On Grief and Grieving

“This study demonstrated that pre-COVID-19 diagnoses and understandings of grief are not sufficient to picture grief during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. These grief experiences are more complex and deserve further exploration.”
Nierop-van Baalen et al., 2023

To begin, let’s define terms.

Here are definitions of grief and grieving based on those offered by Mary Frances O’Connor, Ph.D., author of The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss (2021):

  • Grief. After loss, grief is the complex, anguished, yearning feeling associated with love, attachment, bonding, connection, and belonging.
  • Grieving is the process by which the heart, mind, and brain adapt and adjust to the absence.

Overviews of Mary-Frances O-Connor, Ph.D.’s research findings

In sum, the human brain has evolved to adjust to loss. The intensity of the love and bonding before the loss tend to align with the intensity of the grief after a loss. That is why “getting over grief,” “getting through grief,” and “healing from grief” may or may not be helpful directions. Is reducing or eliminating love – manifested as grief after loss of the loved being – truly the goal?

If a person can gently and kindly give the human brain time to re-navigate, love and grief may not be lessened, but the brain can adjust to the absence.

In my mind, I co-travel with grief. I am continuing on and I miss my beloved people and beings profoundly. Both are true.

Memories and rumination after loss

Memory is complex.

Distressing images may arise after loss.  Although clinically termed intrusive memories, I wonder if the brain is attempting to cue a person to be cautious, attempting to help the person to remember in order to protect.

People who have experienced loss can find themselves analyzing or replaying the end, or rehearsing what they would do in the future. Although clinically termed rumination, I wonder, again, if the human brain is attempting to practice mercy, looking for loopholes, looking for different interpretations, looking for some way to ease the ache.

Giving time to intrusive memories and to replaying losses may inadvertently deepen memories through repetition, as if one were using a flashcard deck to memorize old hurts. Practicing shifting one’s attention – rather than following the narrative with its sad, but known end – may provide balm to the mind and heart and assist with helping the brain adjust to loss.

Intrusive memories and rumination are common after loss and cause distress and fatigue. To ease this distress, one can acknowledge the thoughts, acknowledge the human brain’s attempt to be merciful (“Ah, brain, that’s you trying to help me again”), and shift one’s attention to one’s values and priorities.

Other important, grief-related terms

Ambiguous grief: Simultaneously wishing for the person or being to die and free themselves and you – and wanting to hold onto them forever.

Anticipatory grief: Feeling grief now at the slow death of the person’s selfhood or the being’s identity, all the while knowing grief will occur again when the life ends.

Cumulative grief / compound grief: The complex feelings that occur after experiencing cascading losses in rapid succession without time to adjust to each loss. Experiencing cumulative grief is inherent to aging.

“The grief is the love.”
David Kessler

Disenfranchised grief / Unacknowledged grief: From private losses, feeling grief that others may not believe is valid or may not understand.

Existential grief: Sadness experienced over the inability to find meaning from loss and a resultant sense of futility about the future.

Traumatic grief: Occurs in response to a death or loss that is sudden,  shocking, alarming, and often involves a traumatic event.

Separation distress: Sadness, anxiety, and unease experienced from severing of bonds and the resultant neurobiological impact.

Secondary losses: Beyond a primary loss, additional tangible and intangible losses such as companionship, identity, self-concept, property or real estate, financial stability, social position, world view, and others.

“New losses bring up old losses”: Emotions, cognitions, experiences, and memories are experienced, conveyed and stored in the brain through connections and interconnections between neurons (neural pathways). New experiences may share similarities with previous experiences and activate the same neural pathways. When a loss occurs, similarities may be associated with – and be activated by – the type of loss, the feelings involved, or environmental cues. This intertwining of connections is why “a new loss brings up old losses.”

Other types of grief may include “overshadowed grief, cumulative grief, triggered grief, derailed grief, and conciliatory grief.”

