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Getting Through Grief – Part 1

5 Stages of Confusion

Loss is a complex and broad category of being that can encompass so many different aspects of our lives. Material loss occurs when we lose something tangible – our home, savings, or a cherished keepsake. Functional loss is when we lose our physical function due to an injury or illness. Intrapsychic is the loss of personal identity or belief system. And, of course, relationship loss is when we lose our close personal ties with other people through death or divorce.

In any type of loss, grief easily follows. While it is normal and even healthy to grieve the end of a relationship, grief can also be difficult to overcome. Especially when it finds you on the heels of a complex loss like that of a marriage that has ended. If not dealt with in a healthy and constructive way, grief can manifest in physical, emotional, and social ways.

The Five-ish Stages of Grief

One of the most important things to recognize, first, is that grief is a result of a significant emotional response. It is not the response of a logical one. As such, resolving and getting through grief must address your emotional needs. This leads to problem number one: other people will try and comfort you with logical responses to your grief.

For example, losing your unborn child to a miscarriage is an event which can cause grief, but most people might respond to that loss by saying something along the lines of “Don’t worry, it will be ok, you can try again when you’re ready.” Logically, this is true – life will be ok and things will move forward. You can try again when you’re ready. These are statements that, while factually true, are also completely devoid of emotional support. It is an irrelevant statement of fact that, depending on the phrasing, can even be belittling to the feeling of grief.

More effective emotional support will recognize how grief manifests itself, and find ways to address it directly.

If you’ve ever been exposed to any kind of media, you’ve probably been told about the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What you don’t know is that these stages aren’t actually applicable to grief at all – they’re actually specifically related to death and emotional responses of a person who is dying themselves. Even then, these stages were not a sequential process through which someone must go before they finally move through their grief, but it was a distilled way of adding language to the feelings that dying people had, but had previously been unable to express.

This emotional array translates poorly to people who are experiencing grief without their impending doom. Most people experiencing grief associated to a loss like the ones outlined above never go through denial, for example. People actively and readily acknowledge what the cause of their grief is – “My marriage is over,” “My dog died,” “We lost our home.” So, already, we’re starting from some place of acknowledgement as to the cause, and that can help key in on the support needed to move forward.

What We Can Expect

Remember, grief can manifest itself in physical, emotional, and social ways. Loss of appetite, feelings of profound sadness, poor sleep patterns, and erratic emotional swings. These are all normal things that people experience in their grief, but they don’t always occur, and they don’t always occur in the same way. Emotional responses to grief are specific to the circumstances of the loss. A person facing the loss of their marriage might feel anger at their partner of 20 years who was caught sleeping with someone else, but a person facing the loss of their marriage because it had simply run its course might simply feel sad (or even relieved). In both of these cases the loss is effectively the same, but the emotional response is not.

However, there is a reason why we cling so tightly to the nice and tidy boxes in which we can place our feelings with regard to the 5 stages – people like to have a name for things. To be certain, there is power in giving something a name. What a griever needs to focus on, though, is ensuring that the language they assign to their emotions is as accurate as possible. Classifying a feeling of betrayal as anger might not help resolve the underlying issue. One is a symptom of the other and not the cause.

Moving on from grief in an incomplete way, where only the symptoms of grief had been managed, can sabotage life going forward. Unresolved grief can be carried with us, embedded like little shards that scrape against our future relationships. When we don’t resolve our grief, especially because we didn’t fully understand it, we can find that we are less trusting, less open, and less able to move forward.

What The Goal Should Be

The words we use are important. Our language has direct influence on our psychology, from the way we view ourselves to the way we interact with the world. It is no different with grief. This is important, because it highlights a specific issue that people come to expect with their loss. Specifically, that there is an idea that we simply cannot get over or get through our grief. That we will always be permanently broken in some way by a loss. This is not true, and is a damaging artifact of misinformation that just makes its way through the world.

You can get over anything. You can get through grief. The issue is that we comingle desired outcomes because we incorrectly assign language and leave issues unresolved. We target the concept of permanence with our feelings of pain as they relate to loss, and in doing so, create a circumstance in which we believe we will always feel that way. When we shift our language, we shift our perspective. Instead of assigning the concept of permanence to the pain, we can assign permanence to the memory of what we lost, and all the positive emotions that are associated with it.

We can be reminded of the pieces that are painful, especially as anniversaries of the loss draw near, but not forgetting is not equitable to not being through the grief. When we occasionally recall the struggle, we sometimes can feel broken, but when we never forget the good moments, we can complete the relationship that we have with our loss and move forward to recovery from it.

Everything Will Be All Right

There is nothing wrong with grief. The problem we face is how we often find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with the issue. As common as grief is in the world, significant events causing grief are not the norm at the individual level. So, when we are faced with a divorce or some other traumatic event, we default back to our previous experiences and try to use the tools we already have to work through our feelings instead of exploring the possibility of new tools for the challenges we face now.

This can often result in prolonged and incomplete recovery. That’s not because you are defective or permanently broken, but simply that you face a new challenge and need to build the tools to tackle it.

Next time, Getting through Grief – Dealing With Our Loss.

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