What is Grief and Is it Just for the Loss of a Loved One?
Defined by dictionary.com as a keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret or a cause of occasion of keen distress or sorrow.
Most of us think of grief in terms of the loss of a loved one. Some of us have experienced this many times and some none at all. I believe that grief comes at varying degrees dependent upon our mindset at the time and/or our relationship with those we’ve lost.
But as I was hit with an overpowering feeling of grief this past week and daily since then I’ve been thinking about the contexts in which we experience this.
Why is it that we typically associate it with just the loss a person? My experience of loss in this context has ranged from the loss of distant relatives, to grandparents and an uncle, to a young best friend and all for various reasons - some expected loss from illness, an vehicle accident, and most unexpected suicide. For me this week, it has been the impending or knowledge of upcoming loss of a pet and the decision I’ll have to make when that time comes and a struggle with how I will do that. But I also believe that we suffer from grief over any number of things that we can have a relationship with and that doesn’t mean its living and breathing.
We establish connections and emotions attached to these things we lose. They get us what we want. We love them. They are our companions. They support us, often they are there when we need them (and sometimes not). They greet us lovingly when we see them or even right when we walk in the door. We rely upon them for assistance in some way.
But what is it when the leave us, or don't come when we want them to, and/or abandon us either by our choice or by some force of the universe? We grieve the loss of marriages, jobs, money, and even our vices. The recovering alcoholic wants to be sober but in sobriety they may grieve the loss of their old friend, alcohol. And that small list is only the tip of the iceberg.
The other think I think of when grief comes to mind is of an expanded grief model by Wright (2011) outlining what has been the traditional five stages of grief:
Shock & Denial: A numbed disbelief occurs after the devastation of a loss. A person may deny the reality or gravity of their loss at some level to avoid pain. Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks.
Pain & Guilt: Shock wears off and replaced with suffering of excruciating pain. It’s important to experience the pain fully and not numb it artificially.
Anger and Bargaining: Frustration leads to anger. Uncontrolled, it can permanently damage relationships. May result in trying to negotiate with one’s self (or a higher power) to attempt to change the loss that has occurred.
Depression, Reflection, & Loneliness: A long period of sad reflection overtakes a person and the magnitude of the loss sets in.
The Upward Turn: Life becomes calmer, more organized as one starts to adjust to life with the loss that occurred.
Reconstruction & Working Through: As a person starts to become more functional, realistic solutions seem possible for life after the loss.
Acceptance & Hope: The last stage – a person learns to accept and deal with the reality of their situation. A person is more future-oriented and learns to cope.
Is this helpful to know? Sure. Its also important to point out that these are fluid and the come in go in no shape or form that is linear. We can work with something we can put a name to. We can learn distress tolerance and effective coping skills. We can empower ourselves with personal growth to work towards acceptance.
But I will say that these are also just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to emotional awareness. This week I’ve felt lost, angry, confused, discouraged, lonely, apathetic, disappointed, regretful, yearning, abandoned, needy, guilty, hopeless, unfocused, overwhelmed, and numb. I’ve felt helpless and not in control (which nobody likes).
What I think is most interesting in myself and in my grief work with others is that grief also brings out a lot of underlying issues that we may not want to admit to or may not have been aware of. Perfectionism. Fear of abandonment. Generalized anxiety. Another bout of depression. Avoidance. Lack of faith or understanding in our belief systems. Again, this list goes on.
The question is: will we run away and hide from it? Burying it deep and not dealing… Or will we embrace the emotions and struggle, overcome the mindset or stories we have for ourselves that are uncovered and maybe aren’t working all that efficiently for us after all, and continue to live on honoring the relationships lost and create the lives we want to live?
Wright, J. (2011). 7 stages of grief: through the process and back to life. Retrieved from http://www.recover-from-grief.com/7-stages-of-grief.html
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