Grief is a natural response to loss, particularly the death of a loved one. While primarily an emotional experience, it affects all layers of our being. Grief is “the total response of the organism to the process of change”. But our response is deeply associated with how we perceive the change. It’s important for us to distinguish between the circumstance and our response to it.
We naturally feel grief with any kind of loss, even the loss of car keys. But it more profoundly shows up around things like unemployment, even with more abstract things like loss of perceived role in society.
Grief tends to progress in stages. These days they describe:
1 – Shock and Denial
2 – Intense Concern – being absorbed in the loss
3 – Despair and Depression – the more challenging part where the emotions are more fully experienced
4 – Recovery – this is not the elimination of feelings but rather the reintegration with life
I’m not so sure this describes a healthy process where the trauma is being resolved. But it certainly may well be common.
An earlier, more well-known model from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is considered “untested”.
1 – denial
2 – anger
3 – bargaining
4 – depression
5 – acceptance
Either may describe someone’s experience better. Different people respond to grief in various ways. But acceptance is coming to a place of resolution unlike “recovery”, which is described more like resignation.
Bonanno described 4 “Trajectories” or degrees of adaptation to grief (see above link):
1 – Resilience: “The ability of adults in otherwise normal circumstances who are exposed to an isolated and potentially highly disruptive event, such as the death of a close relation or a violent or life-threatening situation, to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning” as well as “the capacity for generative experiences and positive emotions.”
2 – Recovery: When “normal functioning temporarily gives way to threshold or sub-threshold psychopathology (e.g., symptoms of depression or Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD), usually for a period of at least several months, and then gradually returns to pre-event levels.”
3 – Chronic dysfunction: Prolonged suffering and inability to function, usually lasting several years or longer.
4 – Delayed grief or trauma: When adjustment seems normal but then distress and symptoms increase months later. Researchers have not found evidence of delayed grief, but delayed trauma appears to be a genuine phenomenon.
In N. America, we’re cultured to repress feelings and avoid grief as a “bad” emotion. Real men don’t cry, etc. An example is that we have no word to translate saudade, a deep melancholic or nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone. It is described as bringing both sad emotions related to the loss and happy ones in memory of past shared experiences. In other words, it’s common for people to have a jumble of feelings from across the spectrum. There may not only be aversion to difficult feelings but we may also repress good feelings as somehow inappropriate.
By contrast, in Latin countries, grief is often openly expressed but is sometimes invested in. This is the opposite problem – making a big drama of it. It’s more healthy when we have mixed feelings as above – both sadness and happiness. And we allow whatever to arise to be there and release.
Berger identifies five styles of grieving (see above link):
– Nomads: “Nomads have not yet resolved their grief and do not seem to understand the loss that has affected their lives.” The aversion leaves them unsettled.
– Memorialists: “This identity is committed to preserving the memory of the loved one that they have lost.”
– Normalizers: “This identity is committed to re-creating a sense of family and community.”
– Activists: “This identity focuses on helping other people who are dealing with the same disease or with the same issues that caused their loved one’s death.”
– Seekers: “This identity will adopt religious, philosophical, or spiritual beliefs to create meaning in their lives.”
All of these can be unhealthy ways to avoid dealing with the trauma. Or they can be healthy ways for us to process the grief over time. The difference is in the avoidance -is it being processed, slowly but surely? Or mostly being avoided, distracting ourselves? We don’t need to confront it all right away. We need time to process. But if we give it that time and invest in healthy expressions, we’ll be much better off at the other end.
Grief fully allowed is a deep surrender that has a sublime quality to it. Intense but like a flavour on the surface of bliss. Felt, it opens the heart and allows the divine to be present with us. And then we discover we are never alone, always supported.
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