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Understanding Grief and Loss

Thomas Bilney College of Psychology and Philosophy

This course is approved by the State Board of Embalmers & Funeral Directors of Ohio for 2 (two) hours of self-study continuing education credits.

Defining True Loss


        Loss is always a part of life. No sooner do we start to recover from a death or some form of loss, than we are thrust back into the cycle again. Grief is a constant companion. Sometimes it is a very unwanted one, but nevertheless it is continually there, by necessity.

        Let’s redefine “loss”. Loss is when something we had, something we experienced, or something we desired or expected is no longer going to be apart of our lives. Loss is a point of separation from something or someone. We often associate loss exclusively with death. In reality death is only a very small portion of the actual loss we experience in our lifetimes. We often equate death to larger losses because of the emotional and spiritual impact and the mystique wrapped around it. But the whole experience of loss is much larger than just death. This does not belittle or make the experience of death an insignificant thing. The death of a loved one is often times a major “line in the sand” of our personal history. That pain grips us even tighter because of the inability to no longer express our selves to the one who has died or show them our feelings.          

       As a child we experience many forms of loss that impact the formative years of our psychology. It may be first experienced in a friend that won’t play with us anymore because of a particular incident. Maybe a neighbor moves away to another state. Sometimes the trauma of the death of a pet might be a point that we experience our first notable loss. Or, it might even be something as simple as the misplacement of a favorite toy.

       Loss is usually experienced as a pain or anguish that you learn not to talk about, or make much of a fuss over as a child. Sometimes, when no one seems to help you with those little losses when you are younger, the losses begin to accumulate. Many parents can’t deal with the losses in their own life, so they are basically ineffective in helping their own children deal with loss, grief or even death. Many times parents or other adults that the child respects will use phrases like “We just have to go on with life now” or “You need to grow up and act responsibly about what has happened”. Those statements aren’t necessarily wrong in content, but they are not complete in the care giving context of the situation of loss and grief. They inhibit the child’s ability to express their pain and grief over the loss which has occurred.

         Many times a child will come to deal with loss by watching a friend or a peer cope with a loss. This is especially notable when observing the reactions of junior high schoolers and early teenagers interacting with one another.  Other times a child’s accumulative environment will mold and shape the way a child begins to understand and deal with loss. 

         By the time a child enters the adolescent or even the adult stage of life he or she may be carrying a lot of unresolved grief and loss issues. They may be things as simple as a missed opportunity for education or a break up of a boyfriend or girlfriend to something as serious as a death of a parent or sibling.     

       Because grief is the process by which we work through the losses in our lives, it is more than correct to say that most people dealing with major issues that require the support and care of outside help, have underlying unresolved issues of loss and grief.

       Most of the people that seek counsel from a professional caregiver have either directly experienced a loss because of a crisis or a trauma of some form, or they are directly connected to someone who has and thus are concerned about the one who has experienced a loss, a crisis or a trauma. They may not perceive their problem as such an issue, but when the truth is exposed through proper care and inquiry it often times comes down to an issue of loss. Some experts claim that upwards to 95% of all counseling endeavors find their core problem in the experience of a loss, and thus become grief processing issues.

       Many people suffer from what is often called a “complicated grief syndrome” This means that there are many losses being suffered at one time and grief is being experienced by one person in many different stages. In these situations it is best to try to help them identify what the foundational loss or losses are, before trying to deal with the total spectrum of their complex grief. This may take time for them to identify or even acknowledge. But once they recognize or admit to what one or some of the core loss or grief issues are, the process of working through the grief can begin with greater ease and expectancy.

       Many times a couple may seek out counseling for their failing marriage. Once the obvious symptoms are eliminated, it is amazing how many times the problem can be traced back to unresolved grief over the loss of a parent, child or other close relative or friend.

       Parents will often bring an angry or violent teen in for counseling. More times than not those outward signs or inappropriate behavior have a core issue in their inability to work through grief or loss issues. Again it might be the loss of a boyfriend, girlfriend, job or even the death of sibling or a grandparent. When the grief is properly identified and addressed many times the child’s behavior is modified and usually noticeably more tolerable.    

