Is there a right way to grieve? Rather than prescribed stages, residents of the Highlands have forged their own paths.

In the late 1960s, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross interviewed terminally ill patients and posited five stages of dying — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. After her 1969 bestseller, On Death and Dying, was published, the stages also became associated with grieving.

Kübler-Ross later clarified that the stages could occur in any order or not at all and suggested a possible sixth stage, “meaning,” for those grieving.

For Nancy Montgomery, one stage could have been “soccer practice.”

When her husband, Jim Lovell, died on Dec. 1, 2013, in a Metro-North train derailment, she didn’t have time to grieve. “I was trying to survive,” says Montgomery, a Philipstown resident who is a member of the Putnam County Legislature. “I had three kids and two jobs. We were so busy.”

Indeed, Montgomery’s experience, along with others in the Highlands, illustrates what many psychologists and counselors now believe: that grief doesn’t follow any model. “There are no absolutes,” says Karla Karpowicz, a psychotherapist who practices in Newburgh.

For Montgomery, life without her husband began with help from the community and her and her husband’s friends and colleagues. “I had three months of people bringing me food every day,” she recalls. “I was carried by this community. I was held.”

But for years, she didn’t grieve. “I dove into the challenges of existing life to avoid it,” she says, including her jobs, running for the Philipstown Town Board and taking her teenagers to soccer games and play practice. Her son Jack acted in Haldane’s production of Our Town the week after his father died. Montgomery also began to advocate improved safety at Metro-North, such as automatic brakes that might have prevented the derailment that killed Lovell and three other people.

While Montgomery attended therapy, it wasn’t grief therapy, she says. “I was working through the difficulties of my current life.”

It wasn’t until her sons were on their own as young adults, she says, that she felt the impact of her husband’s death. “It became crawling-on-the-floor debilitating,” she says. “The photos around my house would stop me in my tracks.”

Nancy Montgomery
Nancy Montgomery at her Philipstown home with favorite photos of her husband, Jim Lovell, who died in 2013 (Photo by J. Asher)

By grieving, Montgomery says, she started to become comfortable. “There’s nothing to get over,” she says. “It’s part of me. I’m going to hold the grief until I die. What is grief but love persevering?”

The fact that Montgomery’s journey didn’t follow a tidy path isn’t surprising, says Saren Seeley, a postdoctoral researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan who studies the neuroscience of grief and trauma.

Seeley says that the scientific approach to grief has evolved since Sigmund Freud advised patients to detach and move on. “We don’t need to detach,” she says. “But that bond does need to change. We need to change our relationship with the person to accommodate for the fact that they’re no longer on this physical plane.”

Seeley says that psychologists have largely abandoned Kübler-Ross in favor of a dual-process model — “a dance back and forth between mourning the loss, looking backward and looking forward and dealing with life as it is now.”

What is the Best Way to Grieve?

“There isn’t anything that you should never do,” says Karla Karpowicz, a grief therapist based in Newburgh. “Everyone is different in how they process grief.”

It’s not an emotion to avoid, says Jane Wilson Cathcart, a Cold Spring therapist who specializes in grief and bereavement. “You don’t get over it. You don’t get through it. You move forward with it.”

Therapists agree there is no single way to grieve. But there are some best practices:

  • Seek community and therapy.
  • If you have a spiritual or religious practice, use it. Rituals help.
  • Talk to your primary-care physician. Physical symptoms are often symptoms of grief.
  • Keep a grief journal.
  • Seek out people who can listen and help you emotionally.
  • Attend grief groups.
  • Take care of life’s ongoing business.
  • Do a passion project to remember and honor your loved one.
  • Be hugged and held.
  • Distance yourself from people who are impatient with you for not “being over it.”
  • Anticipate that anniversaries will be hard.
  • Continue personal rituals if they make you feel closer to your loved one.
  • Take care of your body with activities like yoga, going to the gym and taking walks.
  • Take the bereavement time from work that you’re entitled to.
  • Beloved pets deserve to be grieved.

Seeley says that grief work involves facing the reality that the person is gone. Failure to do so, she says, can lead to a disorder recognized by the psychiatry profession in 2022 as “prolonged grief disorder,” characterized by symptoms such as persistent depression. About 10 percent of people develop long-term symptoms, she says.

When grieving, therapists recommend a range of activities, from talk therapy, conversations with friends, hugging, embracing religious rituals if you have them, talking with a physician and/or pursuing a passion project.

Michele Gedney, the advertising director for The Current, whose observations following the death of her husband, Rick, in January 2023 inspired this series, says she tried to embrace the process of grieving.

“I immersed myself in it,” says Gedney, who wrote and performed music with her husband as Open Book. Two weeks after Rick died, Michele spoke at his memorial service at The Chapel Restoration in Cold Spring. Afterward, “I felt more resolved to go forward,” she says.

Michele and Rick Gedney
Michele Gedney performed with her husband, Rick, who died in January 2023. (Photo provided)

Gedney embraced her grief in other ways. She saw a therapist and listened to podcasts on the topic, including Grief is a Sneaky Bitch with Lisa Keefauver and All There Is with Anderson Cooper.