Possible considerations

“[E]xperiential avoidance and rumination play a role in the persistence of complicated grief.” (Eisma et al., 2021)

“All grievers can benefit from support focused on understanding their grief, managing emotional pain, thinking about the future, strengthening their relationships…learning to live with reminders of the deceased, and connecting with memories.” (Meichsner et al., 2020)

Untitled by Trish Shelor White

“Grief will always be part of me, not as a superpower nor a thorn in my side but as a reminder that only a love so staggering in its intensity could produce an equivalent amount of sadness.”
– Rachel Daum

Here are the worst things people can say to others who are grieving (and to themselves). Here are the worst traits of people who try to help. (Please scroll to the bottom of that page to view the list.)

Image: “Untitled” by Trish Shelor White

Last updated 03/10/2024

This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Reality Is Complex

Reality is complex.

Reality is complex.

The reality of a person’s interiority – feelings, thoughts, sensations, personal history, culture and more – is also complex.

In the image accompanying this post – inspired by work by Ben Farrell – I imagine the spheres as factors of varying degrees of magnitude, operating multi-directionally and dynamically in space, influencing the entire system.

More specifically:

  1. Large spheres can be used to envision the magnitude of the impact of some factors on the entire system.
  2. Small spheres can be used to envision the impact of one small, conscious effort – or unconscious action – on the entire system.
  3. The size of spheres can be changed.
  4. Lines may represent many concepts. They are bidirectional.
  5. Use of any one factor may be necessary – but may not be sufficient –  to change the system. Engaging with multiple factors at varying magnitudes may be needed to change the quality of one’s inner experience and impact one’s outward actions.

For mental health purposes, spheres in the image might be visualized as:

Strengths. A person’s strengths, values, and priorities have power to impact the entire system in small and profound ways.

Skills. Three of the most powerful awareness skills people can use to assist themselves with mental health challenges are self-care, emotion regulation, and attention control. Skills can be used anywhere within a complex system to influence how it works.

Challenges.  Three of the top reasons people seek counseling are for help with feelings or states of anxiety and/or depression, task completion, and problematic behaviors. Acknowledging the existence of challenges within a system offers opportunities to derive strategies to address them.

Situations. People seek counseling for help with myriad situations, from relationship challenges, family conflicts, and work and school issues, to traumatic experiences and loss of loved ones. Seeing the situation as occurring within a complex system can be helpful on many levels.

Thoughts. The beautiful human brain is a thought-generating machine. Unless a person is experiencing genuine threat, most feelings result from thoughts. Central to a sense of well-being is the ability to decide which thoughts that arise will receive one’s attention. The most powerfully helpful and unhelpful thoughts can be identified within the system and addressed skillfully.


I hypothesize that people can gain awareness of the complexity of reality as it is – to the best of their ability to perceive it – then use “awareness skills” to, nearly on-demand, engage in emotion regulation, attention direction, and thought management. In turn, they can engage in life based on their values and priorities, recover from hardships inherent to the human condition, and ameliorate problematic patterns of feeling, thinking, behaving, working, and relating.

Image inspired by, and adapted from, work by Ben Farrell.

Thinking inspired by the systems thinking of my father, Robert H. Giles, Jr.

Last updated 2/25/2024

This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Begin and End with Self-Kindness

I hypothesize that the extent to which people can gain awareness skills – with “awareness skills” defined as the ability to, nearly on-demand, engage in emotion regulation, attention direction, and thought management – is the extent to which they can engage in life based on their values and priorities, recover from hardships inherent to the human condition, and gain mastery of problematic patterns of feeling, thinking, behaving, working, and relating.

Although avoidance and distraction logically may provide a short-term break from uncertainty, boredom, or distress, the reality of one’s interiority and the reality of the outside world are present and require addressing. With awareness, addressing reality can be done humanely and strategically.


What do my reviews of research literature and my education, training, and professional and personal experience suggest can support acquiring and deepening awareness skills?

