Grief & Loss
by Philip Campbell, M.Ed, RCC
Grief is the human response to loss. We usually talk about grief in relation to the loss of a loved one, but the same principles apply to any major loss. As humans, part of our ability to survive in the world is dependent on how we handle our losses.
We encounter losses of one sort or another every day of our lives. Fortunately most losses are trivial, and we do not get stuck in the grieving process. We accept the loss and move on with our lives. When we encounter a major loss that results in a significant change in our lives, this is not as easy to do.
You may have heard about the five stages of grief. These stages were originally used to describe how people cope with hearing that they have a terminal illness — the ultimate loss. The term “stages” is perhaps a misnomer, since we can skip a stage or go through two or three simultaneously. We can also experience different stages for differing periods of time, ranging from seconds to years. Use them as a guideline to help understand what you or someone you knows goes through when experiencing loss.
Denial: Denial is a form of shock and numbness. It is natural to feel at first, “This can’t be happening.”
Bargaining: As we begin to realize that this is indeed happening, we start trying to find a way to make it not happen. This often takes the form of trying to bargain — with God, with the elements, with any power, real or imagined, that could possibly change things. It is a softening of the denial.
Guilt: Often we think in terms of “could have, should have, would have.” It is part of the learning process to ask, “What could I have done differently?” Feelings of guilt are normal, but not always rational. Especially in the case of a death, people sometimes take responsibility for things they could not possibly have known to do at the time.
Anger: As with guilt, anger may or may not be rational. We want to know who was responsible. In the case of a death, the anger is often directed at those who might be perceived as causing the death, at someone who said or did something hurtful shortly after the death, or even at helpers and the medical establishment who were not able to prevent the death.
Depression: Depression marks the breakdown of our defences in times of grief. After denial, bargaining, guilt and anger have not changed anything, the loss is still there. The reality of our loss sinks in deeply.
Acceptance / hope: Hope emerges ... that’s the best way to describe it. It is subtle at first and you may not even be aware of it. You start to experience brief moments of pleasure again. You regain your sense of humour and find that you can laugh again. You start to settle back into the comfort of your old routines and look forward to a meaningful future.
Cherishing: At a memorial service we eulogize the person who has passed away. We cherish the person before letting go. So it is with any loss. While it is sometimes painful to think about the good times that are gone, it is important to do so. Talk to others who share the loss about your cherished moments. You do not want all of your memories to be dominated by the fact of your loss; you want to be able to remember with happiness and joy.
There are two different kinds of rituals: public and private. The public rituals, such as funerals and memorials, are familiar. They are a way of sharing the grief, marking the passage and moving on. When the public ritual is over, it often feels as though the grief is just beginning. This is when private rituals can be a meaningful way to help us come to terms with what has happened.
Private rituals help us bring our emotional selves to a place of acceptance. They often involve photographs, objects associated with the loss or ritualized actions.
One person I know went down to a river with a bunch of flowers. She then picked the petals off the flowers and threw them into the river, one by one. Like the flowers, what she had lost was something beautiful and precious. Watching the river carry the petals away allowed her to experience the process of letting go.
Grief and loss are personal and individual. You will never fully understand my grief and I will never fully understand yours. But we can support each other by helping to cherish and celebrate the person or relationship that is lost, listening to the feelings of loss and momentary helplessness. Sometimes we help just by being there.
Sometimes people ask, “When will I get over it? How long does it take? What is normal?”
We all have our own individual histories of grief and loss and we all respond differently. In some ways you never get over the loss, nor do you really want to. You cannot change history. You do not want to forget altogether, but you do want to be able to weave the experience into the fabric of your life. You want to be able to move forward and still find meaning and purpose in life.
Further reading …
- The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses, by John W. James and Russell Friedman
- The Courage to Grieve, by Judy Tatelbaum
- healingheart.net (Healing Hearts for Bereaved Parents)
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