She also finished production on an album, Leaning In, that she and her husband had recorded before he went into the hospital. At first, listening to the recordings was painful, she says. “I was sobbing the whole time. But eventually, I came through the emotional part to where I could listen to the music critically.”

Now she views the recordings as ongoing expressions of their love. “The evidence of his love for me is tangible because I can listen to it at any time,” she says. And while the pain returns often, she says, it doesn’t last.

Bill Viletto
Bill Viletto lost his son, William Viletto Jr., in 1997. (Photo by J. Asher)

Bill Viletto’s grief journey was different still. The Philipstown resident dealt with the pain of the loss in 1997 of his 27-year-old son, William Viletto Jr., in a car accident on Route 9D in Beacon by visiting the gravesite every day and talking to him. “He never answered, of course,” says Viletto. “But I felt like I didn’t leave him alone.”

About 60 percent of people surveyed reported talking to deceased loved ones, says Angie LeRoy, a professor at Baylor University who studies the psychology and neuroscience of grief. She says it “can be incredibly healing.”

At Mount Sinai, Saren Seeley adds that conversing “can help facilitate a continuing bond. It can give you space to say things you didn’t get to say.”

That, in part, she says, explains why people often turn to psychics who claim they can make contact with the dead. In Poughkeepsie, Shaine Amour says many of her clients hope to “nurture their forever connection” with loved ones.

A Philipstown resident, who did not want to be named, says he took comfort from a psychic following the death of his son at age 41 from complications of addiction. The psychic quoted his late son as saying: “Make sure you tell dad that he was doing everything for me before I passed away. Make sure he knows I love him.”

Cat Guthrie
As Cat Guthrie performed her one-woman show about grief, Nine Lives, a photo of her and her son, Keaton, was projected behind her. (Photo provided)

By contrast, Cat Guthrie, who lives in Garrison, visited several psychics after her son, Keaton, 25, died in a surfing accident in 2018 but found little value in the sessions.

She had experienced grief as a young woman when two of her four older sisters died of diseases of the nervous system and was determined to process Keaton’s loss differently. When her sisters died, “I couldn’t handle it,” she recalls. “I shut my heart down.”

After losing her son, “I made grief my job,” Guthrie says. She attended retreats, read books on the topic and learned to teach “grief yoga,” which is “about using yoga to work grief out of your body.”

Like many parents, she honored her son, who loved the outdoors, by creating a nonprofit to improve the lives of others. Keaton’s Kids funds adventures such as snowboard trips for children from low-income families.

A singer-songwriter, Guthrie also wrote and performs a one-woman show, Nine Lives, with songs addressing her grief.

She notes that grief never goes away. But “we grow around it,” she says. “We expand. You get to the point where you can hold two different emotions at the same time: total grief and total joy.”

Where to Find Help

Support Groups

Libby Funeral Home in Beacon hosts a support group at 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month. Call 845-831-0179 or register at libbyfuneralhome.com.

Hudson Valley Hospice offers support services. Email [email protected] or call 845-240-7579.

Heartlight Center (heartlightcenter.org), based in Colorado, offers online support groups and workshops.

The Dougy Center (dougy.org) has resources for children and teens.

Podcasts

Griefcast (cariadlloyd.com/griefcast)
All There Is with Anderson Cooper (bit.ly/all-there-is-AC)
Terrible, Thanks for Asking (ttfa.org)
Good Mourning (goodmourning.com.au)
Grief is a Sneaky Bitch (lisakeefauver.com)

Books

It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too), by Nora McInerny
Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss, by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen
When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
The Invisible String, by Patrice Karst

Part 1: New ways of approaching death

Behind The Story

Type: Investigative / Enterprise

Investigative / Enterprise: In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

Joey Asher is a freelance writer and former reporter for The Journal News.

Join the Conversation

3 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this series! It’s refreshing to see that our culture is finally shifting, even if it is slowly, into a place of more death acceptance and positivity. The more we speak about death and dying, the less scary it is.

  2. A much-needed series addressing a topic we all need to deal with sooner or later, thank you. After losing a dear friend last year who was a composer, I found some comfort for my grief by creating a song about loss, What is Life, based on one of his musical ideas.

  3. Thank you for this series. My conversations with Joey Asher came at a poignant time, as I was deeply affected by grief following the loss of three loved ones and my best dog within eight months. Our talk proved invaluable, shedding light on the profound impact of death and loss that touches us all.

    Whether sudden, prolonged, anticipated, wrongful or accidental, each loss can reshape our perspective in this divided world. My recent experience living in a hospice house for a week in November alongside my brother-in-law reaffirmed this universal truth that death and loss transcend boundaries and affect us all.

    Carrying this realization, I’m compelled to approach life with a kinder, gentler outlook, recognizing the shared humanity in our collective experiences. Thank you once again for facilitating this enlightening conversation.

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