DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 5: GRIEF
Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. Today, we will look at a mental health issue that will likely be faced by every human on earth at some point of life: grief.
TOPIC OF THE MONTH
“Behind every beautiful thing, there has been some kind of pain”
Grief is perhaps one of the single most mysterious and misunderstood facets of human life. Inevitable and daunting, it is also perhaps one of the greatest driving factors behind what makes us our fullest selves.
THE INITIAL 3 THINGS TO CONSIDER ABOUT GRIEF
There are a few things that I like to begin with whenever I am personally or professionally working with grief:
The first and perhaps paramount understanding of loss may simply be that the end result of grief is not restoration, it is acceptance of a changed reality. One of the most common interpretations of successfully processing grief can be described as “everything going back to normal”, but this in itself is creating a barrier to full processing. As grief comes from loss, we are essentially looking to adjust our life to a world that no longer includes what was once there, and part of acceptance is understanding that trying to “return” is therefore not possible. A better way to put this interpretation of successful processing may be “accepting and enjoying life in our new normal”.
The second is understanding that there is no “correct” way to grieve–
grief has no expected presentation and everyone grieves differently. While we expect people to show a very stereotypically sad or depressed affect in response to grief, the evidence-based truth is that grief has perhaps the widest range of responses amongst all mental health conditions. Certainly sadness and depressive feelings are in this mix, but other grief responses include denial, anxiety, guilt, anger, and somatic physical manifestations. Grief can also surprisingly present in more positive ways such as relief, excitement, and even sexual arousal in occasional cases. And while all of these have underlying psychological roots that can make sense of why we may present in certain ways, we also cannot truly know how ourselves or others will respond to grief until we experience it.
Lastly, it is important to understand that our grief will most often be put on the “emotional backburner”. What I mean here is that many of our feelings of grief will be trumped by current worries, anxieties, and priorities. While this is partially due to a very hectic world that realistically stops for not even the most extreme personal issues, it is not uncommon for humans to try and use these other issues as distractions to the raw grieving feelings as well. It is crucial to remember that unprocessed grief may be the root of many unsolved feelings and newfound challenges in life following a loss event.
5 COMMON GRIEF MISCONCEPTIONS
1. Grief exclusively happens in extreme and traumatic loss
Usually when we say the word “grief” to describe a feeling, we are referring to a sizable loss. But the concept of grief can also be seen at a micro level: for every fun weekend, great day, or even just especially enjoyable interaction that we have, the natural cascade of life necessitates a reflective period of mourning once this is over. The melancholy feeling that occurs following any strong positive emotional experience ending is indeed also grief, we just experience it in a way that we can more easily process and understand it.
2. The Kübler-Ross “5 stages of grief” model is law
Perhaps the most commonly known progression of grief is to look at the “5 stages model” proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, typically seen in a linear fashion of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. While these are all completely valid and common responses to grief, the idea that we will experience them in this exact order is misleading and can lead to confusion, frustration, or insecurity that grief is not being processed “correctly” when we inevitably do not.
3. Grief has a set timeline or presentation
But time heals all wounds!
My personal take on this is that processing heals all wounds, but a timeline should be the first thing to go out of the proverbial window of expectation. There is no way to even try to predict how long one can expect to grieve, and acceptance of this reality is a great way to begin the grieving process. An interesting cultural example would be the Jewish tradition of sitting Shiva, which requires the immediate family of a late loved one to remain at home for a set amount of time with others bringing them necessities and comfort while processing the loss. This can be seen as a good model for how we can actively work towards accepting that we will need time to process such an overwhelming change, and emulates a healthy understanding of the gravity of grief. To look at another micro-level example, we often need time to realize how much we appreciated past experiences or friendships, and may feel a “longing for the good old days” or that we “don’t know what we have until it’s gone”. These can again be seen as mild forms of grief, and seem to be a universally common human experience.
4. Grief stops impact once processed
It is important to stay mindful that we never really know if we are going to feel the pangs of grief at any given point after the initial event. While we certainly can get to a plateau where grief has been fully processed to the extent of which it can be processed, that does not mean that we are immune to grief-related emotions at any point down the road. This can create discomfort and self-doubt that grief was fully processed, which can be alleviated through reframing these “regressions” as just a natural part of the experience. As we will cover soon, secondary losses can also occur long after the initial loss has been successfully grieved.
