Grief, Loss and Bereavement
“There should be a statute of limitation on grief. A rulebook that says it is all right to wake up crying, but only for a month. That after 42 days you will no longer turn with your heart racing, certain you have heard her call out your name.”Jodi Picoult, ‘My Sister’s Keeper
Talking about loss and griefExperiencing grief is extraordinarily painful, can be confusing, and involves a bewildering mix of emotions. We use many different terms to describe different aspects of this process.
These are some commonly held definitions:
Loss relates to anything that you are deprived of, be it a possession, a home, a pet or a person. It often feels like part of your identity has gone.
Bereavement is the state of having lost someone / thing – it is mainly used about death, but divorce and relationship split ups are also bereavements.
Grief describes the range of emotions we feel and experience with a bereavement
Mourning is the process that follows a loss and is often accompanied by rituals; mourning is determined by our cultural context and our cultural norms.
The layers of lossLoss can be very complicated because of the delicately balanced the relational dynamics we have with each other. So when we lose someone or something important to us, we often lose much else. For example when we lose someone we love, we may lose our friendships or when we lose or leave a job, we lose the friends, contacts and places associated with that part of our life. Also we will find that some people understand our loss and others are unable to comprehend it. At a more personal level, experiencing a loss may trigger earlier losses, so that we are experiencing more than one loss at one time.
Different ways of grievingBereavement usually hits us in waves over a period of time – almost as if our bodies protect us from experiencing it all at once. Grief enables us to work through and ultimately to heal our deeply felt loss. However we all grieve in different ways, often determined by the characteristic ways we have developed for coping with difficult times. Some people prefer to withdraw and do their grieving on their own; others are very demonstrative with their grief.
We are all impacted by our own dominant cultural attitudes, customs and rituals around death and grieving. For example, how soon the body should be buried; how celebratory mourning should be (eg the wake); how widows/widowers are treated. Behind these customs are very different attitudes to death, and dying, which are culturally defined. Similarly people hold very different spiritual attitudes and beliefs about death, including belief in an afterlife or not. Sometimes it is difficult to find people around you who are able to accept and hear about these differences.
Grieving will also be determined by the nature of the relationship we held with the person who has gone – for example difficult or ambivalent relationships are often the most difficult to grieve, because of what might have been; for different reasons the death of someone very close can be devastating. The way in which someone has died or left us has an impact on our grieving – factors like how traumatic the death was, or their age, or your age can all make grieving more difficult, because these losses go against our expectations for our own or others lives.
What hurts most is losing the force of the future’ - Ruth Picardie 1998
Grief is both an emotion and a physical state; it is all-consuming. Apart from the physical sensation of weeping, you may have an aching body, stomach reactions and the sense of a hollow stomach, feel fatigued, have headaches, or feel breathless. Often people feel what Worden described as ‘depersonalised’ as if we are not quite here. The classic feelings associated with grief are being sad, angry (often with the person who has gone), guilty, anxious, very down or depressed. We experience shock, yearning, helplessness and/or relief.
There are some classic books and ‘models’ of grief and bereavement. Below is a summary of some of the better known theories and models of grieving:
Elisabeth Kubler Ross developed the ‘stages of grief’ approach (1970), which says that people who have experienced bereavement or loss pass through the following stages:
Stages of grief
- Shock stage: “It can’t be true”. Numbness, inability to register or express emotions.
- Denial stage: Acting as if no loss has occurred; avoiding the reality of what’s happened
- Anger stage: This can be with the doctors, God, yourself, or the one who has left you behind. Anger can be difficult to acknowledge because it may not seem ‘right’
- Bargaining stage: Desperate what if’s; if only. It is often accompanied by guilt.
- Depression stage: Facing the enormity and reality of the loss. Emptiness & withdrawal ·
- Testing stage: Adjusting to the new reality & trying things out
- Acceptance stage: Letting go; saying goodbye; finding the way forward and looking to the future with hope.
J. William Worden’ writing in the 1980s – 2000s saw mourning as a series of tasks, rather than a set of phases, that helps people find a healthy grieving process. The tasks he identified were
Tasks of Mourning
- Acceptance: to accept the reality of the loss, which will probably need to be re-visited at different times as the grieving process unfolds
- Pain: to work through to the pain of grief; this can be very drawn out and intense
- Adjusting: to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing, including places, people and anniversaries
- Moving on: to emotionally relocate the deceased and to move on with life.
In the later 1990s some writers challenged the traditional view of ‘letting go’ and ‘moving on’ – often described as severing bonds in order to form new relationships. Some researchers developed the idea of ‘Continuing Bonds’ whereby survivors maintain on-going bonds with their deceased loved ones, as a healthy way of going forward with their lives. One recent example of this experience of bereavement is from the journalist Matthew Parris, who has spoken and written about grieving the death of his father, saying that if we loved someone, then of course we will always miss them as a natural and normal thing to do.
‘Continuing Bonds’ model: challenging the idea of ‘Letting go’
This is a very different way of looking at grieving. Based on research observing parents grieving the loss of a child, it was noted that those who found ways of coping well with this process swung or oscillated (like a pendulum) between two different positions or orientations. There were a
Dual Process model
- Loss orientation (embracing feelings of sadness, dis-orientation, overwhelm)And a
- Restoration orientation (throwing yourself into new things, work, keeping busy)
“It sounds awful, but I go between being very sad and just having to do something for distraction” Client experience.
Many of us cope with grief by favouring one of these modes over the other. Thinking about these oscillating orientations can be very liberating, giving us permission to take time with our sadness or recognizing that throwing ourselves into new activities is a useful way of coping. However we can also get stuck in one orientation, which is not necessarily most useful for us. With parents, often one parent will adopt one orientation and the other the opposite, which can lead to misunderstanding and isolation.
Some people don’t need or don’t want any counselling support with their grieving, especially if they have a good support network of their own. However many people find the grieving process difficult and overwhelming. Many of us have inherited powerful family messages not to show our emotions eg tears or anger, which can then inhibit our grieving. Sometimes people think there is something wrong with them, especially if they feel depressed in their grieving. Many people who are grieving find that other people don’t know how to communicate with them, as if they are ‘lost for words’ and the grieving person may feel that they are ‘taboo’. Counselling offers you time and space where you and your grieving can be heard and respected, allowing you to connect with another at a time when you can feel very isolated. Ultimately it can help you with the process of accepting and adjusting to your loss, and re-building hope.
How counselling can help with grief, loss, and bereavement
I have extensive experience of supporting people with loss and bereavement. If you are grieving the loss of someone who has died or become estranged from you, and you would value dedicated time for you with someone who is really able to listen, please contact me.
Counselling for grief, loss and bereavement: Annie Robinson
I provide counselling for bereavement in North Somerset, on the city boundary with Bristol; my practice is in Long Ashton, North Somerset, within easy reach of many parts of central and south Bristol: Southville, Clifton, Ashton Gate, Hotwells, Totterdown, Knowle, and Windmill Hill; and the North Somerset towns & villages of Backwell, Nailsea, Failand, Wraxall, Flax Bourton, Pill, Abbott’s Leigh.