Grieving is not about forgetting. Grieving allows us to heal, to remember with love rather than pain. It is a sorting process. One by one you let go of things that are gone and you mourn for them. One by one you take hold of the things that have become a part of who you are and build again. –Rachel Naomi Remen
When we think of loss, we often think of the extreme, like the death of a loved one. However, loss can take many forms and includes things like moving, the ending of a relationship, or changing jobs. We’ve all heard the wealth of platitudes that exist when it comes to loss. They are in a better place now. Nothing lasts forever. There are plenty of fish in the sea. While such sentiments certainly fill the silence in uncomfortable situations and quell anxiety, they merely put a band-aid on a problem that we are faced with over and over again.
Loss can be life shattering. At our core, we have a fundamental need to connect. This need starts at birth through attachments to our earliest caregivers. As adults, we replicate these bonds in various interpersonal relationships, as well as environments. In essence, these ties provide a sense of security and safety. When these attachments are threatened, we are reminded of our utter dependence on the external- on the other. As result, we may feel threatened, anxious, sad, angry, or even utterly confused.
Dealing with loss can test even the best of us. Worden (2009) discusses four tasks of mourning that help one adapt. These include:
1) Accepting the Reality of the Loss– We may attempt to protect from the loss by denying its significance and meaning. We tell ourselves to move onward and upward rather than onward and inward, risking a life filled with unfinished business. On the other hand, acceptance is geared toward an intellectual and emotional understanding of what has happened and what this means. Embracing the reality of the loss can be a time consuming affair, but inherent in the process is the possibility for astounding personal growth.
2) Processing the Pain of Grief– Working through the emotional pain of loss is an essential component of grief work. When we numb and cut off feelings, mourning is prolonged and the use of maladaptive coping strategies such as drugs or alcohol may become prominent. Eventually, the grief catches up to us and can manifest as depression, anxiety, interpersonal difficulty, or physical ailments. We try to tighten our emotional valves, but unfortunately, they leak. Utilizing social support networks, talking to a trained therapist, or journaling can be useful tools when dealing painful emotions.
3) Adjusting to the World– When something ends, we are called to make external and internal adjustments. Adjusting to a new external environment means acknowledging the many ways that we are impacted by the loss. It also involves exploring the various roles that the lost object or person may have filled. Internal adjustments involve examining how the loss may have shifted our sense of self and who we are. Because of attachment patterns and our need to connect, we are prone to define ourselves through external things or people. As a result, loss may impact self-esteem and self-efficacy- our sense of belief in our ability to succeed and have impact on the things that happen to us. Exploring external and internal adjustments promotes a new sense of self and the world while providing meaning to the loss. When we struggle to make such adjustments, healthy adaptation comes to a standstill and helplessness or withdrawal may occur.
4) Finding an Enduring Connection to the Loss– In this task, we attempt to integrate and internalize aspects of the lost object or person into our own sense of self. This does not mean that we forget the loss or what it meant to us. Instead, we begin to incorporate what the loss represented into our daily living and future relationships. Participating in rituals and engaging in practices that honor the legacy of the lost object or person can help foster such a link.
While loss can certainly trigger unpleasant feelings, we cannot let go unless we are afforded the opportunity to grieve an ending. It is perfectly normal to feel scared or angry, just as it is perfectly normal to feel conflicting feelings like sadness and excitement. While such emotions may be confusing and hard to tolerate, moving toward the grief is often far more rewarding than moving away.
Remen, R. L. (2000). My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging. New York, NY: Berkley Publishing Group
Worden, J. W. (2009). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (4th edition). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
Written By: Chrystal Rahmani, Ph.D., Psychological Assistant (PSB 37860)
Supervised by Bruce Brodie, Ph.D. (PSY 6574)