5. Grief around people is more significant than grief around anything else
Loss of animals, life circumstances, and more abstract situations can certainly be as (or more) impactful than loss of people in our lives. How we react to a loss is going to be directly connected to our attachment and involvement, and we can develop strong bonds with almost any person, animal, thing, or even concepts and activities. The importance of the loss is what most determines our reactions, and this extends far beyond just interpersonal relationships.
5 UNCOMMON PERCEPTIONS ON GRIEF
1. Going back to those unexpected grief reactions…
The psychological function of grief can be hypothesized as a tool for our brains to reconfigure reality in a way that will accommodate what was lost, and to do this requires heavy and often subconscious processing of the emotions that have arisen from the loss. While negative emotions likely seem self-explanatory, we may also process less obvious feelings such as ambivalence around our own mortality or emotions that we may feel guilty for (ex: relief from a burden that was personally shouldered leading up to a loved one’s death). People may feel true joy to see the end of someone’s suffering, people may feel true excitement to see a loss force them into a completely new life situation. Reactions to grief are truly erratic and unpredictable, sometimes even bizarre. One of my personal favorite examples to highlight this: it is a phenomenon across cultures worldwide to see people jump on the casket as it is being lowered down into the grave, with those individuals reporting the action to bring them profound significance and closure.
And I won’t leave you hanging: the best theory on the why the impulse/ sexual promiscuity response to grief exists (around death, at least) is that it happens in reaction to facing the fragility of life and wanting to engage in behaviors that make us feel more alive. Easier said than done, but hopefully these examples help to reduce judgment when it comes to grief! Because...
2. The easiest grief to judge can often be our own
Expanding upon the potential for unexpected responses, it can be very easy to judge our own reactions to grief. We will likely have the urge to compare grief to other situations; perhaps in rationalization by downplaying a situation compared to much more traumatic events, but perhaps in resentment when highlighting how much more difficult our situation feels than another. If we approach grief with a neutral and accepting attitude, we can more easily allow ourselves to process the loss in a way that will best accommodate ourselves. We may feel guilty for feeling relief, cold for feeling less emotions than expected, overreacting for feeling more. There is truly no correct way to grieve, and experiencing unexpected reactions is likely due to feelings that we didn’t realize we had or comparison to a personal bias we are not acknowledging.
3. How and when loss occurs is a large factor in grief
When considering the concept of closure as an important gateway towards acceptance, we must also remember that loss accompanied with other severe negative emotions is unfortunately more painful and complex, making things significantly more difficult to process. When grief accompanies other emotions such as ambivalence, vengeance, resentment (or similar stong, unjust emotions), we are vulnerable to conflate these two and create a very uncomfortable emotional space. Especially in situations where the cause of the loss is and may remain unknown, closure may need to be reframed over a long period of processing and understanding, and kindness towards self may be a challenge to retain when tasked with trying to code two profoundly powerful negative emotions at the same time. Age and mental state are also factors, as well as how we received the news of the loss. It is important to remember that in addition to everyone processing grief in a personal way, complex grief will be inherently more difficult to process due to the injustice of the situation.
4. Secondary Loss can be more traumatic than the primary loss
Unfortunately, but I promise for sake of proactive awareness, we must also consider that the loss of something or someone may just be the initial impact on a series of other areas of separate grief. A few examples of secondary loss would be the loss of a grandparent leading to grieving holidays without that grandparent and with the emotions of everyone adjusting, losing friendships due to estrangement, losing life goals due to a divorce or breakup, loss of our security due to loss of a job, etc. Secondary loss can compound with the primary loss, and this can result in painful emotions. We can even take this literally and look at the psychology of how impactful a single loss can be in sports, leading to a losing streak, creating a ‘mental block’ against that opponent, hurting team morale– it is important to keep a watchful eye for secondary impacts from initial grief.
