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Volume 13, Number 3

Grief: a Path to Healing and to Honouring Our Losses

When her mother died, Gina was heartbroken but satisfied that they had said their goodbyes sadly but fondly. Two years later, Gina finds herself surprised by her rather frequent tearfulness. "Shouldn't I be over this by now?"

For six months, Lloyd has been looking for a job. Though he never considered it his dream job, Lloyd realizes that he not only misses his former work and its pay cheque, but also the relationships with his colleagues. He would like to reconnect with two colleagues but does not because he is embarrassed that he has not yet found a new job.

Besides being confronted by the business of their day-to-day lives, Gina and Lloyd are caught up somewhere in the throes of grief. Like most people, they have some general notions about the universal experience of grief. But also like most grieving people, they would benefit if a few key points about grieving were brought to their attention.

Basic points about grief:

  1. Grief is normal. Whenever we experience loss, we also experience grief.
  2. No matter what causes grief and no matter how it is expressed, it is important that all of grief's components - denial, anger, sadness, fear, and acceptance - be recognized as normal and healthy.  This means that rather than seeing denial, for example, as undesirable, we need to understand how it acts as a sensor, allowing us to take in just as much information about the loss, so we can manage and cope. As denial does its work and we gradually take in more and more information, we gain a deeper sense of the loss. And, the more we realize the depth of the loss, the more we will feel other components of grief - sadness, anger, and fear.
  3. Grieving is not an orderly step-by-step process but more a "meandering through". Even when we have come to experience a certain acceptance of the loss, we can expect some seesawing between and among the emotional components of grief.
  4. Acceptance is an enormously important part of grieving. It is critical to understand that acceptance does not mean approval of the loss but rather means facing the various aspects of the loss and coming to some peace. People benefit by reminding themselves that they can and will arrive at some peaceful terms with their losses. They are helped by telling themselves that it is okay to resume social and recreational activities - to go to movies, to play sports - while they are grieving. 
  5. It is important for anyone attempting to offer support to let the grieving person take the lead and to avoid trying to humour or in other ways distract the person through the grief process.
  6. Grief takes as long as it needs to take. The enormity of the loss, the quality of support the person receives, and the person's knowledge of himself or herself, as well as the person's level of awareness of the intricacies of the grieving process, can all contribute to make a difference to grief's duration.

What about complicated grief?

Two ways that grieving becomes complex are: a) grief is present but is unrecognized (disenfranchised loss); b) the person does not have enough knowledge about the grieving process.

Lloyd's job loss reflects a case of disenfranchised loss that by definition occurs when loss is sustained without the community or even the individual recognizing it as loss. Often this type of loss is framed as something other than loss: a family member gets caught committing a crime; one's lover leaves; cessation of a regular pay cheque; retirement; illness - physical and mental illness. Because disenfranchised losses are not accompanied by established rituals (e.g., gatherings, burial services, messages of condolence), it is critically important once the loss is recognized that the person finds a way to honour his/her grief in a meaningful way. Writing poems, placing a bouquet of flowers somewhere special, writing letters to the lost one, and spending dedicated quiet time are among the ways people have found to honour disenfranchised grief.

When people like Gina have little knowledge of grief's dynamics, they can complicate their experience by giving themselves miscues; e.g., "I should not still be crying!"; "I should not be angry about any of this." By dint of wrong messages, grief is thwarted from what otherwise would be a healthy healing process.

Tips on Managing Grief:

  • No matter what type of loss has occurred, recognize grief as a normal reaction.
  • Understand grief as the process of coming to terms with a loss. Review some of the known facts about this process.
  • To resolve complicated grief, take steps to grieve constructively. Seek support. Have more than one supporter. People who do not have the time to listen or are always trying to change the subject may care about you but probably are not the best when it comes to supporting you through your grief. Give serious consideration to joining a bereavement group.
  • If you would you like to talk to a mental health professional about your grief, contact the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at 1-800-268-7708 or for TDD at 1-800-567-5803.

Remember:
The object is to engage in grief consciously and constructively. Though this takes work, the effort promises the reward of knowing that it is okay to express grief and that in doing so we honour ourselves and our losses.

Virginia Lafond, MSW, RSW
Author of Grieving Mental Illness: A Guide for Patients and Their Caregivers. (2nd Edition: 2002; University of Toronto Press.) Dec. 31, 2004

If you are dealing with grief or experiencing other difficulties in your life and would like to talk to a professional, contact our 24-hour service at 1-800-268-7708 or, for the hearing impaired, dial 1-800-567-5803