       Adults with complex loss and grief issues will often times attempt to sue others who have offended them, hoping to bring some relief to the pain they are experiencing due to the loss they have suffered. Many times they will even tell the judge or their attorney that it is not about the money as much as it is about the principal of what has been done to them. They are looking to fill that void that has been created by suffering a loss. They may even be foolish enough to think that money can possibly fill that void, but generally they are only looking for a psychological satisfaction to the complex array of emotions and feelings surrounding the loss they have. Sometimes the retaliation of a law suit even becomes a psychological addiction which may lead them into many other needless  legal actions against the smallest of offenders. This type of behavior becomes a format of “self-medication” against the pain of each loss they suffer. The size or impact of the loss sometimes becomes irrelevant to the need of “medicating” against the potential pain. Thus this behavior rooted in grief and loss becomes addictive until properly identified and treated.

       Even drug addicts/abusers and alcoholics must go through grief from loss during the rehabilitation period. This is because psychologically, they have lost the treatment or substance that has brought some form of peace, pleasure, mental protection or numbness to their daily existence. That euphoria which they had become accustomed to has departed from their life. Because of their decision to stop indulging in the use of whatever their substance of choice is, there is a definite point of separation. It is a genuine loss. Even when they are aware of the damaging and negative affects the abuse has had on them, there is still an element of loss and grief that must experienced so that the new change of freedom from addiction or abuse can be experienced in a healthy way. This usually takes much time and can affect other area of their life in which they are experiencing loss and grief.    


Educating for Grief Care


       Education does play a role in the process of grief and loss. If we are teaching those around us what loss is, and how to work through some of the basic grief issues when a loss is experienced, we will then be truly helping ourselves and the society and culture around us maintain a more healthier approach to life in general.

       A few years ago, a report was released about people who live to be over 100 years of age. A couple dozen of these elderly US citizens were interviewed and analyzed. Their diets were examined and their psychological and personality traits were scrutinized. Very few of them had rigid or well-balanced disciplined diets. Most of them were not exercise nuts, or had maintained what would be typically considered to be a physically disciplined life.

       Ironically, the one common denominator that seemed to surface continually in the personality make-up of these people was their ability to “roll with the punches”. In other words, they were able to deal with loss, crisis and trauma fairly well. It was obvious by some of their verbal responses to some of the questions that they had experienced many difficult circumstances in life. But somewhere along the way they had learned how to make the right choices in their grief processes and worked through the complex issues that mentally weigh upon the vast majority of our society.

        If you can stand to watch more than three minutes of the major semi-violent “talk show” arenas on television, you will find that the real issues being discussed aren’t “who slept with who’s sister”. Instead, it usually exposes itself to be the unresolved grief surrounding the loss that was experienced by “someone sleeping with someone’s sister”. Because they have never been given the instructive care of how to properly work through the grief experience created by a loss, crisis or trauma in their sociological environment, they resort to verbal or even physical violence as a method of venting the pain and anger of their circumstances. Thus, we are breeding a generation of people in our society that are not capable of properly dealing with grief and loss issues. Many professionals credit this fact as a major contributing cause to the moral decay in our nation that began in the 1950s & 1960s.

       Many times the question arises as to what we should be saying to someone who is obviously experiencing a loss or is suffering from a complex grief circumstance. What is the proper approach or language? What shouldn’t we say to them? When we don’t know what to say, we often say something very inappropriate or worthless. This may cause us personal embarrassment. We may even back off or ignore such a suffering person, and thus intensify the loss they are experiencing by their loss of you. This may also increases their ability or desire to isolate themselves.

        Learning the right ways and the more effective communication skills in dealing with those who have experienced loss, or are working through grief, is very important. We can have more of an impact to help others in their grief if we understand our own abilities to manage and process through grief in a way that is productive. How would we like to be spoken to? What questions would be too invasive if they were asked of us. What comments or suggestions would help bring peace to our lives if we were in the intense throws of grief. In other words, when we learn how to deal with loss and grief productively, then we will be able to help others. Thus, we teach and educate others about grief and loss through becoming a healthy example.  

          This is a process we as caregivers must continually work on and develop. This is not an arena where the blind can lead the blind. It takes someone with a compassionate growing personality that has a genuine love for people and a desire to care for their needs. Care givers must be willing to educate those in the grieving process due to a loss suffered in their life. This kind of person with these qualities will have the most productive and effective career. 


The Relationship of Grief and Love


       Grief is a statement about your love for someone or something that is no longer with you or in the same format of your life. It has been said that one cannot grieve over a loss if one did not love what was lost. Love is not so much an emotion as it is a posture of the “heart”. It may express itself outwardly in emotional ways. If you love someone or something, it has significant or special value to you. However, something or someone can hold value to you, but you do not necessarily love them or it. The difference is found in the ability to back up the commitment involved in love in one’s actions. Working through grief is definitely an action process. It may not be dynamic, but it must be displayed actively in some style or format to be grief.

