maybe it’s what I want to see, but he seems to remember that smell meant something really good to him.

I got to thinking about this whole “proper” grief thing again. It’s my type A personality coming through, but I want to do it properly, and get it right. One of the therapists I worked with frequently told me that I needed to stop focusing on “passing the test.” I can’t help it, I’m wired that way.

I started Googling “proper grief” and I got a whole bunch of different websites that all essentially said the same thing: it’s different for everyone. So then, I got to thinking about the words separately, specifically the use of the word “proper.” Proper, when used by the British to describe something, means “real” or “genuine.” A proper rapscallion would be a real mischief maker, for example.

In this context, this phrase suddenly started to make a lot more sense. It wasn’t so much about being the “right” kind of grief, as it was the “genuine” kind. Thankfully, the days when I don’t think I can get out of bed are becoming fewer and farther between. This has more to do with the sheer amount of activities going on right now than anything else, but the ends don’t need the means to justify them. At any rate, I had a day where I just couldn’t bring myself to throw off the covers. As I took most of the morning to just be sad and miss Steve with every fiber of my being, I reminded myself that this was in fact “proper” grief.

A few days later, when one of the kids had thrown an old pair of Christmas pajamas in the wash, and I realized that they were from what would become our very last Christmas together, I again found myself in the depths of some more “proper” grief. Facing down the holidays, I’m sure there is a lot more of it on the horizon.

I don’t know if I would be rewarded with a hug from the therapist for coming to this realization. In fact, I hope I wouldn’t be, as I am not the biggest fan of personal space invasion since the onset of COVID. Frankly, I don’t really care if I get a therapy gold star or not. Coming to this realization and giving myself the grace to grieve as I see fit has been a proper revelation to me, and I hope in turn that I can extend that grace to others who are also on this journey.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing columnist who appears weekly in the Times News.