Self-kindness. Self-care. Beginning with the end in mind. A schedule. Practicing skills during slow times so they are readily available during challenging times.  Acknowledging intensity. If not in danger, pausing. Differentiating between possibilities (a range of equally likely outcomes) and probabilities (the likelihood of this outcome occurring over that one). Acknowledging that opposites can both be true. Adjusting. Appreciating. Catching judgment and replacing it with compassion. Learning a new skill. Gaining basic knowledge of how the human heart, mind, and brain work. Gaining knowledge of effective relating with self and others. Self-kindness.

I will add that, in my nearly 65 years on the planet, I have not experienced a time that called for a greater measure of a trait currently difficult to measure by science: courage.

Beginning in childhood, I was keenly aware of my great-grandparents’, grandparents’, and parents’ thinking about life and how to live it well. Of this list of eight events considered by a panel of historians to be the most stressful in U.S. history, my family members or I lived through six of them. I was a history major as an undergraduate. I have studied all national and word events mentioned in the article. I deem my views informed.

I think these times call for nearly heroic bravery, attention, determination, and inventiveness. I would have wished stable times for all of us to explore our strengths and create along the way. Written languages, themselves, were created during stable times! Certainly, possibilities still exist. But I posit that, today, cultivating a quiet, inner fortitude – perhaps unnoticed and unappreciated by others – may need to be the ultimate act of self-kindness.

. . . . .

“Self-care in this sense is an exceedingly radical idea.”
– Daniel Schreiber, Alone: Reflections on Solitary Living (p. 101). August 1, 2023. Reaktion Books. Kindle Edition.

Image: Stolk, iStock

All content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice. Consult a qualified professional for personalized medical, health care, and professional advice.

How Counseling Works: A Plain Language Summary in Simplified Chinese Characters and English

The following is a plain language summary of how counseling works. With great assistance from Chinese instructors, I have written what I can in both Simplified Chinese Characters and English. What remains in English is still beyond my vocabulary to translate. For myself and others learning to read Simplified Characters, pinyin is included.

xīnlǐ zīxún rúhé yòng jiǎndān de yǔyán zǒngjié
A Plain Language Summary of How Counseling Works

Zài xīfāng de xīnlǐ zīxún zhōng, wǒmen bǎ “nèixīn tǐhuì” dìngyì wéi yìshí de gǎnshòu hé xiǎngfǎ. Píngshí, zài dōngfāng de sīwéi fāngshì zhōng, gǎnjué hé xiǎngfǎ shì zài yīqǐ de, bùshì fēnkāi de.
In western counseling, our “inner experience” is defined as awareness / consciousness of feelings and thoughts. Usually, in eastern thought, feelings and thoughts are seen as together, not separate.

Wúlùn cóng dōngfāng háishì xīfāng, rénlèi dōu xīwàng néng yòng tāmen de yìzhì lì jiějué wèntí.
Whether from east or west, all humans want to be able to solve problems using their willpower.

然而,在西方的心理咨询中这是假设:如果人们成为意识到自己的感受和想法, 这创造了一个远景. 在这个远景中,也许就看到了解决问题的可能性。当人们看到现实的本来面目时可能性就会打开。
Rán’ér, zài xīfāng de xīnlǐ zīxún zhōng zhè shì jiǎshè: Rúguǒ rénmen chéngwéi yìshí dào zìjǐ degǎnshòu hé xiǎngfǎ, zhè chuàngzàole yīgè yuǎnjǐng. Zài zhège yuǎnjǐng zhōng, yěxǔ jiù kàn dào liǎo jiějué wèntí de kěnéng xìng. Dāng rénmen kàn dào xiànshí de běnlái miànmù shí kěnéng xìng jiù huì dǎkāi.
However, in western counseling, this is the hypothesis: If people can become aware of their feelings and thoughts, a vista opens. In that vista, possibilities for solving problems can be seen. When people see reality as it is, possibilities open.

Suǒyǐ, jiějué gèrén wèntí shí, hé shǐyòng yìzhì lì xiāng bǐ, yìshí duì wǒmen de nèixīn tǐhuì yǒu gèng bāngzhù.
Therefore, for solving personal problems, compared to using willpower, it is more helpful to use our awareness of our inner experience.

