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What is Grief?

The way that we think about grief will have a direct impact on the way we care for those who are grieving.

You already have a sense of what grief is.

You already have an implicit (and sometimes unconscious) sense of what grief is, how it should unfold, how people should look and behave when they are grieving.

It’s important for us to acknowledge this before we try to gain more information about grief.

Our understanding of grief has grown out of a number of things:

  1. The way our family thinks about and handles grief

  2. Our own experience with loss and grief

  3. The society and culture we’ve grown up in (ie. the way grief is approached in North America can be very different from the way grief is approached in different countries and cultures)

  4. Our church’s way of understanding and handling loss and grief

  5. Our unique personality

  6. What we’ve learned through movies, tv and social media, books etc.

Before you go any further, let’s reflect on some questions as a way of becoming more aware of how we already think about grief:

How would you describe what grief is?

How should someone feel when they are grieving?

How intensely should they feel what they’re feeling?

If someone doesn’t seem to be feeling something or doesn’t seem to be feeling it strongly, would you be inclined to assume that they are avoiding their grief in some way?

How long should grief last?

Do you think of grief as coming to an end at some point? Is there a point when it should be over? And if so, how long might it take for grief to come to an end?

Now, imagine that you are grieving due to the death of a loved one:

How would you want to be in the midst of your grief? Cool, collected and able to carry on?

Would it be okay for you to be emotional, even in public?

How much time would you give yourself to grieve? A year, 2 years, 6 months, 2 months, 1 month, 1 week?

Would you want to try to keep your grief private so as to not be a “downer” when together with people? Or would you be okay to share your grief with others?

Would you expect your grief to come to a complete end at some point?

Would you expect that you should be able to go back to normal (back to how you were before the loss) when your grief is done?

I’ve asked you to imagine this in two ways for a reason. Sometimes what we expect of ourselves is different from what we expect from others, but both are important for helping us to become aware of how we already think about grief.

Reflecting on this can help us in at least two ways.

First, it helps us to appreciate that we already know some things about grief. When faced with having to care for people who are grieving, we tend to feel ill-equipped and assume we know nothing about it. But the reality is that you do know something about it, and it’s important to be able to acknowledge it.

Second, we need to be able to assess the validity of what we know. Some of what we know about grief may be helpful. Some of it may not. Identifying our pre-existing thoughts about grief prepares us to grow in our understanding.

A good place to start when learning about grief, is to begin with some definitions. Even the simple act of clarifying our understanding of certain terms can help us with the practical act of providing care.


A loss is a loss. You had “something” and now that “something” is no longer there. What’s important to note here is that death is not the only kind of loss that leads to grief.

Without a doubt, one of the most significant kinds of loss we experience is the death of someone close to us. But there are many other kinds of losses that lead to grief. Many of these losses are tangible in nature:

  1. Losses due to a move of some kind (change of home, change of city, change of school)

  2. Financial losses

  3. Loss due to transitions, such as: transitioning from childhood into adolescence, switching schools (ie. from primary school to high school), going away to college or university, leaving home for the first time

  4. Relational losses: the loss of or perhaps rejection by a friend, the loss of a mentor, the loss of a beloved pet, loss through the divorce or separation of parents, for example

  5. Loss due to changes in our physical or mental well-being

But some of the losses that can affect us deeply, can also be intangible in nature:

  1. The loss of a hope or dream. Such as: the hope of getting picked for a particular sports team, the hope of getting into a specific College or University program

  2. The loss of identity. Such as: going from being popular to not being popular, trying to figure out who we are as we shift into adolescence, wondering about one’s sexual or gender orientation

  3. The loss of faith in God: this can come about when we first experience God not “answering our prayers” in the way we hoped and expected

What we learn from this is that people can experience loss for any number of reasons and any kind of loss can lead to grief. We must never discount someone’s experience of loss thinking that it’s not a “big enough deal” for them to be grieving.

What might feel like a loss to them, might not feel like a loss to us. But if the person is experiencing grief, then it is important for us to pay attention to what they are saying about their experience of loss.


Grief is the normal and natural response that we have to any kind of loss. The word “normal” is really important. There is nothing wrong with us when we experience grief.

Grief theorists say that it is an adaptive process. By this they mean that grief is the process by which we come to terms with or adjust to the losses that we’ve experienced.

We can tend to want to avoid the experience of grief because it can be uncomfortable, messy, and painful, distressing. disorienting and raw. But research into grief tells us that even though we may want to avoid it, it is really important that we be willing to go through it.

Why is it good to go through grief? Simply, because it is in the process of going through the experience of grief that we come to adapt to the loss and find healthy and faithful ways to keep living life even in the midst of our losses.

Another way to say this, is that we can’t adjust to our losses by ignoring our grief. The only way through grief is… through it.

We need to experience the uncomfortableness, messiness and pain of grief, in order to move through it and come out on the other side being able to live life richly, even in the midst of our losses.

The students in your youth ministry might be tempted to want to ignore or avoid their grief some way. We can’t and we shouldn’t try to make them grieve. But we can encourage them to grieve, by letting them know that even though grief is uncomfortable, disorienting and often painful, that it is actually a beneficial process.


I like to define mourning as the public expression of grief. In other words, “mourning” refers to those times when we share our grief with others, whether that be another individual or a group of people.

Funerals, memorials and other kinds of services are a way of mourning, but so too is talking with a friend about our grief. Defining mourning in this way is helpful, because researchers have found that we experience more healing when we are willing to share our grief with others than when we keep it all to ourselves.

Some private times of grief will be a part of every grief process, but according to research, sharing our grief with others will contribute to the healing process.

Once again, we can’t make someone share their grief with others. But we can tell them about the importance of mourning and encourage them to find people with whom they feel comfortable and safe sharing their grief.

A book that I have found very helpful in understanding grief is Counseling Skills for Companioning the Mourner, by Alan Wolfelt. It offers an introduction to grief theory, but also offers some really practical guidance for how to care for someone who is grieving.

What I especially like about this book is that it is written for people like you and me. Wolfelt believes that we don’t have to have professional training in order to be good caregivers. Everything he suggests is something that is within our capacity to be able do.


Are you interested in furthering your education in ministry?

Acadia Divinity College’s Master of Arts degree is designed to equip you for non-ordained leadership roles in church and society. This program contains foundational study in Biblical studies, Christian thought, a broad introduction to ministry, and an opportunity to specialize in an area of ministry interest, such as Next Generation Ministry or Pastoral Care and Counselling.

Read more from Dr. Dorothy Hunse in the Winter 2021 issue of ADC Today as she unpacks sharing and embracing our grief, specifically as it relates to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

If you’d like more ideas on how to equip your youth ministry team to walk with students through grief and loss you should watch the on-demand webinar with some of the experts from Acadia Divinity College. Find that here.

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