Peeling the Onion: A Simple Primer on Grief

Doug Manning describes grief as being a lot like peeling an onion… “It comes off one layer at a time and you cry a lot.” The more people I see who are grieving the more I see how much we resemble that remark. Grief really is as individual as a fingerprint, and it is not something you “get over.” It is a journey you must make, a process that has to be done. You can try to go around it, but eventually we have to go through it.

Some years ago Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book after much research on the emotional needs of people who were dying. Her book, first published in 1969, was titled “On Death and Dying.” It is still the primer on the subject of the emotional needs of dying people. When people began writing on grief in the 1970s and 1980s, they borrowed the stages that Kubler-Ross had written about. In her last book, “On Grief and Grieving” she said that sometimes she wishes that she’d never written about stages. She comments that people tend to think that the stages are to be progressed through smoothly and simply. There is nothing smooth or simple about grief. It is, without a doubt, one of the most “emotionally sloppy” things we humans will ever do. Still, some describe stages. If you need to look at grief in stages, if that helps you, then please do so. Just be aware that there are no neat, step-by-steps in grief. It might feel more like a fish out of water than orderly steps that you go through.

Before I describe what many people find that they have in common as they process their grief, let me say that it’s okay to just survive.  Maybe more helpful to you as you grieve or walk with one who grieves would be to say do whatever you have to do to survive.

Definition – Grief is the natural response to any loss. Any is the first key to grief. Any loss produces grieving. Natural is the other key. It’s natural or normal to go through grief whenever we experience loss. Grief is nature’s way of healing a broken heart. Most everyone who experiences grief also has someone who tries to take it away from us, explain it away, put the best face on it, or tell us that we should be over it.

Most people want to know how long this grief is going to last. Many people think you should be over it in a few months. Many of those who have experienced grief find it more realistic to think in terms of years rather than months. You won’t always hurt as much as you hurt those first months but it usually takes a couple of years to recover from losing someone that you love deeply. Grief is very intense those first few weeks/months, and it takes a while to begin to live again.

The Dimensions of Grief – The lady who described grief as being like peeling an onion said that it comes off one layer at a time and you cry a lot. If I gave each of you an onion, no two of you would have an onion alike. As onions come in different sizes, shapes, colors, some sweeter, some hotter, so some dimensions of grief tend to be different.

The grief following the death of a child has a significance dimension. One lady said that grief after you've lost a child is a process of hanging on, trying to not say goodbye because you don’t feel like the child has lived long enough to establish their significance. You feel like you have to walk through the world for them.

Grief following stillbirth has a lonely dimension, because the mother is the only one that really knows that child. She bonded with him from the moment of conception and she knows that child. The father may have a connection with the child because he felt him kicking in the womb, but the mother really knows that child. Her grief then becomes the problem of explaining the value (significance) of that life to a world that thinks that stillbirth is minor grief.

Murder or sudden death has a delayed dimension to it. Particularly murder because until they catch the person, have the trial…and the trial itself is a horrible experience for the family…and until that is over the grief is kind of on hold. With other kinds of sudden death, the shock is so deep that it takes a while before they can begin to deal with the grieving experience.

Suicide has a shattered dimension. You feel like the onion has just been blown apart, and you have to put it back together before you can peel it. Families will often research who said what, what was done, who caused it. Doug Manning has a poem that he quotes,

“Twas the final straw that broke the camel’s back, then men noticed the fiendish pack, but who among them saw the next to the last straw.”

Suicide is the culmination of a complex package, a combination of all kinds of straws that one day become overwhelming. It’s not ever just the last straw that is to blame.

One of the difficulties with grieving suicide loss is that everybody always feels guilty. We always think that we should have known, and that we should have and could have stopped it. Neither of those is true. The only one who could have stopped the suicide is the one who died of suicide. And it’s very difficult for us to know if or when a person will take their life. Suicide victims many times seem to be better just before the suicide; therefore it is very difficult to know.

I also like the analogy of peeling the onion because if I handed each person an onion to peel, each person would peel it in their own way. The truth is that you are going to grieve like you are…like your personality is. Each person has to peel their own onion in the way that they are.

Another good analogy of peeling the onion is the outside of it. If you take that thin outer skin,crumble it up and toss it up into the wind, it would be a pretty good picture of the initial shock of grief. It is a period of non-reality and everything is in a whirl.

Another problem of grief is that we get the most help and we give the most help when we can receive it the least. During the whirl everyone is there for us; bringing food, running errands, attending the funeral, etc. Then they go back home and the whirl begins to settle.  That is when the intense time of pain sets in as reality begins.

Reality doesn’t just come and go as the whirl does. You begin to realize that you are not going to see the person again, and you cry until you don’t think you can cry anymore, but you can and you do. This is where you begin to realize just how much physical pain there is in grief.

When we are in the whirl, adrenalin helps us function. After the first few weeks to a month, we experience the physical pain.

When people are in the reality of grief, they need the 3 H’s. They need us to hang around, they need us to hug ‘em, and they need us to hush. People in grief don’t need a lot of words. The need our presence, and they need to know that we are going to be there when they need us.

Then we come to the reaction layer of grief. We hit bottom and get mad enough to fight our way through grief. It surprises us when we feel the anger, but it shouldn't because anger is a natural reaction to hurt. Anger has many forms; frustration, emotional distress, depression, and it is very healthy because it becomes the drive that helps us get better. We need to deal with it, not swallow it, because swallowed anger creates depression as we turn it inward. Doing physical things may help deal with the anger. Writing sometimes helps. Writing orders the mind. You need to express your anger, one way or another, appropriately, in order to work through the anger.

The problem with anger is that you can’t just be angry, you have to be angry at something. It may settle on God, and that’s a pretty good place for it, God can take our anger without getting mad at us. It’s tough on our marriage if it settles on our mates. “If only” is a normal question, but when we obsess on the “if only’s” anger at ourselves becomes dangerous and self-destructive.

Many times it helps us re-focus when we realize that anger is what we are dealing with. Just to be able to say, “I am angry, and I have a right to be angry” can help us deal with the real issues without exploding all over those around us.

Finally we come to the reconstruction layer of the onion. Many times we know that we are at that final layer of the onion when that one thing that we have not been able to deal with becomes “do-able.” Dealing with those “un-doable” things is part of peeling the onion and we should wait to deal with them until we are ready to deal with it.

The hope is that you will once again be able to deal with those things that during your grief are “not do-able.”

Let me give you one final encouragement. The majority of people who grieve will struggle through it with what resources they have. A few people will get stuck in their grief. Some get stuck to the point that they must have help if they are to get out of their grief alive. Help is available. Some find help in a grief support group…talking with others who are going down the same path can help. Our Employee Assistance program can counsel or recommend a counselor. Your chaplain staff is also here to help you find whatever resource you need to get unstuck from your grief.