Moving Through Grief & Loss
Grief and loss seem to be ever present this year. So many of us have lost a loved one, lost a job, lost opportunities to do the things we love. As the pandemic continues, we also have the looming fear of losing more: more loved ones, a home, an education, a career.
Despite all of this obvious loss and trauma, our culture doesn’t always allow us the space we need to grieve properly. There is often a pressure to get over it, move on, let it go. People who grieve may feel alone and misunderstood. This can make the whole process even more painful.
I believe it is high time that we talk about grief, loss, and trauma more openly. It is absolutely normal and essential to go through a process of mourning and healing after a loss. So, let’s talk about it.
Types of loss
There are many types of loss. When we talk about loss, the first thing that comes to mind is often the death of a loved one. Whether the death is unexpected (i.e. a car accident or sudden illness) or expected (i.e. after a long battle with cancer or when an elder is nearing the natural end of life), death leaves behind a gap where a friend, loved one, or pet once stood.
Other types of loss may be harder to recognize by those who aren’t experiencing it. For instance, a person who is sick may lose certain abilities to function without losing their life. This can lead to major changes in lifestyle, employment, or daily functioning that need to be grieved. Other types of loss may include miscarriage, loss of a job, loss of a home, loss of financial security, loss of a pet, moving out of a beloved community, changing stages of life, etc. Even positive life changes, such as a teenager graduating and leaving for college, can cause a type of grief for the way things once were.
Those who are in recovery from addiction often experience a type of grief that many do not understand. When a person becomes sober, they usually must change their entire way of life. They often feel sadness and confusion at having to give up unhealthy friendships and lifestyle choices. They may even mourn the loss of the substance that was often their only coping skill, their only friend, during the darkest days of their lives.
Stages/phases of grief
There are many different models that attempt to capture the different stages of grief. Most people are familiar with the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). This model is most applicable to people coping with a death. It does not necessarily capture the grief a person experiences after getting sober or losing a home, just as an example.
Other models of grief  explain that there is often an initial feeling of shock. People often feel numb, disoriented, and like the loss hasn’t sunk in. The next stage, disorganization, sets in after the shock wears off. People may experience intense emotions and feel as if life does not make sense anymore. The life they knew before has changed and they struggle to make sense of their new reality. Lastly, people experience reorganization. They begin to make sense of the loss, process the emotions, and rebuild their lives. A full range of emotions is still normal, but people are beginning to cope more effectively and feel a sense of order in their lives.
Grief and emotions
Grief and loss can spark a wide range of emotions. The most obvious is sadness about what has been lost. People may also feel fear, worry, and anxiety about what the future holds. Anger is common as well: people can feel a deep rage and unfairness in the aftermath. Guilt or shame may also come up. People may feel guilty that they lived when another did not or feel guilty about contributing to the loss in some way. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the loss, people can also become traumatized. For instance, if a person is in a car accident and a loved one dies, they can be traumatized by the accident itself as well as the loss.
Positive emotions may also occur and are normal. A person may feel a sense of relief that a loved one is no longer suffering or that a challenging ordeal is over. Feelings of gratitude for life or having had time with a person may arise. Happiness and nostalgia while remembering good times may occur as well. All of this is normal.
Supports for grief and loss
Again, I want to emphasize, the grieving process is normal. Nobody should expect a grieving friend or loved one to just get over a loss as soon as possible. Grieving is a process that should be supported and honored, not stigmatized. Here are some ideas to help support yourself or a loved one through the grieving process:
Find supportive people: Having people to turn to is vital. Support may look like talking about the loss or just being with others. Practical support with daily living tasks, childcare, getting to appointments, and locating resources can also be important.
Honoring the loss: Whether you have lost a person, a job, a way of life, or something else, it is important to acknowledge and honor that loss. Journaling, art, poetry, shadow boxes, charity work, special vacations, etc. can all be ways that people honor a loss. Where I live, people often plan a community paddle out where people paddle out into the ocean on surf boards to honor a lost loved one. It’s a beautiful way for the community to come together and celebrate life.
Take some extra time: Most losses lead to some level of chaos and disruption in life (see the disorganization stage above). People often get so focused on the details of reorganizing their lives and taking care of basic needs that they don’t have time to process the loss on an emotional level. Carving out extra time to reflect on the loss can allow emotions to be processed and released. Ignoring any emotion is usually going to prolong suffering.
Practice extra good self-care: As always, taking time to care for oneself is vital for healing. When loss occurs, it is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. Make sure you or your loved one is eating regular meals, getting extra sleep, and doing things that feel enjoyable.
Seek professional help or a support group: When someone is going through a loss, friends and family may not always be able to support them as much as they need. A therapist, pastor, support group, or other outside source of support can be a wonderful resource.
Causes for concern
Grieving and mourning are difficult. Intense emotions are common and normal. It can be difficult to determine when a grieving person may be experiencing something that is cause for concern. Here are some red flags that you or a loved one may need professional support:
Thoughts of suicide or suicidal actions
Persistent feelings of hopelessness
Disruption of sleep or appetite that last longer than a few days
Inability to care for children, pets, or dependent adults
Inability to take care of daily living tasks for an extended period
Obviously, in the days following a loss, some of the things listed above are to be expected. However, if the pattern persists for an extended period, it is likely time to reach out for extra support.
Grief and loss can really rake us over the coals. It can feel like the whole world has turned upside down and nothing makes sense anymore. Please know that it is normal to go through a grieving process and feel a wide range of emotions. Reaching out for additional support is always a good idea, especially if you feel you are struggling to find the motivation to go on living or keep up with basic needs. You are not alone. You do not have to face this alone. Please take care of yourself because the world needs you.