How to Process Grief and Loss
By Anthony Nave, LCSW, Regional Director of Outpatient Services at Mountainside
Why Do We Grieve?
Grief has had a lot of time in the spotlight lately. Many have experienced emotional pain due to the current struggles of the pandemic and greater awareness of historical social justice struggles, such as systemic racism, the #MeToo movement, and the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ civil rights. There has also been more attention given to it in pop culture, thanks to shows such as WandaVision. During times of crisis, being able to reframe grief can help us to find the positive opportunities that can arise from seemingly bleak circumstances.
A statement that has stuck out to me when studying grief, and one I often share with clients is, “Grief is both unique to every individual, and also universal for everyone.” What is often confusing when it comes to grief is that there are social norms that put timelines on how long someone can grieve, or stigmatize what someone is allowed to mourn.
Different Types of Grief
Grief, like all emotions, is on a spectrum and felt at different intensities based on a variety of experiences, ranging from the death of a loved one, loss of lifestyle from physical injuries or illness, separation or divorce, loss of employment, new phase in life, or even your favorite team losing the big game. Grief – after all these types of experiences and more – is normal. When society does not feel our grief is valid or socially acceptable, professionals identify this as disenfranchised grief.
In addition to disenfranchised grief, other factors or layers such as how suddenly a death or loss occurs, type of relationship we had with who died or what was lost, and if the experience of death or loss was traumatic can lead to complicated grief. A professional looking to assess if more clinical support is needed or whether to start identifying the pain as complicated grief is going to look more at the ability of an individual to perform their daily tasks for living, and whether they can maintain healthy relationships.
Although society or even professionals will try and use time as a factor to understand if someone is experiencing grief versus complicated grief, duration is not as important compared to how much grief is impacting our ability to function daily. Ultimately, grief is lifelong, and our relationship with grief and intensity can evolve in a healthy process.
How Do We Live with Grief?
When working with clients or discussing grief in clinical groups, I often use a model called the Four Tasks of Mourning, by Dr. Joseph Worden, and try to help clients understand it is not necessarily stages but tasks that we will experience or accomplish in our grieving process. The experience of these Four Tasks allows us to integrate and have a comfortable relationship with our grief that will help us, as individuals, to achieve growth post-death or loss.
The Four Tasks of Mourning are:
- Accept the reality of the loss
- Process the pain of grief
- Adjust to a world without the deceased (or what was lost)
- Find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life
These tasks do not have to be achieved in order or worked on separately. In a healthy grieving process, they just need to be achieved overall.
The “how” to accomplish these tasks is done in a variety of ways and is unique to everyone. Some may be struggling with complicated grief and may need the support of a clinician to experience these tasks, while others may be able to navigate these steps through their current support network.
Use Direct Language
In general, a good start is to use direct language, because words have power. Often, we feel it is easier to use language such as “pass away,” “lost,” or “moved on” when someone has died. However, these types of words have a subconscious message that we cannot have an enduring emotional relationship or connection to who has died or what has been “lost.” Using words such as “died” or “death” helps us to accept the reality of the true loss, which is the loved one is not physically here, but emotionally they are still with us and our relationship is evolving.
Being accepting of our pain is another intervention, and making time and space to mourn throughout our routine is helpful in experiencing the pain of grief. This can be done by carrying on traditions of our loved ones in our current relationships, cooking and eating their favorite meals, remembering favorite songs, creating memory books, living out their bucket list of experiences for them, and even continuing to talk to our loved ones who have died. These types of rituals will continue to various degrees throughout our life span. We should also utilize emotional supports from our current relationships, using direct language, to share not only feelings of grief but also the secondary losses we have experienced from the original death or loss.
This expressed awareness of the secondary loss, our ability to adapt to it, and the experience of being present in our current relationships for support helps make space for recognition of post-death or loss growth. This process leads to complete tasks, such as learning to live without the deceased or the loss, and embarking on a new journey in life while maintaining enduring relationships with loved ones who have died or lifestyles lost. Grief is not an emotion to be fixed or rescued from. It is an experience that will lead to new, evolved relationships with those who died, with what was lost, with current and new connections, and with ourselves. It is a normal process that we all experience.