Savvy Blog

Good Grief

“Good grief.” What exactly was Charlie Brown thinking every time he muttered this phrase? Whether it was the kite-eating tree or Lucy pulling the football away from him at the last second; Charlie Brown would respond by saying, “Good Grief.” Most likely, the cartoonist, Charles Schulz used this phrase as an expression of surprise and frustration. Did he really mean good? Maybe. Perhaps rather than saying a bad word, Mr. Schultz would substitute words. That seems likely, considering the two words, “good” and “grief” rarely, if ever – go together. Or do they? Still, it makes me wonder why Charlie Brown would utter his now famous saying. In this article, the concept of grief will be looked at a bit more closely.

These days, the term “grief” tends to be linked with loss often associated with death, such as bereavement. Phrases such as “grieving the loss of your loved one” contribute to this specific use of the word. But this is not the original meaning of this word. There is much more to this word than bereavement and death. The term grief initially was used in the 1300’s from the term “gravis” meaning “a heavy burden, mental pain and sorrow.” For those of us that have experienced grief, it makes some sense that the same word that brought us grief also brought us “gravity.” Grief is a heavy, heavy burden that causes pain and almost seems smothering. As Sarah Dessen wrote in The Truth About Forever, “grief can be a burden, but also an anchor. You get used to the weight, how it holds you in place.”

How did we get a narrower view of “grief” in today’s use of the term? This is probably related to a famous book from the late 1960’s by psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She published a book entitled, “Death and Dying” in 1969, which was based on her work with patients who were dying. She identified five stages of grief from her work. These stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She notes everyone who experiences grief will not necessarily go through all of these stages and they can occur in any order. While Dr. Kubler-Ross originally applied the grief process to patients who were dying (which is probably where it became confusing); she later extended this process to other significant life events. These life events include tragedies, disasters, divorce, drug addiction, or disease amongst others.

“There is much more to this word than bereavement and death.”

When talking with parents of special needs children, they sometimes describe a grieving process. For many parents, they experience strong emotions around the child’s diagnosis. They struggle with questions about changing expectations of themselves, their spouse, and their children. After all, what is happening is different than what the parents wanted to see happen – and it is different from other people’s paths. Not surprisingly, it is not uncommon for marital challenges to occur in the context of grief. Many parents struggle with the “why did this happen” question, which is a very normal expression of grief. How can parents grieve and not feel guilty that they are grieving?

An essay written in the 1980’s by Emily Kingsley called “Welcome to Holland” captures the unanticipated journey very well. It is a metaphor for parenting the child with special needs. It is about a person on an airplane to Italy, a place the person wanted to go all of their life. They have read the guide books learned the language, and all are ready to go. Then the flight attendant announces that there has been a change in the flight plan and the plane lands in Holland instead and “there you must stay.” It is a different place than Italy, slower-paced and less flashy. After awhile, you notice that “Holland is a unique place; it has windmills, tulips, even Rembrandts. But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy….and for the rest of your life you will say, ‘Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.’ And perhaps, the pain of not going to Italy will never, ever go away, because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss. But If you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy; you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.”

Perhaps “Welcome to Holland” is what Charlie Brown meant by “Good Grief” after all.

Duane Runyan, Ph.D., MBA

Duane Runyan, Ph.D., MBA, is the CEO/Managing Director of Rivendell Behavioral Health Services of Arkansas.

To learn more, call 1-800-264-5640.

Savvy is the lifestyle manual for the modern mom.
See all posts by Savvy