5. Grief is a positive experience in the long run
But as C.S. Lewis once stated, “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” As much as we can expect death and taxes, we can also expect grief. With something so inevitable, we would be remiss to ignore that it is grief which makes us grow more than perhaps anything else, especially after the brain has finished developing at 25 when plasticity requires more effort. Much like depression can be seen as a function for the brain to reconfigure current perceptions for better adaptation, grief can be seen as a function to better understand our truest life goals, desires, needs, and pathways in a way that may be more effective than anything else we experience. If necessity is the mother of invention, loss may therefore be the mother of change. The power of embracing grief for enhanced life clarity is a strong and effective method, but perhaps unintuitively requires long periods of suffering through uncomfortable emotional processing. While there are unfortunate cases of unprocessed and repressed grief leading to a lifetime of negative impact, grief is also perhaps the most powerful growing experience that a human can encounter.
A FEW METHODS FOR WORKING WITH GRIEF
Of course, grief is always going to have a better chance for understanding and processing when seeking mental health services to assist the process. Here are just three of many ways that I feel can be particularly helpful in processing grief
THE 5 VIEWS ON DEATH
An important facet to consider when observing our own grief is to view our own perceptions of death. The most helpful way that I have found to organize this connection is to see where one falls on the spectrum of viewing death, and connecting that to how one might be feeling about the loss that is being grieved:
Death anxious: death is not the end- consciousness will risk going to worse place, guilt/sadness/negative emotion will still remain of loved ones left and impact from own death, or unsettled ambivalence on what happens after death
Death anxious: death is the end- there is nothing following death, and therefore life is even more precious, valuable, and fragile.
Death neutral- death is inevitable and out of one’s control, there is no value in thinking about it
Death accepting: death is the end- there is nothing following death, and this is peaceful relief from the struggles of life.
Death accepting: death is not the end- consciousness will continue on by one means or another to neutral or better reality
How we view the concept of what happens after death may have an especially strong influence when grieving the loss of others, and may also have an impact on how we respond to loss in general. Noting what we believe may be insightful to sorting these feelings.
PRIORITIZING SELF IN GRIEVING
Seeking individual therapy in response to grief may be most effective for prioritizing self. We will face a slew of personal emotions with grief, but in many cases we will also be dealing with the grief and influence of the others who are impacted as well. It can be very easy to try and rationalize grief away, focus on helping others, or simply ignore what we need to fully heal and process in these times, but it is very important that we keep ourselves centered. We cannot pour from an empty cup, and seeking therapy is a good way to make sure that we are processing our own grief for best results in interacting with others.
GROUP THERAPY OPTIONS
For more intensive or prolonged grief– or just based on individual preference of social therapy methods– group therapy may be the most effective way to process. Specific traumatic losses such as death of a spouse, impact of disaster, or significant body injury that changes reality may find solidarity in discussing their grief with others in similar situations, and those feeling isolated from their grief may find comfort in having a support network. Those feeling stuck in grief can gain new perspectives by listening to others’ stories, but it is also important to remember that individual healing may still be a better option for many cases of grief, and should always be supplementing group therapy in the rest.
And so when considering all of these facets of grief, it may not be too difficult to see how we get so confused with how to react. Grief is a very complex beast which becomes interwoven with all of our day-to-day troubles, and will often try its hardest to upwell all of the insecurities and latent issues that we may have not addressed. And that is still underselling the powerful effects that it can have on us as humans– this whole process is largely happening subconsciously and frequently can result in unlabeled bad feelings that further divert processing. The catch-22 of grief symptoms becoming a barrier to full grief processing is certainly a challenge, but may also give us insight into how the process can become so life-changing.
When we learn to manage grief effectively, we gain many new layers to ourselves emotionally, mentally, and perhaps even spiritually. The more adversity that we personally experience, the more empathy that we are able to attain for others. The tenacity and adaptability that we develop through the processing of grief is one of the strongest characteristics that we can build upon, and may make us emboldened to take on larger challenges once we harness the power of these resiliencies.
Grief is sure to stick around for life– and that simply tells us not only that this loss had great and valid meaning to our lives, but also that we are a very tough species which is able to grow from the experience without forgetting it entirely.
WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH
Next month, Nick will give an overview of group dynamics, which view human psychology not just as individuals but as a conglomeration of many different parts working in unison.
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