Grief is the acute pain that accompanies loss. It is deep, because it reflects what we love, and it can feel all-encompassing. Grief can follow the loss of a loved one, but it is not limited to the loss of people; it can follow the loss of a treasured animal companion, the loss of a job or other important role in life, or the loss of a home or of other possessions of significant emotional investment. And it often occurs after a divorce.
Grief is complex; it obeys no formula and has no set expiration date. A number of experts say there are clear stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I think it is safe to say that grief is a highly individualized emotion and not everyone will grieve the same way.
Grief is sometimes compounded by feelings of guilt and confusion over a loss, especially if the relationship was difficult. Some individuals experience prolonged grief or complicated grief, which can last months or years. Without help and support, such grief can lead to isolation and chronic loneliness.
Many of the symptoms of grief overlap with those of depression. There is sadness, and often the loss of capacity for pleasure; insomnia; and loss of interest in eating or taking care of oneself. But the symptoms of grief do tend to lessen over time, although they may be temporarily reactivated by important anniversaries or at any time by thoughts or reminders of the loss. Unlike depression, though, grief does not usually impair one’s sense of self-worth.
I lost a very good friend about a week ago. I met him for the first time about 1982 and we were casual acquaintances for a long time. But about four years ago we reconnected through a major case of serendipity. We both got old and ended up in the same senior living community much to our surprise. Books, conversation and reminiscing, cats, and new friends became our new way of living. Life was good and we became real friends.
Because grief obeys its own timetable, there is no timer for feelings of pain after loss; nor is it possible to diminish or avoid the suffering. In fact, attempts to suppress or deny my grieving for Walter is likely to extend the lifetime of the pain and require so much effort that there is little energy or room left. So, I am dealing with it.
Grief has its value: It reminds us what we care about and I truly cared for Walter. Some cultures embrace death, dying, grief, and loss like they are simply a part of life; they see no need to suppress or deny the pain. Customs and practices of grieving can be elaborate and entrenched in tradition, most of which eases suffering to some degree.
The word grief has come to be understood solely as a reaction to a death. But that narrow understanding fails to encompass the range of human experiences that create and trigger grief. Here are four types of grief that we experience which have nothing to do with death:
Hopes and dreams (expectations) often go awry. Most of us walk around with a vision of how our lives will play out and how we expect the world to operate. When life events violate our expectations, we often experience a deep sense of grief and unfairness.
Identity loss occurs when a person loses a primary sense of self. They’re tasked with grieving who they thought they were and eventually creating a new story that integrates the loss into who they have become. Their identity feels stolen, as in the cases of the person who feels blindsided by divorce and or a breast cancer survivor. For those individuals, the grief may feel compounded by the lack of control they had in the decision.
The lost sense of physical, emotional, and mental well-being often creates feelings of anxiety and hypervigilance. We should feel safe in our homes, our communities, and our relationships. The lost sense of safety, be it physical (after a break-in) or emotional (after an affair), can make a person’s world feel distinctly unsafe. Symptoms of lost safety may include a sense of hypervigilance even in the absence of danger or numbness. For survivors of trauma, violence, and instability, that feeling of internal safety may feel hard to restore, even if circumstances stabilize. In addition to healing from the trauma, the individual is tasked with grieving the lost sense of safety and learning to rebuild it.
The inability to properly manage one’s life cuts to the core of every person’s need to be in control of themselves. Loss of autonomy triggers grief over the struggle to maintain a sense of self. In cases of illness and disability, lost autonomy (and often lost identity) marks every step they take. New forms of decline invite grief for their lost independence and ability to function. Grieving those losses and reconceptualizing who they are in the face of these limitations is incredibly difficult for most people. In many cases this realization accelerates the decline and the will to live dissipates. I think this may have happened to my dear friend.
Loss of expectations, identity, safety, and autonomy are all losses that warrant a sense of grief. Grief as a framework can help each of us work through a moment of chaos with the gentleness we give a mourner. My grief for Walter is being replaced by the joy of his memory and by his cat, Charlie. This cat chose Walter as his companion several years ago as a week-old kitten scrounging for life. As was his custom, Walter took him in, loved him, cared for him and was a good friend. Charlie now lives with me as an acceptable substitute until he and Walter meet again.
The mourner receives compassion. So should you. Your loss is real. My loss is real. I miss my friend.