The searing pain that accompanies loss can feel suffocating. The reality is that grief is not something that most people get “through” (this implies that there is somehow a finite ending point). Similarly, to suggest to someone who has experienced loss that it is something that he or she will “get over” can add excruciating insult to injury. Rather, loss is something that we assimilate to. It changes and transforms us. Some losses leave an indelible mark on our hearts and alter the fabric of who we are and how we move forward with our lives.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ seminal work, On Death and Dying, was published in 1969 and brought to center stage what is now classically regarded as a model for five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
It is not uncommon to experience physical and psychological shock when first learning about loss. Some individuals feel paralyzed and are frozen by a dull, emotional numbness in the hours and days that follow the news. It can feel as though you are living in some kind of horrific nightmare filled with moments where you question whether this can actually have become your reality. Anger is frequently part of a person’s journey of grief. It may be anger with yourself, anger with someone else, anger about all that feels unfair and unjust about the situation . . . it can even be anger with the person you have lost (which can often feel very difficult to allow yourself to acknowledge, and grant yourself permission to feel). The gap in your world can cause you to have periods of becoming fixated on what you can possibly do to “undo” the situation, somehow change the outcome of the circumstances, or prevent misfortune striking in the days, weeks, or years to come. And the stark reality is that loss can create a very deep, dark chasm in our hearts and worlds. Over time—often much more quickly than you feel equipped to face it—you are forced to fall into to the putting-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other existence that life requires following loss.
The language we use around grief is critical. The nuance of certain words and terms can actually hurt more than help when someone is contending with loss. For many, even implying that grief follows prescriptive “stages” can be problematic. Some people may start to question or fear that they, or the people around them, are somehow not grieving the way that they “should” be. Grief looks very differently for different people. It is not a linear process. Grief reactions often occur in waves. The timeline over which certain grief reactions surface is unique to each individual who finds himself or herself in the midst of the experience.
William Worden set forth four tasks that he identified as being an important part of healing when someone has experienced loss. They take place in no particular order and often times must occur over and over again.
1. Accepting the reality of the loss. While “acceptance” can still feel like a sticky concept for many individuals, “adjusting” and “acknowledging” the reality of what has occurred is an important part of the process. It’s certainly not about condoning what happened, liking the circumstances, or fully understanding what transpired, but rather acknowledging “what is.”
2. Working through the pain of grief. Loss is painful. It rakes up a lot of very intense, raw emotions. Grief can be even more complex when the relationship shared with the person who is lost was a complicated one. People who have experienced loss often find themselves grappling with a lot of larger existential questions and the fear, discomfort, and anxiety that frequently arises when faced with a reminder of the reality of our own mortality.
3. Adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is missing. Waking up next to an empty pillow. Taking on the task of paying the bills each month. Realizing that it’s up to you to pick out what your children are going to wear to school each morning. Going to a different house for Thanksgiving for the first time. Setting one less seat at the table. Following loss, days can suddenly seem filled by reminders that someone is gone. Things are often taken for granted that may have previously been rote and automatic, but are now frequent, powerful—in some moments completely overwhelming—reminders of what has happened.
4. Finding an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life. You don’t forget. You don’t stop loving. Part of the journey becomes working out how you can keep living despite these things. It’s wrestling with how you can simultaneously look ahead and press forward while being able to fully trust that you can maintain a healthy tie with what has been lost. It’s knowing in a very deep place that creating a future does not erase a precious history. It’s discovering how can you honor and keep memories alive without becoming completely arrested by your pain.
Grief. It’s horrific, complicated, lonely, and completely exhausting. It’s messy. It’s also not something you should have to walk through in isolation. No one can remove your anguish or “know exactly what you are going through.” Yet, it is so very important that you don’t hold your pain in isolation. Let someone in. Even if it is to provide regular reminders to be very gentle with yourself. It’s okay to bury yourself under your duvet and not want to leave the safety of your bed. It’s okay to want to scream and give a black eye to the well-intentioned individual who offered you what felt like a trite, invalidating platitude when you crossed paths last week. It’s also okay to have a good day. And to laugh. Wherever you are in the journey, give yourself permission to be fully there.
Worden, J. W. (2002). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner. New York: Springer Pub.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company Inc.
Joy Lere, Psy.D.