        Grief can be experienced as an intense emotional suffering. The word “grief” actually means “to carry a burden” or “to be burdened”. So grief is your personal experience or statement of a loss that has occurred in your life.

        Grief can be so intense that it may take all a person in grief has within them just  to get up and get dressed in the morning. It is in these intense circumstances that we as caregivers must be willing to listen to them and even extend practical care on a continuous basis. It is important to constantly extend the invitation for them to talk out their feelings and emotions.

       When they respond by saying “It’s OK”, and it is obvious that it isn’t, gently and compassionately re-extend the opportunity for them to talk openly about their feelings of love, loss or life in general. Pent up grief is poisonous to the spirit of a person. Without begging them or becoming obnoxious, you can gently urge them from time to time to take the liberty of expressing their feelings. This can become a time consuming process. If you truly want to help them then you must be willing to spend the time listening. Sometimes they will only release a little “nugget” of their grief at a time. This is when you must combine patience with encouragement and be willing to endure the journey.  

       Sometimes people may just need someone there with them. Sometimes the talking will come later. They may just need another person there to relieve the loneliness caused by the loss. Because we are spiritual beings also, sometimes just our presence is some consolation or comfort in the situation. We often times don’t realize how we “connect” spiritually with others just by being near them. It is important to understand the value of our presence.

       Some people struggle with displaying their grief emotionally or verbalizing their pain of loss. This may be because they do not think they “have permission” to grieve. This is where we can let them know that it is OK to express what they are feeling or experiencing within themselves. They may have never seen anyone close to them grieve or properly express their grief, so they don’t have a correct image or role model to base what grief is to look like or how it is to be expressed.

       This is exceptionally true of children and teenagers who have been raised in homes where the parents have constantly tried protect them from potential loss or withheld them or diverted their attention away from grief situations. Every time someone in the family died they were shipped out to the opposite side of the family’s grandparents to live for a couple of days while Dad and Mom went to the funeral. One of the parents may lose a job. The financial tension in the home is obvious, but so is the taboo about discussing it. The whole issue is “swept under the rug” as soon as a new job is found, and everyone (kid’s included) are expected to go on as before like nothing ever occurred. By the time these children reach adulthood and experience a major loss in their lives they have no idea how to deal with it. Many times they don’t even know how to describe what has happened to them.   

        In these circumstances, we must be able to help them understand what has transpired and what are the various ways that they can work through their loss and grief issues. It is a combination education, patience and compassion that connects the grieving process to the fact of their love for what or who they have lost. 


Normalizing Grief


       Dealing correctly with the grief / love relationship includes an informative process of what is called normalization. Normalization lets them know that what they are experiencing is normal. This information you render assures them that they are not a “one-of-a-kind” or a “fifth wheel” in the process of grief . This normalization communication must be laced with grace and compassion to be affective.

       In the normalization process, they can learn that what they are experiencing is not only “typical” or “alright” but they should also be informed as to what they can expect to experience as they continue to grieve. Sometimes just this knowledge will bring temporary relief and comfort and will eventually make the journey more tolerable over the full term of the grief experience.

       Many times the normalization process will open the door for them to verbally communicate their feelings and emotions. It may come in spurts or seasons, but the important thing is to see them start to communicate.

       As they begin to communicate with you more, you may want to ask them questions like “What can I do to help you?” or “Is there something we can do together, or someplace we could go together that would help meet a need you have?”

       If you have a desire to connect more with them spiritually, or you sense that it is something they are interested in developing, you may want to ask them if, or what, you can pray with them about. Most people will not be offended by a simple none forceful question such as that.            

       Even though some may experience grief in different ways and stages, there is still a blanket of normality and need for the grief processes that we all have in common. An example of this would be a family of four all experiencing the loss of a relative through death. Each member of the family may experience grief in a different expression. One family member might be quick to display their feelings and work though various stages of denial or anger in a brief or almost unnoticeable time frame. Another family member might have a delayed reaction to the death and not start displaying their grief or communicating about it for several weeks. Because these two members from the same family unit may have different experiences in the process and affect of grief, neither is abnormal. This is where the bridge of action and communication may need extra attention form outside help. Neither one of these two family members is right or wrong. Both are normal and need to come to that understanding through this normalization process which is rooted in creative informative communication.   

