Grief is natural process that is part of our design, yet it can be complicated to understand. Unlike limbs and other abilities, it is easy enough to observe, yet hard to describe other than to discuss in terms of either the loss itself and/or the difficult feelings that loss often brings us. This is a short article to highlight some points about grief, what it is intended to be, our little rules about toughness, and what might happen if we don't allow ourselves or loved ones to experience grief in their own time.
A good friend of mine will be presenting a lecture and discussion series on grief starting next week, and it got me thinking...And feeling. Since I started counseling as a profession, I have never really stopped thinking about grief and loss in one way or another. I haven't really stopped having feelings about it, either. Grief is important to all of us, whether or not we want to acknowledge it.
The topic of grief and loss is actually very big, so I think it is easiest to read and think about in small chunks. I think it is always worthwhile to discuss the nature of grief and the experience. I have also decided to include some discussion about the idea that when it comes to grief we all have different ideas about what is appropriate. That is, we are all either a little or a whole lot different when it comes to our beliefs about when, why, how much, how often, and how to grieve.
In spite of the differences, grief is universal. I have very rarely entered my office on a day when I did not talk to a client or colleague about grief. In those instances, I mean where the word grief was actually used. But I also know that many mental health or counseling issues other than grief, itself, frequently involve the experience of grief for the person or a loved one. For example, think of the last time you thought about trying to help someone who didn't think they needed help. That situation could lead you, the caregiver, to experience pure disappointment, pure loss, and grief would be the process you could experience to manage emotions and behavior related to the loss of control (or hope) you might experience in that situation.
It Starts with a Loss
Grief is all about loss, whether that be real or perceived. The feelings that follow loss are familiar to most of us, even if in their mildest forms. That is because loss has its foundations in our infancy, experienced as our earliest disappointments. While few of us can actually remember, our first loss was experienced at birth, when we were transitioned from the warmth of our mothers' respective wombs into the comparatively cold and inhospitable World. Some attachment theorists suggest that initial losses occur even before birth!
Regardless of when our first loss or disappointments may occur, loss is definitely something we have all experienced. Drawing from the "Tangled Ball of Emotions" graphic usually credited to therapist and author, H. Norman Wright of Biola University, I will list emotions frequently sited as related to the experience of loss:
Typically, we experience a number of emotions at different times during and after a loss. This does not stop immediately. The process that follows is grief. When grief is allowed to happen, that is.
The Nature of Grief- not just feeling
One of my first clients as a therapy student in California said to me once, "I read everything Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has written on the subject, and I still don't like feeling sad. I guess grief just isn't for me to understand." First I was probably stumped, because I didn't know at the time that Kübler-Ross had authored more than one book (I am sufficiently well-read on the topic now). Then I peel the layers of that sentence apart over and over. I remember those exact words, because I learned something about grief from that sentence: Grief isn't to just be understood. Grief isn't really just a feeling. It is a process that involves both feeling and thoughts, and it can be helpful as we construct meaning for, and move forward after, a loss experience.
Usually, when a client or someone in my personal life talks about the more notable, difficult lessons in life, they frequently refer to something that involved grief. While grief is a powerful teacher, it cannot be replaced by taking a grief workshop, reading a book, or taking a class about the process, nor is it as simple as just sitting around experiencing the emotions of a personally-felt loss. It involves the work of integrating the experience, the thoughts, and the feelings. Grief is complex, it can be painful, it can even be the most difficult thing someone can experience.
Many other things can be said about grief, but, above all, grief is such a big deal because it is part of our design. Grief helps with loss, and it is a precondition for effective coping.
Rules about Grief
Most people have some sense of “acceptable” and “unacceptable” grief, but this sense is not really based on anything concrete or true, seems to almost never be discussed openly, nor can I recall anytime my parents explained the importance of following the rules of grief. It is nothing we are clearly taught on a specific date and time, yet It is ingrained in our values system. We can develop values, helpful and unhelpful, from a variety of sources, differing in legitimacy. I suppose our values about loss and grief are no different. The problem is that while we don't talk about these rules, they seem to hold pretty strong influence on what we allow ourselves and others to do when loss is experienced. As an exercise, consider the following questions for grief:
What loss is enough to cry for days?
What loss is not enough for someone to cry at all?
How long is too long for someone to mourn the death of a loved one?
What type of grief expression is ”too much”? How do you know?
While there are differences in what we expect between genders and cultures, many of our values about emotional expression and grief seem to promote emotional stoicism over self-expression. Many of the things we might do or avoid to stifle expression of grief are the basis for extremely illogical beliefs about emotions, our personal worth if we are seen as having emotions, or how others may see us if we show emotion or grieve more openly.
This "tough it out" model of coping with loss is unhealthy and unnecessary. It blocks the use of a natural process that is designed to help us cope with loss and continue to live beyond the loss experience.
When Loss is Not Grieved
While adult life requires that many individuals may need to hold it together emotionally from time to time, there is little evidence that doing so in the long term is ever helpful. The American Psychiatric Association has even acknowledged that unresolved or complicated bereavement is worthy of considerable attention, resulting in some revisions in thinking of how bereavement and major depression can be related.
This is important and validating to anyone who has experienced intensely deep sadness following a loss. It should also help raise an awareness within us of the importance of allowing our natural coping processes work when we face a loss.
Allowing yourself or loved-ones to experience sadness or other feelings and behaviors associated with grief is appropriate. It is also arguably necessary. Not doing so could be detrimental to their mental health, their relationships, and even their physical health. Mental health conditions associated with unresolved or repressed grief include (but are not limited to):
Major Depressive Disorder
Other mood and conduct disturbances
Suicidal Thoughts- if you or someone else is experiencing suicidal thoughts or behavior ALWAYS seek emergency help first. The grief process can continue once the crisis is managed safely.
While no person is guaranteed a successful emergence from the feelings of grief, it is typically best when we allow time and support for those who have experienced loss...without too many expectations or requirements.
How to Support Someone Who is Grieving
Grief is not a disease, and people experiencing grief do not turn into different people. Personalities rarely change, even though someone going through a tough time might be more irritable, cry, or behave differently. Simply be there when you can.
If the person is you, allow others to be there for you. Know that you are likely to have some unpleasant feelings for some time, and allow your feelings to happen. Be around friends who are helpful to you and don't require you to be happy or who try to doctor your feelings with things like drugs or alcohol. Be around people who know what you are going through but do not require much of you. Maybe you won't feel like talking. That should be okay. Remember, grief is a natural part of our design, so it will be there when you sober up...even years later if necessary.
Remember that it is okay to have fun when you are grieving, but it may not feel like it. Take your time. You are going through a process of reorganizing thoughts and feelings.
Lastly, there are many specialists who can help with grief and loss, sadness, and depression. I recommend support groups for those who feel alone in their loss, but groups may not be for everyone at every moment. Individual, couples, or family counseling can be VERY helpful. Don't forget to consider it.
As always, if you have any questions related to grief, counseling or anything in this blog, feel free to contact me via my website. I'd love to help.
Brock Caffee, LCMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist, licensed in California and Kansas. He has over a decade of practice experience. He has a private practice in Lawrence, KS. At home he has three children, three dogs, and a very patient wife.
The views expressed in this blog are meant to help foster perspective, to entertain, and to be fun when possible. Any intent to regard the blog as counseling or therapy constitutes misuse. Advice offered in the blog should be considered only if consistent with your family values and with advice given by your own mental health professionals. Please seek consultation with a mental health professional in your area if you experience distress or feel you are in crisis. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.