Grief and Loss Throughout Life
Grief is a natural response to a loss. It’s the emotion you feel when something or someone you love has been taken away. The pain of a loss can be overwhelming. Grief is the most intense pain there is and we will do anything to avoid that pain. We might try to run away from it; we run away from our own grief and we run away from other people’s grief. Embracing the grief will often cause us to experience varying emotions; shock, anger, loneliness, fear, guilt, deep sadness. We might also experience a disruption to our physical health; difficulty eating/sleeping, no focus among other physical experiences.
Grief is a ‘whole person’ experience. We might expect the emotions and the spiritual but the physical can catch us off guard. Julia Samuel, a psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with loss, says “Allowing ourselves to just be while this grief washes over us is the only way to survive it; we have to feel the worst of it in order to let it change us, then we can start to find out who we are going to be in the wake of it.”
This all ties into the Four Tasks that William Worden talks about:
1. Accept the reality
2. Process the pain
3. Adjust to a world without the deceased
4. Find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life
The Way We Grieve Changes as We Grow: a Guideline
At a very young age (3-5) we might feel abandoned but we are still very self-centered. Emotions presented can vary greatly, from sadness, anger, anxiety, and guilt.
At ages 6-12, we might believe that certain behaviour will bring our loved ones back. We might be preoccupied with fear. We might also experience sadness, anger, anxiety and guilt.
As a teen, we dealt with self-esteem and identity issues. We wanted to differentiate from our parents. If we lost a loved one during a disaster or crisis event, we might have felt guilty because of what we might have said to the person before they died. Adolescents, just like the young and the school aged child may experience an interruption of age-appropriate activities since this kind of loss can force an adolescent to address issues for which they are not developmentally prepared.
As a young adult (20-40), losing one’s child can be paralyzing for parents. Parental grief can be a long lasting and powerful experience, and is influenced by the developmental task expected by the parents. The parents might blame themselves for not protecting their child better during the disaster or crisis event. Their emotions might range greatly and include such things as loneliness, sadness, disbelief, anger, anxiety, etc.
Young adults losing a spouse or partner might feel emptiness and isolation and their social connections might change as they are no longer a couple but an individual. Losing a spouse or partner at this age means not only grieving, but assuming the (often unfamiliar) responsibilities and roles of the deceased and may include helping children through grief.
As a middle-aged adult we can be badly impacted by the sudden loss of a loved one during a disaster or crisis event. We might grieve the loss of a child and/or potential future grandchildren. We might feel guilty for not having been able to protect our child(ren). Losing a spouse or partner during a disaster or crisis event can leave middle aged adults with (often unfamiliar) responsibilities and roles, experiencing financial hardship, and/or dealing with grieving children. Middle-aged adults might grieve future plans for retiring together.
The older adult (60+) has acquired memories, cognition, material things, accomplishments, spiritual realizations, and losses. We often have experienced multiple losses, such as jobs, health, independence, social roles, familiar living surroundings, and loved ones. Although loss is often expected during this age, unexpected losses of child(ren) and/or spouses or partners during a disaster or crisis event can be detrimental, since children are often also caregivers. Loss of a spouse or partner might result in feeling more dependent on others. Often the elderly adult lacks the social support needed, which can be detrimental during
this time. We understand more about how it affects our whole being but we still wait for our heart to catch up with our head when it comes to accepting the loss.
Losses are often considered life’s hardest challenges. What are some of the losses you have experienced?
- loss of a person
- loss of a house
- loss of a job
- loss of a pet
- loss of your dreamed of future
- loss of financial stability
- loss of relationship from divorce
- loss of health
- loss of a friendship
Right now we are experiencing quite a challenge with COVID-19. We are all experiencing losses that we might not have considered. Much of what we feel when a significant person in our life dies might also be experienced during this
time of physical distancing. Would anyone like to share a feeling of loss that they are currently experiencing?
- loss of freedom
- loss of choice
- loss of security
- loss of dreams
Grief is a highly individual experience. We know that there is no right way or wrong way to deal with our grief. One sure thing is that we MUST deal with it - remembering that grief has no timetable. Depending on the situation we can start to feel ‘normal’ in a few weeks, but it could also be a few months or a few years.
During the time that we are grieving our current loss, we might begin remembering past losses. These losses might become much more alive and may have to be dealt with more urgently than our current loss.
- Has that happened to anyone?
- Has a current loss brought back memories of a past loss?
- How did you cope with it?
- Did you push the memory down or did you accept it and realize that even though time has gone by, you are still grieving that loss?
I have spent a lot of time on the phone in the past few weeks. Many people are telling me that this physical distancing and isolation is really causing them to struggle with their grief. I have also heard some say that there is so much to think
about and worry about right now that they seem to be doing ok with their grief.
