Transforming Our Losses
Anastasia D. Bean, MS, LPC, NCC
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” – C.S. Lewis
There are times when we do not want to know, but have to hear… when we do not want it to happen, but have to endure… when we do not want people we love to leave us, but have to let go. Grief is a natural response to many losses that we suffer by simply being human. Loss is change, and one thing I know for sure is that over time “things” will change. Grief is a necessary process, and unfortunately, it is narrowly defined by society. Grief is designed to assist us through times of change. Some of us may blame ourselves for our losses or perhaps chalk it up to bad luck, “Why me?” Grief is not just about death. We tend to minimize and deny our grief by saying, “At least he is not dead,” or “Things could be worse.” These facts are valid, and it could be worse, but things can also be bad enough just as they are.
Grief manifests in different ways over time. We may comprehend we are sad, or we may be confused by a sudden onset of emotions. Even memories of good times can trigger sadness, such as going to college, graduation, weddings, birth of a child, job promotion, even living the life you always dreamed. The phenomenon of “Is this all there is?” may leave you feeling empty. Consider grief in the context of what it could or should have been… “If only!” Grief is disguised in lost opportunities, such as a cherished dream, a child leaving home, becoming an adult, job change or promotion, financial and legal difficulties, loss of ability and serious illness, divorce, loss of friendship, growing up in a dysfunctional family, and loss of childhood. Unexpected events can incite the grief process, such as experiencing a natural disaster or witnessing or being a victim of a man-made disaster or crime, and loss of safety. However grief plays out in your life, it can be hidden as an underlying emotion that you can’t really articulate. We may feel grief so deep we can’t even find the words.
Grief affects us all differently. It can have physical, emotional, social, and spiritual symptoms. Many describe the pain of grief unlike anything they have ever felt before. Some can continue with everyday routine activities, while others will find it difficult to function. It can include crying and sighing, headaches, loss of appetite, overeating, difficulty sleeping, weakness, fatigue, feelings of heaviness, and unexplained aches and pains. Everyday tasks such as self-care, going to work, or preparing a meal can be exhausting. Grief is unpredictable. One minute we can be experiencing feelings of yearning, sadness, and despair and then angry or confused the next. Grief can also be veiled as anxiety, depression, worry, frustration, and guilt. A common coping mechanism is stuffing our emotions by telling ourselves, “Get over it. It’s not a big deal. It is in the past. So what?” Grief may also be expressed socially. We may lose interest in activities we once enjoyed, detach from others by isolating, and behave in ways that push people away. Grief can transcend into spiritual expression and exploration. A spiritual perspective can be a source of strength and support. Although some of us may feel more connected to our higher power, others may question the reason for their loss and the purpose of their pain and suffering. Grief can radically affect your meaning of life and death.
If these symptoms seem like too much to bear or if you are just settling for ok, then it may be time to seek professional help. Grief is an expected part of life, not a punishment. We are not exempt from suffering, and there is no race to the finish line. Whatever losses you may be grieving and leaving unprocessed can manifest into complicated or prolonged grief, which is described as getting “stuck.” Symptoms continue to exasperate, which can lead to significant emotional damage, isolation, substance abuse, and life-threatening health problems.
Redefining, transforming, and becoming aware of our losses can be the catalyst that connects us to others and promotes a deeper understanding of ourselves. The goal of therapy is to enable grief that has a healing effect, to assist in adapting the reality of emotions such as baffling anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration, and depression, and to help identify and change our irrational beliefs into rational beliefs that minimize unhealthy, self-defeating feelings of despair, anxiety, and depression. Therapy can illuminate where we are incongruent with the reality in which we actually live, our core beliefs, and how we want to live. It is in our resistance in which we suffer. To attend to life on life’s terms is a process of acceptance of “what is,” not “what I wish it was.” Therapy can be flexible and consistent with reality and will promote an understanding of the meaning of our grief and life purpose. Processing or moving forward with our grief is not about forgetting, and the outcome of therapy is not to detach, but to integrate and transform our losses into our unique life story.