Loss and bereavement – how should I be feeling by now?
“Given the time that has gone by, is my reaction normal?”
“After what has happened how should I be feeling?”
“Are these tears normal?”
Why am I so angry!
These and many similar questions are often raised by clients in the therapy room who have suffered a loss. The most obvious example of loss that we will probably all encounter at some time is bereavement but there are many other instances when we may be affected by loss. The ending of a relationship, sudden dismissal or redundancy from the workplace, the failure to achieve a cherished ambition or even the moving away to a new neighbourhood, are all the type of events which can evoke feelings of loss albeit with different levels of intensity.
The ways in which therapists support clients in dealing with loss vary considerably. Nevertheless there are discernible approaches which have evolved over time.
One well known approach involves working with the so called stages of loss. This strategy suggests that irrespective of the exact nature of the loss suffered, each of us will move through similar stages during our grieving process. Therapists may attach different labels to each of these stages but common descriptors can include denial, desolation and acceptance. Rather than just working with these various stages or steps I prefer to see this approach as describing a continuous curve with different phases which we may move along as we start to work through the loss episode.
A more recent approach to dealing with loss is to consider our reactions as constantly oscillating as we move into and out of the shadow of the loss. One moment there may be physical tears and then sudden nervous laughter which can seem so inappropriate. One moment we appear to be moving forward and then we suddenly slip back into a difficult emotional place
My approach is to try to bring these and other ideas together. All may have relevance and can be seen as complementary rather than presenting as specific alternatives.
For example there would indeed appear to be distinct stages of grief which are common to most people. Although it may be a cliché, it is clear that the passage of time does impact on how we feel as we move through these stages. The rawness of the loss is likely to fade as years go by. The sharpness of the pain becomes duller over time. Yet that change in the intensity of pain is not a steady progression. We may oscillate and move back and forward along that pain index perhaps within the same day and not just the same week or month.
The challenge for the therapist and client is to recognise and if appropriate, to explore the unique nature of each painful loss situation. There are no right or wrong emotions to feel at a time of loss. We will all be affected in different ways.
For example the death of an aged grandparent may be seen by one person as the sad but inevitable closing of a long life well lived; whilst another may view the same loss with absolute desolation as an irreplaceable contact with someone loved and respected, is abruptly lost for ever.
We will have different views of what is important in life. Those differences will find expression in the various ways in which a loss is perceived. The death of a pet can be seen by some parents as an example of the natural cycle of life and one which presents an opportunity for a young person to learn about the inevitability of loss. Alternatively the loss of the pet can be felt and acknowledged by the young person as an incredibly painful tear in the very fabric of life at a time when life itself seems fraught. The observation made by a spouse to a partner who is struggling to cope with the impact of a sudden redundancy that ‘it seems that you loved your job more than you ever loved me’ may be seen by the one who has lost the work role as an accusatory and harsh reaction to very real loss; whilst the speaker may feel that they are offering the comments in a spirit of empathetic understanding.
The reality is that we will all react in different ways to painful events whether this is the ending of that love affair, the unwelcome receipt of a redundancy notice or the death of a relative. We will have developed over time our own unique approach to dealing with loss and have evolved a personal level of resilience.
Loss is a natural consequence of life. We will usually be able to manage the impact of loss using those emotional tools which we have developed throughout our lives. These have become a natural part of our way of being and of seeing the world. Sometimes however our resilience may not be enough. Our defences may crumble and that may be when counselling could be considered.
Therapy can step in when our natural way of being fails to resolve the issue. When grief persists beyond a time that seems appropriate, when emotions such as anger or guilt remain to crowd our view of the world and when we seem destined to remain frozen in the painful moment of loss, perhaps then it is time to look for some professional support.
The sample questions that I set out at the beginning of this note such as “how should I be feeling” and “is this reaction normal” are perfectly understandable questions to be asked at a time of loss.
If however these questions keep reoccurring and the answers remain elusive, that may be an indication that a different approach is needed. It could be then that discussions with an experienced accredited therapist or counsellor may prove to be helpful and an appropriate next step in the grieving process.