. . . . .

Suǒ xiǎng yào de hé kěnéng de zhī jiān de chājù dǎozhìle wǒmen nèixīn de tòngkǔ.
The gap between what is wished for and what is possible causes our inner pain and suffering.

Gap between what's wished for and what's possible

Wèile bāngzhù wǒmen nèixīn de tòngkǔ:
To help with our suffering:

Dì yī, wǒmen huì bāngzhù nǐ duì zhè chājù dǎozhì de tòngkǔ shǐyòng zìwǒ cíbēi. Wǒmen yòng zìwǒ réncí lái ānwèi zìjǐ.
First, we use self-compassion to help ease the inner pain created by the gap. We comfort ourselves with self-kindness.

自我慈悲 zìwǒ cíbēi self-compassion
自我仁慈 zìwǒ réncí self-kindness

Dì èr, wǒmen huì bāngzhù nǐ màn man de shìyìng hé jiēshòu shénme shì kěnéng de.
Second, with self-compassion and self-kindness, we help ourselves to slowly adjust to, adapt to, and accept what’s possible.

适应 shìyìng adjust, adapt

Dì sān, wǒmen fāxiàn jiàzhíguān hé yōuxiān shìxiàng, ránhòu gēnjù zhèxiē juédìng xià yībù.
Third, we discover values and priorities, then, based on those, decide next steps.

价值观 jiàzhíguān values
优先事项 yōuxiān shìxiàng priorities

Here are some other terms and ideas that may be useful.

意识意识,了解 yìshí, liǎojiě awareness, consciousness
意识到 yìshí dào to become aware of
了解自己的心理 liǎojiě zìjǐ de xīnlǐ to understand one’s own
psychology; to be psychologically-minded

These concepts can overlap and intersect:

真实的自我 zhēnshí de zìwǒ true self; authentic, genuine, real self;
separate from, and unaffected by, external pressures 外在压力 wài zài
yālì, such as corporate, familial, religious, societal, cultural, or national expectations.

核心自我 héxīn zìwǒ core self; innate traits as an individual human;
stable and unaffected by external events, whether the events are
experienced as joyful or painful.

When I use the term “true self,” I am merging both of those concepts.

. . . . .

Dāng rénmen kàn dào xiànshí de běnlái miànmù shí kěnéng xìng jiù huì dǎkāi.
When people see reality as it is, possibilities open.

Cǐwài, dāng rénmen, bù zuìxiǎo huà yě bù zuìdà huà, kàn dào xiànshí de běnlái miànmù shí kěnéng xìng jiù huì dǎkāi.
Moreover, when people neither minimize nor maximize, but see reality as it is, possibilities open.

Dāng shìqíng yīqǐ fāshēng bìng chǎnshēng gèng dà de jījí yǐngxiǎng shí, xiétóng xiàoyìng jiù huì fāshēng.
Synergy happens when things come together and create a bigger positive effect than they would alone.
Inner wisdom

当人们意识到他们的感受和想法时,协同效应产生了。这个可以成为”内在智慧 。“
Dāng rénmen yìshí dào tāmen de gǎnshòu hé xiǎngfǎ shí, xiétóng xiàoyìng chǎnshēngle. Zhège kěyǐ chéngwèi” nèizài zhìhuì.“
When people can become aware of their feelings and thoughts, synergy is created. That synergy can be termed “inner wisdom.”

协同效应 xiétóng xiàoyìng synergy
内在智慧 nèizài zhìhuì inner wisdom

Although “depression“ and “anxiety” are common terms, they are so diversely used and defined that they’re not very useful. Becoming aware of the real, specific, precise feelings and thoughts created by the gap between what one wished for, what has happened, and what is now possible – and then helping oneself with those feelings and thoughts – is more directly helpful.

Using their inner wisdom, people can become aware of their true self’s needs and wants, strengths and preferences, values and priorities, and derive strategies to live lives of integrity and personal meaning.

