Grief doesn’t just come from the death of someone you know. Intangible or ambiguous losses can affect us just as much. Let’s take a deeper dive into what grief is and how you may experience it.
We often associate grief with losing a loved one, but we can feel grief from many types of losses.
You could consider the loss experiences that continue throughout our lives in different forms as living losses, because they require us to adjust to their ongoing presence in our lives.
While grief is painful, it’s an adaptive process that allows us the chance to rebuild our world after a significant loss. This process allows us to integrate losses into our life’s narrative, to heal, and to move forward. Being able to do so isn’t a sign of pathology or illness.
Loss is what we go through when something happens, and we know things will never be the same.
We all have an image in our head of the world, which includes our thoughts and beliefs, how we think the world should work, and how we view ourselves in it. When we experience loss, it often shatters our worldview.
Imagine a shattered piece of glass. You can attempt to put it back together, but it will never look the same again.
Grief is a natural process that allows us to work through our emotions so that we can move on.
When we experience any change, we’re moving away from what we know towards something unknown. This inevitably comes with feelings of loss, whether we chose the change, or see it as a positive or a negative.
The most obvious form of loss is the death of someone we know, but there are more intangible forms of loss that we can experience, such as the loss of:
It can be difficult to articulate losses which don’t involve death, because as a society, we have fewer rituals associated with them. This can make it harder to work through our emotions.
Ambiguous loss happens in relationships when someone is physically present but emotionally and/or psychologically distant. An example of this is caring for someone with dementia, an addiction, emotional distancing, or workaholism.
It can also refer to the loss of someone physically, when there’s still a strong psychological or emotional presence. For example, when someone you love leaves or isn’t available to you, non-custodial parental loss of a child, or birth parents of an adopted child.
These losses lack a sense of clarity. This can lead to confusion about what’s been lost, leaving someone experiencing it feeling frozen in grief.
The key elements of these types of intangible loss include disenfranchisement, a lack of acknowledgement, and a lack of meaningful rituals to mark these losses.
The social network of someone going through this may withdraw, or do nothing, leaving those going through loss feeling isolated and alone.
It’s important we recognise that loss takes many forms, and we help people to name their losses. Naming their losses can help people to work through the grieving process.
One of the biggest challenges we face is that we’re wired for attachment and connection in a world that’s characterised by impermanence. How we navigate that is often challenging and painful.
Grief may be a shared experience, and something everyone faces at some point in their life, but there’s no “normal” way to grieve.
Each of us grieves in our own way. And there’s no set timescale for how long grief takes.
Some people will need to talk through their emotions. Others will choose to keep busy and work through their feelings by doing something to help them make sense of their new world.
Grief can come with feelings of anxiety, anger, deep sorrow and sadness, numbness, and confusion.
It’s also common to experience physical responses such as insomnia, nausea, muscle aches and pains, and headaches as the emotions connected with grief work their way through the body.
Healing and integrating our losses can be a slow process which doesn’t always happen in a straight line.
You may not experience all the stages, but you may go through:
This is a refusal or difficulty in accepting the situation. Sometimes this is necessary, because we may not have access to the inner resources to see things as they are when we feel overwhelmed or distressed.
It’s understandable to feel angry when our world is shattered. Anger and frustration may also arise because underneath, we feel frightened and alone.
Anger may give us the energy to keep going, but, ultimately, it can impact us in many negative ways. It’s important to find ways to process anger and direct it in meaningful and productive ways.
The bargaining stage is one way our brains try to avoid the new reality. It can involve negotiating with a higher power, feelings of guilt, or asking “what if” questions.
You may also feel a sense of responsibility, like if you hadn’t said one thing, something else wouldn’t have happened.
This stage, often seen as the final stage, is about being able to move forward while still carrying the loss. Although it may occupy less space and time in your life, it’s still a part of you in a way that you can manage and honour.
Working through loss and grief can leave us feeling isolated and alone. There isn’t a simple cure to this.
Compassion can help us make space, and hold the difficult feelings we experience, during the grieving process.
It’s important to remember that grief is a shared human experience, one we can work through with the support and help of others, so that we can reclaim our lives and move forwards.
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