Grief and Loss: Surviving to Thriving

Grief or loss of any kind is difficult and even catastrophic! Something that once was is now different and everything can feel off and wrong. Having recently lost a loved one, I am familiar with the outpouring of love and affection offered within the first few weeks of their passing. It is with great gratitude and appreciation that I express how meaningful this love and support can be during times of grief. It carries you through an overwhelmingly difficult time where it can almost be like, an out of body experience, where your body was there, but your heart, soul and mind can’t quite catch up.  There just isn’t enough time to process it all.

Speaking of time, there just isn’t enough of this commodity in regular times, let alone at a time when seemingly from nowhere, we are hit with an unexpected crisis or loss. Even if we know it is coming, it is impossible to predict the barrage of emotions, triggers and seemingly small, yet meaningful routines that are now disrupted and entirely turned upside down. In my experience, when working with those who are grieving, so many will say they are told in one form or another, “It is time to move on. Let go. Forgive or get back in the saddle.”  Most who are in the midst of the grief feel “misunderstood”, “judged” or “compelled” to get on with life and fail to find the space for true and meaningful healing. Instead piled onto their grief is anger or resentment, isolation and fear.

Grief and loss are a normal part of the cycle of life yet there is not one way to grieve. Some reach outward while others turn inward. Some reach upward to God while some will question faith or the purpose or meaning of something so nonsensical. While some are consumed with anger others may feel gratitude and relief. Grief can be complex involving trauma, depression, PTSD or anxiety. There are some who dive into work and others who can’t get out of bed. Just as variable as the circumstances are around the grief are the timeframes around processing or working through the loss.  This is unique to the individual who is experiencing the grief.

I want each individual who has experienced grief in whatever form to know your feelings are valid. Based on our biology, we are hard wired for connection. To survive, we need to bond with others and have tools to manage fear, isolation, loss and loneliness. It is all too common that so many of us attempt to go through this all alone.

John Bowlby said, “The loss of an attachment figure is one of the most distressing of all human experiences.” (Bowlby, 1980).

Types of Grief

In addition to losing an important person in our life, spouse, parent, child, friend, sibling or co-worker, there are several other ways grief and loss show up in our lives. Consider a few of the following scenarios.

  • Loss of a lifelong hope or dream
  • Loss of Faith
  • Loss of Friendship
  • Betrayal Loss
  • Loss of a home to a natural disaster
  • Loss of trust

Whatever the scenario that brings on the loss, there is an initial stage, a period of destabilization. Things suddenly feel out of place, you feel out of place, crazy and are pulled in two different directions. One part of you wants to stay with your loved one or hold on to the dream or thing that is now gone, long for them or it, not dare to feel any part of happiness for fear you will betray them or lose this thing forever. Another part that wants to run, flee from the weighty emotions and avoid it all together. For those of us with a great number of resources and support, we move gradually through this phase and finds ways to go on with life while still holding on to the positive memories of the one we let into our heart and loved freely. Or we move into a more compassionate, wholistic view of the world where the things we had hoped for are now placed in the context of a larger more all-inclusive sense of self and purpose for living.

While some are able to move forward, others find themselves stuck in a state where acceptance seems impossible and everyday routines are disrupted. They are consumed with overwhelming anxiety or depression.  If there is a traumatic event associated with the grief, the trauma event might lead to rumination, hypervigilance and difficulties in daily life functions. This leaves little to no space for the grief which is suppressed to the background.

According to Shaver and Mikulincer (2021), there are some ways that we might cope with our grief that may lead to problems in our lives. Those of us who have tendencies to avoid any kind of discomfort may be the most vulnerable. An individual with an avoidant attachment style has a tendency to disregard their own struggles and needs to maintain a sense of peace. Watch for these warning signs and if you believe these describe your coping strategy, it may be in your best interest to seek out professional help.

  • Little or no expression of sadness or sorrow for the loss
  • Rapid return to normal routines and no disruption
  • Dismissal of own needs and emotions
  • Over focus on self-reliance
  • Loss is not only compartmentalized it is dissociated from own experience
  • Negative physical symptoms or psychological symptoms worsen as time progresses

How to Respond When Someone You Know is Grieving

Some helpful tips for interacting with loved ones who are experiencing grief.

  1. Show them that you care by being present when needed.
  2. Refrain from giving advice. Listen and follow their lead.
  3. Sometimes when we see someone in pain, we are tempted to talk about our own suffering. These comparisons might lead your loved one to feel that their pain is being minimized.
  4. Be patient and allow for individuality and flexibility.
  5. Look for simple ways to serve them. A smile, a note, laughter, taking a walk, or making yourself available regularly allows for the connections to happen naturally and in their own time frame.

Helpful Resources

Some helpful resources for self-study:

  • The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller
  • The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully by Frank Ostaseski
  • Radical Compassion: Learning How to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN by Tara Brach 
  • When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron
  • The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron
  • It’s OK that you’re NOT OK by Megan Devine
  • A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  • On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kubler Ross
  • The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller
  • Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams 
  • Understanding Your Grief by Alan Wolfelt

Give yourself the gift of grace, compassion and kindness.  Give yourself the space to grieve.

At Achieve Family Therapy, we help our clients move through a three-stage process. We know the only way to heal is to feel.  We use an Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy model to assist our clients move from loss to growth and finally resilience. As therapists, our primary goal is to validate your experience and be curious with you about where you have become stuck, identify your fears and ask questions that lead you to shifts in your experiences with yourself and others. Through this process you will sometimes lead allowing yourself to be heard, seen and understood. At other times, you will follow the therapist who will guide you into new experiential experiences that overtime move you through a process that makes space for your grief, brings a new focus, acceptance and a new chapter where you are now not only living but thriving.

Getting Help for Your Grief

If you are ready now, to reach out for support please click the link below.

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