A comprehensive explanation of how to develop awareness skills is here.

. . . . .

Yǒu shíhòu, dāng yīgè rén jīnglìguò bu hǎo de shìqíng shí, tā huì juédé zìjǐ shì shòuhài zhě. Tāmen xūyào duóhuí tāmen de” lì “: Zìjǐ lìliàng, quánlì hé shēngmìnglì.
Sometimes, when a person has a bad experience, they can feel like a victim. They need to get their power back: their personal power, their sense of authority, and their life force.

经历 jīnglì experience
受害者 shòuhài zhě victim
夺回 duóhuí take back
力量 lìliàng personal power
权力 quánlì authority; power
生命力 shēngmìnglì vitality; life force; power

Zěnme zuò?

Jìdé nǐ de gèrén jiàzhí.
Remember your value.

Cóng guòqù duì nǐ de jiàzhíguān hé yōuxiān shìxiàng shàng zhuǎnyí nǐ de zhùyì lì.
Shift your attention from the past to your values and priorities.

转移 zhuǎnyí shift
注意力 zhùyì lì attention
价值观 jiàzhíguān values
优先事项 yōuxiān shìxiàng priorities

. . . . .

Stability results from providing care for one’s heart, mind, and body. To support personal growth and personal psychological work, people need as much stability as possible.

稳定 wěndìng stability
心灵, 思想, 和身体 xīnlíng, sīxiǎng, hé shēntǐ heart, mind, and body

  • Here is a self-care checklist 自我安慰清单 zìwǒ ānwèi qīngdān.
  • Here are exercises that can help people become aware of their
    values and priorities 价值观 jiàzhíguān values | 优先事项 yōuxiān shìxiàng priorities.

. . . . .

Awareness gives access to inner wisdom.我是我的想法和感受。
I am my thoughts and feelings.
I am aware of my thoughts and feelings.
I am aware of my thoughts, feelings, and inner wisdom.
内在智慧 nèizài zhìhuì inner wisdom

The concept of “inner wisdom” is informed by:

Inner wisdom and how the brain works

The content of the post is informed by cognitive theory-based therapy protocols, including cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and cognitive processing therapy; acceptance and commitment therapy, (ACT), Internal Family Systems (IFS), schema therapy, strengths-based therapy protocols, and existential therapy.

The content is written in plain language to help people understand upon a first reading and to help dispel misinformation.

I am indebted to Hou Huiying for her help in translating these sentences. Any errors are mine.

Graphics by Ren Jing.

Last updated 9/12/2023

This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Book Club Recommendation

I would like to make a book club recommendation.

Shanghai Immortal, a novel by A. Y. Chao
As a reader, my personal intention is to read or listen to “a good book.” As a book club attendee, through the synergy of hearing thoughtful, informed people share their experiences with the book, I hope to enrich my own experience of the book and, more generally, to enrich my creative, intellectual, and social lives.

Criteria for “a good book”

Although what constitutes “a good book” for me has changed since I was first allowed to choose my own books at the Scholastic Book Fairs at Margaret Beeks Elementary School, my current criteria for “a good book” include:

  1. Compelling story that results in such a flow state of interest that I need to give little mental effort to following the plot.
  2. Main character who either is, or becomes, psychologically-minded enough to see reality as it is – however fantastical – to become aware of traits, both strengths and weaknesses, that contribute to how they handle challenges, and to address all of these ingeniously and bravely.
  3. Language beautiful enough to offer an aesthetic experience in itself and evocative enough for the reader to imagine experiencing what happens.
  4. Nuances in thinking, expression, and/or conveyance of meaning that activate my own creativity.
  5. Having experienced and learned of brutality due to my stage in life and my profession, limited brutality, preferably none.
  6. Available in audiobook format.

Shanghai Immortal, by A. Y. Chao, published in the U.K by Hodderscape, 2023, meets my criteria for “a good book.” I have both Kindle and Audible versions. Reader Mei Mei Macleod is absolutely stellar. Shanghai Immortal tops my list of favorite fantasy novels.

