Grief and Loss
a topic that, while often spoken about in general, is often misunderstood. Simply stated, grief is a reaction to loss. This idea, is not complex. However, the ways in which we as humans experience that reaction, can be quite complex.
What is loss?
Loss is often much more complex and nuanced than many of us think to give it credit for. In fact, in the context of grief and loss, loss can occur in many, many ways. Take the last two years, for example. Many of us lost loved ones to Covid-19. This type of tragic loss would be immediately recognizable and identifiable as direct in nature and the source of immense grief. But, what about people who didn’t get sick or lose anyone close to them? What did they lose? There are actually several answers. With the onset of a pandemic that bore the scope and scale that Covid-19 did, it is reasonable to assume that a great many people experienced fear and distress. Why? Because they lost so much. People were in quarantine. Their sense of normalcy was lost. Their sense of freedom was lost. Social relationships were lost or diminished. Businesses were impacted and, in some cases, devastated. Incomes and livelihoods – entire futures – were lost in many cases. Many of us feared getting sick and suffering a horrible fate. We lived in anxiety and fear every day. Peace of mind evaporated in a short amount of time. Our sense of security and any sense that things are “O.K.” were also lost. These examples are specific types of losses associated with the same meta experience – and there were more. And each of these losses were the catalysts for grief.
How about Grief?
Grief is largely misunderstood. Even in academia, grief and loss are still often inaccurately represented in lecture halls. One commonly held and incorrect belief about grief is that it occurs in “stages” and that it is a linear, identifiable, even predictable experience. The “stages of grief” are also often attributed to the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She wrote “On Death and Dying” after conducting research based on qualitative studies of a relatively small subject group, all of whom were terminally ill. Suffice to say, their perspectives on grief and loss were highly contextualized. From her research with that population, her findings about the stages of grief were assumed to be universal and became prescriptive. Kübler-Ross herself said the stages of grief are “not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order.” What this means, as those who understand know, is that grief is complex in nature and not at all experienced the same way by everyone.
Grief has been categorized into many subtypes in order to help those grieving to be understood and to better understand their own grief. A few of the subtypes include anticipatory grief, such as what is experienced by caregivers of terminally ill persons. They see the death and loss of their loved one approaching before it occurs and begin to grieve before the loss. Another, often unseen and certainly misunderstood subtype of grief is disenfranchised grief. This is what is experienced by people who grieve a loss that may be prolific to them but that may be not recognized as significant by others. The minimization of the loss, such as that of a pet or an ex spouse, can lead to grieving in isolation.
Lastly, Inhibited grief occurs when a person does not allow themselves to grieve. In our society in the U.S. we are often taught to grieve alone or to “be strong for others.” The messaging may very well mean that our grief is simply uncomfortable for others so we are conditioned to take it elsewhere. The problem with this is incomplete grief. Metaphorically, the grief becomes an anchor that tethers a person to their grief and prevents them from moving forward. Being complete with one’s grief is not the absence of grief or the dissipation of the felt sense of loss. Rather, it is the ability to move forward with one’s grief and to be able to notice the feelings associated with the loss while proceeding with life.
Grief work in therapy can be tremendously helpful as it not only helps one process individual grief, but it can help an individual begin to learn to adaptively process and become complete with grief – something that a great many of us are not taught in our families of origin. For many who do this work, it is a tremendous gift.