Grief Therapy: Coping with Loss

Loss: the one thing we all have in common.

It is also the one thing we often find so difficult to talk about on both individual and social levels. In fact, it could be said that the thriving antiaging industry (beauty products, the latest health fads, etc.) is a direct societal response to underlying conflicts about aging and loss: that which we ultimately cannot control. Anyone skimming the covers of magazines at the airport would be left with some impression that ours is a society invested in concealing and preventing the effects of aging and loss. Even the social media craze is brought to us by endless photos of desires to capture and preserve our best features, happiest moments, and/or most perfect image.

This phenomenon, however, is not new; since the beginning of human time, we have been mystified and troubled by loss in some capacity. And while certain cultures do indeed respond to aging/loss much differently than I have described thus far, ours is a culture that tends to live in fear of loss and manage its collective anxiety by doing everything we can to feel alive and far away from the inevitable. What does this mean for us? In short, it means than when loss does hit, it tends to hit hard.

Culture aside, every one of us responds and reacts to loss in our own unique way. There is no particular right way to grieve; the most important part is that we do it – that we allow ourselves the time and space to experience our way through the grieving process. It is important to remember that while society may have timelines and guidelines for grieving, loss is an extremely intimate experience that cannot easily fit into standardized stages of grief or predetermined periods of time. Grief is hard enough without the added pressure to somehow conform and do it the so-called right way.

But how do you know if you’re actually grieving, or what if it feels like you should be through it by now? Those are questions that therapy can help answer. Whatever that answer might be, therapy changes grief, as the therapeutic relationship becomes a place and space where grief is openly welcomed, shared, and understood between two people engaged in process that seeks to transform pain into something more manageable. As I previously mentioned in my writing on trauma therapy, I have found that the therapeutic relationship itself is often the “best medicine” for effective pain management during the course of the therapeutic process.

Many types of loss exist. Here are some examples:

Loss of a person

· what we usually think of when we think of loss

· a loss of a known person, someone who has existed to us and others

· when there is no literal person to mourn (no body to grieve for example), loss becomes ambiguous and hard to claim

Loss of an idealized version of a person

· a psychological loss – grief associated with the realization that a living person will never be the kind of person you have     been longing for them to be

Loss of love

· a psychological loss – feeling unloved by someone; feeling the loss of someone’s love and affection, feeling a general        sense of being unlovable

Loss of some aspect of oneself

· a psychological loss – feeling loss related to one’s sense of self and identity; feeling incomplete, empty, and/or in need,      also like something might be missing or about to become lost

Loss of safety and/or security

· can take external (outside world) or internal (psychological) forms

Loss of dreams for the future

· a psychological loss – grief specific to what someone had spent time hoping for in the future: kids, family, partner, career    success, etc.

Loss of something unknown but otherwise felt in some fashion (possibly in the form of depression)

· a psychological loss – not all forms of loss are conscious or known to the person struggling

Loss of self associated with something unacknowledged or unrecognized by others

· a psychological loss – the experience of grief when others dismiss or ignore something that has caused so much pain       (e.g., having someone dismiss the loss associated with being abused or assaulted: the loss of the traumatized self)

Loss of reality or reality testing

As you can see from this list, there is nothing simple or easy about loss and grief. In fact, it is often quite complicated and holds many psychological implications. Loss is hard enough when we do know who or what we are grieving; it is particularly difficult when we are responding to a sense of loss without conscious awareness. Then we are searching… searching for something meaningful yet amorphous (connection, reunification, reconstitution, completeness, closure, etc.) Take, for example, a person severely struggling with a closed adoption scenario. As if a twin separated from itself at birth, this adopted individual is left with the seemingly insurmountable task of recognizing, identifying, formulating, and integrating the lost self (who could have been) with the known self (who came to be). It may appear in the form of nostalgia and/or melancholia, as if manifesting as an intractable longing for or mourning of something missing yet unidentifiable.

It is also human nature to want to hold onto something or someone for as long as possible if we are about to lose them. Problems arise when our sorrow becomes indistinguishable from the person we’ve lost. Sometimes we hold onto pain as if it represents the last viable connection to our loved one. In other words, it comes to feel like we must hold onto the pain as a way to keep holding onto the person, almost as if a direct connection somehow remains through the channel of our pain. Likewise, some are so overcome with pain/grief that they lose themselves in that pain and unconsciously begin to identify or merge with their lost loved one psychologically. This type of unconscious reunion generally creates a very debilitating kind of depression.

Ultimately and understandably, we are afraid of what it means to lose somebody (to experience loss) and often find it intolerable to think about the societal concept of letting go. Why would we want to let go of something we love? What does that even mean? Is there another way to think about it? The short answer is yes, and in therapy, we will work to find alternative ways of connecting and relating so that pain and sorrow are not the only means to cope with loss. Therapy does not turn away from your pain or dismiss it as being too much or too little or too something in-between. Nor does it ask you to hurry up and get rid of it or cover it up. Rather, our work allows us to begin caring for and tending to your pain in manageable therapeutic doses that facilitate the grieving and healing processes.

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