Why do I hypothesize Shanghai Immortal might be, not just interesting, but fascinating to book club members?


Released July, 2023, in electronic and audio versions.


  1. A. Y. Chao joins a growing number of people with Chinese ancestry who identify as female or live as female, and are writing fantasy and science fiction novels. Please see Female authors emerge in Chinese sci-fi and fantasy (2022) and this essay by A. Y. Chao (2023).
  2. According to multiple sources, including The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters, by Megan Walsh (2022), and Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution that Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (2022), China is experiencing a golden age in Chinese science fiction. Please see China’s science fiction enters ‘golden era’ (2022).


Point A.

From Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (Source):

“A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do.”

First sentences from Shanghai Immortal:

“The steaming Shanghai night drapes heavy over my bare shoulders. I lean against the door of a decrepit warehouse, gums aching, stomach grumbling, and wait on Big Wang’s secret delivery. Cicadas scream all around me. With a title like Lady Jing of Mount Kunlun and ancestry that includes the great goddess Queen Mother of the West, running errands at 3 a.m. in this rotted heat might be considered below my station.”

Point B.

Chao’s writing organically bridges English and Chinese language and culture. The human concepts are clear, regardless of language. I hypothesize that what we can do to know more about how to communicate in both languages may contribute to world peace.

Point C.

I am a volunteer with the Literacy Volunteers of the New River Valley of Virginia. The beauty and power of A. Y. Chao’s sentences gave me the boldness to suggest a book club for speakers of Mandarin Chinese who wish to deepen their abilities to speak about ideas and life in English and Chinese.

Point D.

Excerpt from a review by A. R. James:

“From its sweat-dripping opening to its heartwarming conclusion, Shanghai Immortal is a sumptuous read. Tendrils of mythology weave together with modern characters whom you can’t help but love, and the result is a rich story of enigmatic deities, nether-realm heists and unexpected joy. It explores complex issues of heritage, identity, belonging, and intersectional feminism in a multicultural migrant context. It is a love letter to the author’s Chinese diaspora heritage with a twist of Canadian sensibilities… and – they’re not kidding – a huge amount of sass.”

Possible book club discussion questions:

  1. What has draped heavy over your shoulders? Perhaps physically – like a steaming Shanghai night – or figuratively, like a burden of some kind?
  2. About what have you ever counted “Yi. Er. San.”?
  3. What in the novel delighted and surprised you?
  4. What made you laugh?
  5. What images and scenes do you still remember, long after finishing the passage? What about them spoke to you or called to you?
  6. What made you uncomfortably aware of personally problematic ways you have of feeling, thinking, acting, interacting, or relating?
  7. Of the relationships Lady Jing has with other beings, which reminded you most of a relationship you have in your life?
  8. To what else in the story can you personally relate? Even though the story is about fictional, fantastical beings – except for a few humans – what in the characters’ experiences is personally engaging and/or meaningful to you?
  9. What do you feel and think when you recognize elements of Chinese culture and language in the novel? For example, Da Wang? Lady Jing? Mount Kunlun?
  10. If you had an opportunity to speak with author A. Y. Chao, what questions would you ask?
  11. I posit that Chao’s writing organically bridges English and Chinese language and culture. Universal human concepts are clear, regardless of language. I hypothesize that reading and discussing Shanghai Immortal opens opportunities for native speakers of Chinese and English to begin to navigate language and cultural differences and to achieve greater mutual understanding. Further, I hypothesize that mutual language and culture learning may contribute directly to productive, global conversations about topics of global import. Lady Jing, ambassador of peace? What do you think?

– 孫子兵法
Epigraph, Shanghai Immortal by A. Y. Chao

Update: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club, Blacksburg Branch, Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library, Virginia, has chosen Shanghai Immortal to read and discuss at 6:00 PM at its monthly meeting on May 28, 2024.

Discussion of Shanghai Immortal in Blacksburg, VA

All content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice. Consult a qualified professional for personalized medical, health care, and professional advice.