But are you doing ok? Or are you pushing it aside because of everything else?
So let’s talk about grief and how you are coping now.
- Are you taking time to grieve your person?
- Are you connecting with people through phone calls and social media?
- Are you doing any kind of ritual to build positive memories of your
person? (see https://www.familyliveson.org/tradition_stories/)
- Are you journaling or writing letters?
I recently read an article in the Business Insider about Sheryl Sandberg (the chief operating officer of facebook). Sheryl co-wrote a book with psychologist Adam Grant. Sheryl spoke about ‘Option B’. It's the state where, after experiencing something earth-shattering, a person tries to find the next best option in life. It's where you learn to climb mountains, one step at a time. Sandberg’s husband died in 2015 and the following is her thoughts about her interactions with colleagues.
I finally figured out that I could acknowledge the elephant’s existence. At work, I
told my closest colleagues that they could ask me questions and they could talk
about how they felt too. One colleague said he was paralyzed when I was
around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Another admitted she’d been
driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should knock on the door. Once I
told her that I wanted to talk to her, she finally rang the doorbell and came inside.
When people asked how I was doing, I started responding more frankly. “I’m not
fine, and it’s nice to be able to be honest about that with you.” I learned that even
small things could let people know that I needed help; when they hugged me
hello, if I hugged them just a bit tighter, they understood that I was not O.K.
Until we acknowledge it, the elephant is always there. By ignoring it, those in pain
isolate themselves and those who could offer comfort create distance instead.
Both sides need to reach out. Speaking with empathy and honesty is a good
place to start.
- Does anyone have any thoughts about this?
- Have you felt any of these feelings with colleagues?
- Have you read the poem, The Elephant in the Room?
The Elephant in the Room
There’s an elephant in the room.
It is large and squatting,
So it is hard to get around it.
Yet we squeeze by with,
“How are you?” and, “I’m fine,”
and a thousand other forms of trivial chatter.
We talk about the weather;
we talk about work;
we talk about everything else—
except the elephant in the room.
There’s an elephant in the room.
We all know it is there.
We are thinking about the elephant
as we talk together.
It is constantly on our minds.
For, you see, it is a very big elephant.
It has hurt us all, but we do not talk about
the elephant in the room.
Oh, please, say their name.
Oh, please, say “their name” again.
Oh, please, let’s talk about
the elephant in the room.
For if we talk about their death,
then you are leaving me alone
perhaps we can talk about their life.
Can I say, “their name” to you
and not have you look away?
For if I cannot, in a room—with an elephant.
By Terry Kettering
COVID-19 is giving us and everyone around us the unique opportunity to talk freely and openly about grief. So many people are scared of getting sick, scared of a loved one getting the virus and dying. Everyone around us is trying to build resilience.
Sandberg gives us 5 important things to remember if you’re experiencing anxiety or grief right now:
1. Know that it’s ok to not feel ok:
We have lost our sense or a regular life. This might be causing us to feel irritable, stressed, anxious or even sad. The pandemic has shattered our illusion of invulnerability. It has reminded us of the fragility of both our lives and of life as we know it.
2. Understand what can prevent you from being resilient:
Personalization - the belief that we are at fault - we find ways to blame ourselves
Permanence - the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever - even though we feel terrible and miss the way things were, we do move forward regardless of how slowly we do it. What we are feeling today is nothing compared to the way we felt during those first few days.
Pervasiveness - the idea that an event will affect all areas of our life. During this pandemic, utilities are still working, we still have books and games in our homes, we can still reach out to loved ones by phone or social media.
3. Try to talk about what you are going through:
It helps to open up about our feelings.
4. Begin to practice self-compassion:
Self-compassion comes from recognizing that our imperfections are part of being human. How do you care for a loved one or a friend? Apply that same mentality to yourself.
5. Take steps to be more grateful:
Sandberg says, “It’s the great irony to go through tragedy or hardship and come out more grateful, but that is the post-traumatic growth." This growth will not change what the world is going through right now, but we can learn lessons of gratitude and appreciation.
Grief has a way of rounding out the sharp corners of loss. Grieving takes one through the tumbling waves of shock, anger, desperation, sadness, regret, bitterness, fear and more sadness. Over time, the sharpness of the loss wears down when it is grieved. If grief is an ocean, walk into it. Let the waves tumble. When we are living with loss, one or many, grief is the way through.
Coping with Grief and Loss - retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/coping-with-grief-and-loss.htm
How to live and learn from great loss - retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/mar/04/how-to-live-and-learn-from-greatloss-death
Option ‘B’ - retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/sheryl-sandberg-on-grief-resilience-coronavirus-howto-
Excerpts from Past PIE: January 5th, 2015 - Multiple Losses