On Grief and Loss

GRIEF AND LOSS

What do all of the following share in common: 1) the death of a loved; 2) a relationship breakup; 3) a job layoff or termination; 4) a home being destroyed by fire or tornado; and 5) significant physical limitations resulting from a serious illness or injury?  Maybe it’s obvious, but they all involve a major personal loss, any one of which can be psychologically and emotionally painful.  The loss does not have to be a total one to be difficult to cope with.  What matters most is when the loss, whatever it may be, leaves you often feeling a mix of very sad and anxious, total loss or not.  The sadness connects with grief; the anxiety connects with fear of loss of security and/or self-confidence.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying,” postulated 5 stages of grief connected specifically to the coping with the loss of a loved one via death.  Kubler-Ross named these stages denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  However, in my over 30 years as a practicing psychologist, it has been my professional experience that in enough instances, the grieving process is not as etched in stone regarding these stages as Kubler-Ross postulated.  In addition, so-called stages of grieving can occur every bit as much with the other four types of significant losses spelled out above as with the death of a loved one.

NON-DEATH VARIATIONS ON THE TYPES AND STAGES OF GRIEVING

Take 58 year old David.  David was recently was laid off from his job of 27 years.  For several months, David and several of his co-workers had seen the writing on the wall of an impending “unavoidable” layoff.  So there was no room for denial here, nor for bargaining, over this job loss.  In addition, the layoff did not outright depress David, nor could he accept it.  But one thing the layoff sure did make him feel was: angry!  Anger centering mainly on the fact that David had been a loyal, hard-working, productive company employee for more than 2-plus decades.  As a result, no matter how much he knew the company was justifying the layoffs as “unavoidable,” David felt convinced in his heart that he in no way DESERVED to be laid off.  So anger reigned supreme for David as a result of this loss; as did anxiety I might add, given the likely challenge now facing him of finding another job at his age.

Now take Jennifer.  Married for 7 years, she was by nature a trusting soul, and very much in love with her husband Ira.  Yet in the past year, Jennifer had been dealing with certain behaviors on Ira’s part that were increasingly causing her more and more angst.  These especially involved Ira claiming he was now required to work late a couple of nights a week (something he had never done before), and excessive unexplained phone texting.  Jennifer was upset by these behaviors yes, but she refused to believe what her mother and best friend were telling her: that they suspected Ira was having an affair.  Alas, one night Jennifer decided uncharacteristically to “snoop” into Ira’s computer.  And there in the trash she found an ongoing exchange of deleted emails between Ira and another woman, lurid and loving in detailed nature.

No longer able to remain in denial of the obvious truth, Jennifer did not go into anger mode, as her sadness simply overwhelmed her.  When she finally confronted Ira, he not only acknowledged the truth of his affair, but even more devastatingly to Jennifer, he informed her of his intent to divorce her.  Begging (bargaining) for even some marital counseling got her nowhere.  And then for many years after the actual divorce, Jennifer remained so sad and anxious at the core that acceptance of her marital loss remained extremely difficult for her to do.

The moral of the story regarding these two significant personal, non-death losses is that they are examples of how Kubler-Ross’ five postulated stages of grief by no means universally occur, nor do they necessarily occur in the chronological order she elucidated.  What does consistently occur though in the case of significant personal loss is any of a range of painful emotions, some of which go beyond those presented by Kubler-Ross.  These can include for example guilt, jealousy, abandonment, embarrassment, and as noted above anxiety/fear.  Keep in mind too that any of these emotions can realistically and humanly have no “statute of limitations” regarding the duration of their intensity and presence, consciously or subconsciously.

CLINICAL SYMPTOMS OF GRIEF AND LOSS

Moving to the clinical aspect of grief and loss, there are a variety of possible psychological problems that intense grief can trigger, in the short run and possibly in the long run.  These include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, addiction, and eating disorders.  As with the  loss-triggered emotions listed above, there is no statue of limitations on the potential duration or intensity of any of these symptoms.

HEALING FROM GRIEF AND LOSS

Safe to say we all grew up hearing the expression “time heals all wounds.”  Well, now that most of us are grown up, I will at least speak for myself when I say I have learned that the idea that time heals all wounds–especially grief/loss wounds–is far from guaranteed.  Some important losses can leave us with long-lasting if not permanent feelings of any one or more of the powerful emotions listed above, from sadness, to guilt, to loneliness, to anger, to fear.  So to help yourself heal from these emotional wounds of grief and loss, you will need to DO some things over time to increase your healing potential.  Options here especially include becoming involved in a grief/loss support group, disregarding anyone who tells you to “move on!” or “get over it already!”, staying as busy and distracted as possible, tapping into religious or personally spiritual pursuit, or–if the clinical symptom piece does not subside–seeking professional counseling and/or psychiatric medication.

In closing, I encourage you to keep in mind that any significant loss–again, be it the death of a loved one, a relationship breakup, a change or loss of a job/school/residence, or suffering a physically debilitating injury or illness–can trigger a range of painful emotions, which can vary per person in intensity, duration, and chronological order.  Therefore, let me underscore, any of these emotions is called HUMAN, and not what too many people judge them as being: “weak!”

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