       Some of this creative informative communication can be accomplished by putting them (those in grief) with competent resources that will help them understand what is going on in their life right now. This may come in the form of books, audio or video tapes, support group meetings and even internet web sites which offer specific and competent care for those suffering from grief. You should not give someone a book or tape unless you personally have read it, heard it or watched. Because they received the book or tape from you, they may assume that you are an equal or further source of information on the specific aspect or topic of grief it is dealing with.    

       All of this is part of the process that brings us all together on the same level. The normalization process accomplished through the education of someone about the grief process, assures them that they are not abnormal or some sort of “grief freak”. They should be able to see that others such as yourself have insight and maybe even personal experience in the emotions and experiences of grief and loss. Normalization should bring a measure of relief.          

         Again, remember that even in the normalization of their grief and its processes, there is no “magical cure” for the pain of their loss. There is a measure of comfort and strength through normalization that should be experienced that will give them some hope to continue on with their lives be it ever so slowly. With time, the next step through their loss should be a little easier.


Staging Grief


       Traditionally, over the last four or five decades we have diagnosed the stages of grief to include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (in no specific order). We have come to find out that those early stages and diagnosis actually were derived from people anticipating grief and/or loss and not from those actually experiencing grief. More contemporary psychologists now have lists that may include anywhere from nine to twelve, even up to twenty various stages of grief that may be scrambled up in various orders and repetitions.

       Some counselors now speak of grief in “phases” rather than stages. Examples may be the “yearning” phase, the “numb” phase, the “disorganization” phase or the “despair” phase. Some of the latter phases may include “reorganized behavior” or the “recognized hope” phase. Irregardless of whether they are stages or phases, the process of grief is still one that is necessary, natural and as we previously discussed, normal.

        It is necessary because there needs to be a release and expression of our grief from loss through the bereavement process. It is natural simply by the fact that we have to work at suppressing our reactions to loss in our lives. We have previously discussed that grief is normal for all humanity, and no one is exempt or immune to its potentials. 

         People will typically go through theses stages or phases usually with much overlap of the processes and at various paces.

       There may be times where the progress of someone’s grief process regresses or may even appear to be degenerating. Sometimes the old saying “two steps forward three steps backwards’ isn’t all wrong unless of course that grief process equation continually repeats itself. Sometimes people need to go backward for a brief period time in their grief process to catch a detail they didn’t deal with or experience when they initially passed through those thoughts or processes. They must be assured that is OK to do that as long as they realize that they should eventually once again move forward.      

        We may want to let those who are experiencing grief know that they may get “ambushed” by grief unexpectedly. They might feel that they are making some headway through their loss and grief issues when something unexpected will happen. They may wake up one day and realize that was six months ago or one year ago to the day that they suffered the loss.  Or, they may hear a song on the radio or watch a movie or a rerun on television that reminds them of the relationship that they once had with a person who is no longer in their life. They may even reflect very powerfully in an emotional outburst. These incidences can sometimes re-open the wounds of the loss that they suffered months and maybe even years ago that they thought they had made progress through. Be certain to assure them that there will come a time when things will once again take on a more normal form. Remind them gently that they are living in the present moment and what they are experiencing is a memory-triggered response. Sometimes a gentle nudge in thinking towards the future or a planned event in the future will slowly help them take their mind’s focus off of the pain that they are re-experiencing in the situation of ambush.     

        Some therapeutic ideas which can be suggested that may help someone travel more effectively through the grief process may include; Write a letter or a poem. If they are artistic, create a painting, sketch or compose a song that would express their feelings about the person or thing that has been lost. Some people may need to visit a gravesite with someone, or even go back to a favorite restaurant or vacation spot with different people.     

        Good communications would include questions as to how or what progress they feel they are making in the process. Give them plenty of time to self-analyze their progress. Allow memories to be integral into the conversation. Even memories which may have a negative implication can sometimes be helpful.

        Memories are the fuel of eternal life, in more of a mental than spiritual sense. We learn more about our own life and we learn to love more through the things we remember about someone or something that is no longer a part of our life. When proper memory utilization process is utilized in a balanced manner, overtime the important and healthy memories, be they positive or negative, will naturally align themselves in a positive and helpful system of recall.   

       There is no end, final stage, phase or cure for grief. That is not a negative statement, but rather a very positive one. An end to grief should never be expected or desired, even tough graduated relief from the initial anxiety and pain is the goal. The process, through proper development and time should become less painful and more of a productive aspect of life. To end grief would be to end the memory of the loss and the ability to grow and learn from the experience. The positive attitude and valued learning experience that one experiencing grief is willing to accept will make all the difference in whether or not the end result will enhance their life.  

