Why grief isn’t a linear process

November is one of my favorite months — what with autumn color skittering across the sidewalks, and chillier temps that beg for scarves and mittens and boots, and the promise of upcoming family holidays.

It’s also the month my husband, Gary, died.


Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash


I’m in Tucson on a sabbatical, of sorts. A last-minute change of plans, I hurriedly packed a few knitting projects, and six books and found myself on an airplane hurtling toward Tucson to granddog-sit while son Jeremy and DIL Denise visit Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

Here’s the oddest thing about how this favorite month started out: with an unexpected waterfall of tears.

A friend suggested that maybe my tears were to settle the dust. What a striking word picture. It speaks to me of grief sometimes setting dormant, gathering dust, and then rising up on a current of unexpected wind, turning on the waterworks.

Levi Lusko, in his book, Through the Eyes of a Lion, wrote this after his young daughter died unexpectedly:

My experience is that [grief doesn’t] come so tidily as moving from one zone to another. It’s messy and muddled. You move in and out of the stages at random. … Then one day you feel good—and you feel bad for feeling good.

Three years ago today, Gary left his cancer-ridden body for a disease-free eternal home. Three years. So what am I doing in the middle of a messy and muddled grief?

Back in 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a groundbreaking book about her research on dying patients. From that writing came the belief there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

But in a December 2013 piece, “The Secret Life of Grief,” Derek Thompson wrote that Kubler-Ross’s five stages of loss “was shoddy science based on people who were dying, not people who were grieving.”

According to an article by psychology professors Hal Arkowitz and Scott Lilienfeld, “Two Big Myths About Grief,” there are two common misconceptions about the grieving process:

•  The bereaved inevitably experience intense symptoms of distress and depression.

•  Unless the griever ‘works through’ their feelings about the loss, they will experience delayed grief reactions.

“Neither belief holds up well to scientific scrutiny,” wrote Arkowitz and Lilienfeld. “Reactions to a loss may depend on a person’s relationship to the deceased … as well as whether the death was sudden, violent or drawn out.”

We can confidently say that just as people live their lives in vastly different ways, they cope with the death of others in disparate ways, too.

Grief isn’t a linear, five-stages-and-you’re-finished process. It’s messy and convoluted; it can come out of nowhere and knock you for a loop, long after you thought you were through grieving.



I received text from a friend whose son died of cancer at age sixteen: “I will keep you and Gary extra close to my heart today. Love and hugs.”

I texted back: “I’ve felt Gary’s missing-ness more this year than last. Did you experience that? Two steps forward, one step backwards?”

My friend said yes, and then told me about the previous summer when she went home to see her Dad and visit her Mom’s grave. She said all of a sudden she was that little girl that needed her Dad’s shoulder to cry on, his strong arms to hold her. She said she cried and cried because she was missing her mom and her son so very much:

It was as if I was never going to survive this. But deep in my heart, I knew I would and I needed these tears and this moment of ‘weakness’ to just let happen. Kind of like recharging the batteries.

My friend wrote weakness in quotation marks. Because she and I both know that tears aren’t a sign of weakness; they’re a sign that we have loved and lost something of inestimable value.

Tears are cleansing and dust-settling and life-affirming. They are a sign of courage: I’m not afraid to lose ground and begin again. 


Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash


No, grief is not a linear process; it’s more like a plate of spaghetti. And here I thought I’d cleaned my plate … only to find a bit of pasta and sauce left.


P.S. If you know someone who needs to know it’s OK if grief shows up out of nowhere, please share, tweet or pin!


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  1. Last winter, 29 years after my mom’s death and 23 after my dad’s, I found myself crying throughout the holidays because I missed them so. It seems like even if you clean your plate, there’s always at least a small helping of spaghetti left in the pot to be served up when least expected. Thanks for sharing honestly about your own grief.

    • Well said, Linda: “It seems like even if you clean your plate, there’s always at least a small helping of spaghetti left in the pot to be served up when least expected.” Thank you for your comment.

  2. Tami Brigham

    I am so sorry it has been three years since your husband passed away. Your writing is so beautiful. I am a few months from my husbands third Anniversary of his death also. I am dreading the Holidays and dreading the day of his death. I just miss him and nobody can fill the void of me being lonely-even with people around. My husband was kind, loving, affectionate and funny., I miss his words of affirmation and him holding my hand. We we’re together 36 yrs. it is hard not having him here. I actually have not cried much since the day My soulmate died.. I have no idea why. I guess I am trying so hard to keep it together I forgot it was okay to cry. Thank for writing this Marlys. I was weeping The whole time I was reading this and I hope it is the beginning of my crying a lot more. Blessings to you.

    • It’s interesting, Tami, that you hadn’t cried much in the almost three years since your husband died, because that was my situation, which is why all the tears perplexed me — now, three years later.

  3. Yvonne Kays

    So true Marlys. Such lovely, inspirational writing about the messy process we call grief. My first husband flew away seventeen years ago and even though God brought a second marriage into my life, I still have times that tears flow. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. ❤️?❤️ Yvonne

  4. It is important to talk about grief to help other heal. Been through my share of bad days, I talk about it too, to help others.
    Thank you for sharing this. Hope these words will help someone somewhere..

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