“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a sign of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently then ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief… and unspeakable love….” - Washington Irving
Oftentimes people do not like to talk about loss because it comes with emotional pain that is unlike any other. There is a tendency to view grief as something to get over or past. I often hear from clients that they don’t understand why they keep grieving for so long. I have heard everything from “It’s been a few weeks. Why do I still feel so sad and keep crying?” to “It’s been over a year and I am still missing him/her and I just want to feel better.” The most common question I hear is “Why can’t I get passed this?”
At some time in all of our lives we are faced with loss: loss of a home, loss of a friend who has moved away, loss through divorce, loss through disabilities or chronic illnesses, loss through aging, loss through miscarriage or infertility, loss through launching children, loss with changing jobs, loss through trauma/violence, and of course, loss through the death of a loved one.
Regardless of what kind of losses they are, the experiences can be catastrophic and painful in their own unique ways. When someone goes through divorce, there is the process of grieving the loss of what the relationship never was or grieving the loss of what the relationship once was but no longer is. When the loss involves miscarriage or infertility, there is the loss of holding an infant. When children are launched out of the home, parents are faced with the loss that is often labeled as the “empty nest syndrome.” The loss of a job often causes one to lose self-esteem and become self-critical. Trauma/violence can profoundly change one’s view of the world as no longer being safe. Aging involves the loss of independence. Loss through death leaves one longing for the one who has passed. Most agree the greatest loss of all is when a child dies.
With all loss comes the process of grieving. Grief is not something we ever get over or past; it is something we get through. There are many metaphors used to describe the grieving process. The one that I often use is the metaphor of waves. Initially, grief can feel like the Tsunami. As time goes by, the waves vary in size and intensity. Getting through grief is more about learning how to ride the waves rather than avoiding them. With time and healing they will feel more like a ripple. You know they are there but you don’t feel carried away by them.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, one of the earlier pioneers in studying loss, describes the grieving process in stages – denial, depression, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. Not everyone goes through all the stages, there is no specific order necessarily to the stages, and people can jump back and forth revisiting the different stages. We all have our own unique blueprint for dealing with loss. After all, no one understands the grieving process better than the person who is going through it. Family members will grieve differently. Adults grieve differently than children or teenagers. Men tend to grieve differently than women.
Kubler refers to the initial reactions to loss as the denial stage. During this period people often feel in shock, feel numb or feel as if they are walking around in a fog, feel like their life is in slow motion, feel disbelief, feel scattered and disorganized in thinking. This initial shock and numbness helps people to cope with the initial impact of the news. After the initial shock and numbness wears off people then begin to deal with the reality of the loss. It often starts with returning to daily routines while dealing with the painful emotions of living with a void. In the beginning there is a hypersensitivity to everything because everything becomes a reminder of the loss. These hypersensitive moments can come from watching TV, reading, listening to music, watching the news, looking at a picture, or hearing a word spoken.
In the bargaining stage, we attempt to bargain with ourselves or even God (or higher power) as a way to help us to cope with feeling vulnerable and powerless. When we bargain we tend to do a lot of thinking about if we could go back in the past before the event, and do a do-over of some sort. “What if” or “if only” statements can lead to feelings of guilt. Or sometimes we try to bargain with our future trying to convince ourselves if we just do “such and such” that we can prevent further catastrophe.
In the depression stage, people begin to deal with the profound sadness and despair. People grieve privately and publicly. Private sadness is how one grieves when alone. The public process is how one shares their grief with others. In the beginning, the emotions feel raw, uncontained, and overwhelming. The first year after loss is often viewed as a year of surviving. There are many traditional firsts to get through – holidays, anniversaries, birthdays. Oftentimes the anticipation of the “first” upcoming event is harder than the event itself. Traditional celebrations may need to be planned differently during the first year after loss. New traditions may need to be considered. The positive is to know that each time one survives a traditional first there is a confidence that tends to build with each “first” a person gets through.
Kubler talks about the stage of anger as a time when people tend to get in touch with other painful emotions. Sometimes people will feel angry with the doctor, the drunk driver, the ex-spouse, the judge, or the former employer. Sometimes the anger gets directed at everyone in general. When the loss feels more tragic there is a tendency to want to blame someone or to blame yourself. Sometimes people get angry with God, asking questions, like why is this happening? Why me? Why is life so unfair? People tend to find strength in their anger. It is not wrong to feel angry about loss. It is a sign of how much the loss means. It is important to find healthy outlets for anger so that it does not become displaced toward other family members, yourself, friends. You also may find yourself wanting to retreat and isolate as a result of feeling angry. It is normal to want solitude at times but too much isolation can delay the healing process. Healthy ways to express the anger include exercising, talking with family or friends, seeking professional support, etc.
Kubler refers to the acceptance stage as coming to terms with the loss: there is nothing anyone can do to change what has happened. It is about going forward, integrating the loss and grief into one’s life. It is about building a future differently, rebuilding dreams, getting reconnected again, finding a new normal. During this period, people often ask identity questions, like “Who am I now that I am divorced” (or lost my job, or lost my home, or am unable to bear children, or my loved one is gone). We can’t go back to who we were before the loss because the experience has forever changed who we are. Acceptance tends to happen in layers, one piece at a time, as people learn to adjust to a different life, learn to redefine roles, and learn to have good days again. The healing comes as we allow ourselves to be different, and we learn to grow and evolve from what has happened. At some point the loss needs to be put into some sort of context so that a person can let go of the past and learn to focus on the present and future. Accepting the loss of a loved one is about learning to honor their memory while reinvesting in life. Examples of honoring are memorials of some sort, or finding a cause to support.
People ask many questions after a loss, trying to make sense of what has happened. Some of the questions may be answered and some may never be answered. We tend to want to make sense of things/events, but sometimes making sense of something is not possible. The healing comes from building a tolerance for sitting with the unanswered questions. It takes time to do this.
Grief does not have any specific time period. It takes as long as it takes. There is truth to the phrase that time does heal. It is not something that feels comforting when those words are first heard. It is important to be gentle and patient with yourself and others. People say lots of things. Not all that is said feels comforting, but generally people want to be helpful. There are three types of support people tend to offer. The “Doers” are the people who will bring meals, make phone calls, provides rides. The “Distracters” will offer to take the griever to the movie, out to dinner, shopping, playing golf. The third group of supporters is the “listeners.” These are the people who will offer to sit with you in your emotional pain and listen. What is important is to find what feels helpful to you. Refrain from using unhealthy coping behaviors. We cannot avoid grief but we can be in charge of how we manage the pain of our grief. People are very resilient and oftentimes it is that resilience that helps one get through.
“The pain of loss is severe because the pleasure of life is so great; it demonstrates the supreme value of what is lost.” - Gerald Sittser, Ph.D., M.Div. Whitworth University
Dorothy O’Halloran, LCPC, works out of the St.Charles office.