        If someone who has experienced a loss claims to “be over it” or says that they are no longer grieving, they may require more care and help through the process. More than likely they have just become numb or are in denial of certain aspects of the grief and loss circumstances.

        These people might very well be “self-medicating” themselves to avoid or delay the throws of the grieving process. There are four very popular ways in our society that people “self-medicate”. They are; 1). Alcohol and or Drugs 2). Obsessive businesses or career endeavors 3). Entertainment (which may include gambling, physical risk taking or other extreme challenges) 4). Obsessive sexual activity.   

        The classical case scenerio is the lady who experiences a catastrophic divorce, and three months later finds herself in a wedding chapel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee saying “I do” because she is “over him” (the last husband). A self produced “quick cure or proclamation generally produces a similar duplicate loss as originally experienced.

        The re-marriage of a widow or a widower within a year of death generally holds a 90% chance of failure. Accepting grief slowly and not pushing for new life changes such as new relationships or developing a performance or attention getting mentality generally tend to produce a more solid recovery and acceptance back into normal everyday life.

         There are situations where the energy we encounter from some of the anger involved in the grief process can be properly directed towards productive activities which can change situations and circumstances in someone’s life. A blazing example of this is when the mother of student who was killed by a drunk driver took the energy she experienced in grief towards the person who killed her child and form the proactive national organization we now know as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).       


Helpful Ideas


        Here are some helpful ways in which we can encourage those around who are experiencing grief works towards a more comfortable position ion grief. They are simple ideas that by them selves will probably do very little good. But when these ideas are coupled together in various combinations, they may become very effective.


1). Eat regularly scheduled nutritious meals. Be more systematic in your nutrition intake. This will aid your digestive processes.


2). Get plenty of sleep. Even though in the initial phases of grief sleep may be hard to get, one should still lie down and rest. Quiet times help the body and mind rejuvenate.     


3). Avoid taking non-prescription drugs or casually consuming alcoholic beverages. It is sometimes very easy for people experiencing grief to become dependant on such substances or develop harmful habits.


4). Guard against over extending your schedule or participation in rigorous activities. The physical body is affected by grief also. Therefore, it needs time to re-adjust to the pace of activity it was once involved with.


5). Practice your faith. Let your spiritual and religious convictions help strengthen your mentality and outlook on life in general. Loss always has a spiritual side to it that needs care and attention. Be sure to spend with others of like faith and spiritual convictions. When it comes to the spiritual issues of life, there is strength in numbers. 

         Be patient with those going through intense grief. Time and quality communications with caring people will help them start to walk through the grief and on to healing. Don’t set time frames around the stages of the grief process. Some people are able to deal with a large portion of their grief issues in a couple of months. But for many, it is a much longer period that may extend up to several years. Be patient and show them the care and the love (commitment backed up by actions) that you would appreciate if you were in their condition.


A Personal Testimony


        Over 20 years ago, my wife and I lost our first baby very prematurely. It was very hard for  both of us. My wife had lived to “be a mother” from her early childhood. We had only been married a little over two years when the tragedy occurred.   

       Our pastor’s wife truly befriended and cared for my wife through the months that followed. She was patient and caring because of her own personal experience. I was a loving friendship that brought hope and restoration to my wife.

         At that time I was a funeral director working full-time for a funeral home in a small rural community. Because of this fact, I was left to live under the assumption that I knew how to handle that aspect of my life. I dealt with the sorrow of that loss the best I could, but never came through the total impact of that loss in the grieving process. I became consumed with the challenges of my career and suppressed the remaining thoughts and feelings I could not deal with any longer. Because I felt that it was not normal for a “man” to be that expressive, I lived a very normal life and by all outside appearances I had no more symptoms of that loss.    

        It wasn’t until 16 years later I was driving down an interstate freeway  listening to some old music on some cassette tapes I had owned since we suffered that loss that I was awakened to these issues. One particular song brought back all of the feelings and emotions I had tried to hide when all that took place. It was one of those “ambushes” we discussed earlier.

        The emotions broke loose so hard that I had to pull the car over to the side of the road. After realizing what was happening to me, I simply prayed that God would help me to understand what I was experiencing and help me to work through it in a beneficial way. A few hours later I found some peace with myself, with that incident of loss, and that particular song. Now, several years later, I can listen to that song and it will remind me of that situation and it also assures me that someday I will be with my child again. That is now a positive experience. 

        Be patient and show true concern by the love you express to those suffering from a loss. Remember you are probably in need of or may become in need of the exact same care you are now extending to others.   

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