Tom's Columns

1. My Father's Death/Making a Box
2. Singing the Grief/ My Eulogy for My Father
3. Fixing a Hole/Grieving With Other Men
4. Reverse Anthropology/ Learning about healing from Tribal people
5. Stewarding Children's Grief/ Helping Families Heal Together
6. A Family Ritual for the Year Anniversary
7. When Grief Recedes/ Grief is Like a Cloud
8. Healing Through Our Strength/ Knowing Our Weakness Part 1
9. Healing Through Our Strength/ Knowing Our Weakness Part 2
10. Stress and Grief

When Grief Recedes/ Grief is Like a Cloud

Tom Golden LCSW

There we were, my seven year old son Luke and I , sprawled out on the family room floor building a model rocket he had received as a Christmas gift. I had put a number of CD's in the changer and the one randomly selected was blues man Johnnie Johnston. As Luke and I worked on the rocket I started to notice the music more and more until I got up and turned the volume up a notch or two. We worked a little more and both Luke and I were starting to move with the music and I said to him "You want it a little louder?" He responded in the affirmative and when I got up this time I really cranked it. The extra volume was wonderful. As I enjoyed it something inside of me snapped. This was not a muscle pull snap, this was a non-physical subtle snap that caught my attention. It felt like it was in my chest but the "where" wasn't really important. What was important was that the snap had seemingly opened up an old familiar joy, a joy I hadn't felt since my father's illness and death. It was as if a governor had been taken off of an engine. My joy was able to run again at what seemed to be full throttle. Now we both forgot about the rocket and just joyfully bounced along with the music. It was the first time I could remember listening to music with such powerful pleasure for a long time.

I had not consciously or intentionally avoided listening to the music that I love, but I hadn't listened much since my father's death a year before. I didn't even realize I had avoided it until I felt myself truly enjoying it again. This made me think of other things that I have traditionally done for enjoyment...drumming came to mind. I have played percussion instruments since I was a young boy. From rock and jazz to orchestral or concert band music to hand drumming I have loved the percussive instruments. When I started to think about my lack of joyful time spent with my music I realized that I hadn't played my drums for about the same period. I chuckled at the thought that it appeared that I had been punishing myself. It wasn't a is just that I didn't feel like it, simple as that.

I had been fairly conscious of the advent and process of my grief as it came to me in various ways over the year since my father's death. What has been interesting to note is that it has seemed to be easier to see it coming than to see it going! I think in general grief's arrival is more obvious than its departure. It makes me think about being at the ocean, sitting at the beach and noticing how the tide is coming in. The rising tide calls to us and grabs our attention as we move out of its way. The receding tide however seems to be more subtle and less demanding of our awareness. I think the same is true for grief. When grief enters our systems it often comes with a shock--jarring us out of a "comfortable" state, but its exit is much more subtle and quiet.

Many of us celebrate when grief starts to recede, but there are a number of things that can complicate grief's gradual departure. One of the most difficult aspects I have seen is that some people start to worry that they will somehow forget the person who died. The fear seems to be that without the grief the person will cease to abide in the grievers memory. This brings a difficult state where the grieving person grows increasingly ambivalent about their grief. On one hand they fear that if they stop grieving their loved one will be "forgotten" and on the other hand they are ready to be done with the grief! Other scenarios include fearing to dishonor the loved one if they stop grieving-----the thought seems to be that "I haven't grieved enough considering how much I loved him or her." The question is "Have I grieved enough?" This is a tough question in our culture where we lack markers and community involvement with our grief.

We can look to tribal cultures to find some interesting responses to this problem of knowing when someone has "grieved enough." There is a tribe in Africa which takes very seriously this idea of letting people know when the grief is "ripe." This tribe prohibits the grieving person from ingesting a certain food during the time of grief. The grieving individual is forbidden to eat of this food while in a state of grief. During the grief the elders of the tribe keep watch over the individual and monitor their state of grief and their path toward healing. When the elders decide that the person is ready, a ritual is begun. During this ritual the people of the tribe ceremoniously bring to the grieving person a meal containing the previously forbidden food. This acts as a marker for the griever that a phase of their grief has been completed. The community rejoices together in the "return" of the individual to the community. In this way the community acts as a support and a feedback mechanism to aid the person in dealing with the elusive nature of grief and therefore in helping them gauge when they have "grieved enough". Imagine for a moment that the "elders" of your community had done this for you. What would that be like?

There are other tribes in Africa who paint intricate designs on their bodies to depict the details of the state of their grief. These painted designs alert the community to the type of loss that occurred, how long ago it occurred, and other details of the grief. In this way everything is above board---it is out in the open for all to see. Imagine what it would be like in our culture (US) if we wore our loss history on our bodies---or maybe on our cars! How would it change your experience to drive in rush hour knowing the loss history of the drivers of the cars around you?

Knowing about these tribal people is interesting and teaches us what we don't have in our culture. It also shows us that when it comes to healing grief we are truly the "primitives." Unlike the tribal people, we don't usually live in supportive communities that know of our grief and our healing. Without this we are in more need of help in our struggles with the elusiveness of grief. Whether it is coming or going grief can be a very elusive beast. It is so elusive that it often can help us to link it with a picture or image that can act as a way to clarify. An image that comes to my mind is to think of grief as being like a cloud. Think for a second of what kind of cloud your grief would look like today? Do you have "clear skies" or is your cloud more fog-like, permeating everything and making it difficult to see even things that are close by. Or it might be more like a torrential thunderstorm, with lightning, strong damaging wind and rain so thick that you can't see in front of your face. Or possibly it is like a cloud in the sky that goes relatively unnoticed but blocks the sun's rays all the same.

Grief is a shape shifter. It rarely gives you the exact same look for too long. Like a cloud when you examine it closely it defies description. Have you ever looked very closely at a cloud in the sky? If you focus on a small segment you notice that it is constantly changing-- moving from one shape to another. When viewed in its entirety the cloud seems to be a solid shape and constant--but with a little scrutiny it becomes clear that this is an illusion. Grief is the same way. The large picture of our grief is that it is not changing, it is constant, but when viewed up close we can get a glimpse of its mutability.

Grief is an elusive beast which at times demands our attention in tracking its path. Its elusiveness seems to increase as our grief recedes. This waning of grief can bring up special problems of its own including not knowing when we have "grieved enough." There are various ways to bring conscious shape to our grief, one of which is to be aware of our increasing joy---like my joy with the music--- and let that indirectly tell us about our grief. My own experience with Luke and the model rocket taught me a bit about this path of understanding. In the mean time I continue to put energy into watching my grief recede knowing that as surely as the tide goes out, it will just as surely come back in.

Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author, and psychotherapist whose area of specialization is healing from loss and trauma. You can find out more about Ton's private practice here. Tom gives workshops across the country and in Canada on many aspects of this topic. His workshops are known to be both entertaining and informative. Contact Tom at the addresses below (email or snail mail) for inquiries about speaking or training for your group. You can also order his book Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing on this site or through


Tom Golden LCSW
 P.O. Box 83658
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20883
301 670-1027