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Grief, Loss and the Grieving Process

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

grief; grieving-process; unresolved-loss; loss; stages-of-grief; five-stages-of-grief

The word “loss” means something different to all of us. For some, their only experience of loss will be the annoying sort - loss of keys, or the loss of that thing they “put away somewhere safe”.

As humans, however, it is inevitable that we will suffer a significant loss at some point in our lives through death. If you’ve suffered a loss through death, you will know how devastating this can be and how affected your life was by that loss. You will know that “normal” will never be the same again and that your entire view of the world changes, even if only for a short time whilst you grieve.

The Grieving Process

The grieving process is our subconscious way of coping with loss, and we go through five very definite stages:

Denial: Usually the first of the five stages of grief. Denial keeps us safe while the really big emotions are too raw to process.

Anger: Anger at the unfairness; at how you were treated; at the universe, the world and everyone in it.

Bargaining: This is the time when you trade-off – “I’d give anything for…”, “If only X or Y…”,

Sadness / Depression: Self-Explanatory…

Acceptance: If you read last week’s F blog, you’ll be an expert in acceptance! Acceptance doesn’t mean everything’s peachy now, it just means you’re in a place where you can begin to learn to live with your new ‘normal’.

Whilst denial and acceptance are usually the first and last stages of the process, the others are a melting-pot. We bounce about in them and between them for as long as it takes. We could be one minute angry, the next, overwhelmed with sadness. We might spend a day not thinking about it at all only to be hit all over again the next day. We can bounce around between anger, sadness and bargaining for a long time.

Mainly humans only grieve loss through death, and furthermore, it’s only really acceptable to grieve human loss.

Experience tells me that when I meet a family, whatever the “presenting issue” is, there is a good chance that at some point, an unresolved loss will be identified. Usually, the loss is considered “insignificant” - not loss through human death - but the key to overcoming a loss is not the significance of that loss to the world at large, but the significance of that loss to you as an individual.

grief; grieving-process; unresolved-loss; loss; stages-of-grief; five-stages-of-grief

Have you ever lost a pet? It is well known that dogs are (Hu)Man’s Best Friend but can you imagine being granted compassionate leave by your employer to grieve the death of your dog? Now ask yourself if you’d be granted compassionate leave by that same employer to grieve the death of your human best friend... Even if you have a caring, dog-loving employer, it is unlikely that you will be granted compassionate leave even if you are given a few days off. It’s likely that your leave will be recorded as sick leave or holiday. For many dog owners, their pet is a family member and, in some cases, their only friend, or at least their most loyal companion. Yet it’s expected that they will “get over it” because it was “only a dog”. (I have discovered to my detriment, by the way, that responding to human loss in this way is thoroughly unacceptable!)

What about other unmentionable losses? What if you lost your home? Or your spouse left you? What if your parents divorced or your sibling moved out of home? What if your friend moved away or you lost your job? What if you had to change schools or your mum fell out with your auntie and you weren’t allowed to see your cousins anymore? What if you moved away? What if all of these things happened to you...? Would you be granted compassionate leave to grieve your losses?! Of course not. And let’s be honest, most of us will have experienced at least one of these non-death losses at some time or another.

The losses mentioned here are not out of the norm or unlikely... they’re fact-of-life type losses and as such, we’re expected to cope with them relatively easily because usually, the people and places still exist even if they’re not in your life anymore.

We all know that talking about stuff helps. But we also all know that people get bored of us “going on” about stuff they find uncomfortable. And that’s a sad truth; the world is too busy with its own stuff to make time and space for other people’s stuff.

Setting a time frame around grief is much easier from the outside looking in than it is from the inside looking out. We stop talking about stuff when we start to feel that people aren’t interested anymore and when we start to feel at risk of further loss because we feel that if we don’t stop talking about it, that person will leave too.

grief; grieving-process; unresolved-loss; loss; stages-of-grief; five-stages-of-grief

Unresolved Loss

All this leads to massive levels of unresolved loss, and subsequently, heightened vulnerability, which, in my opinion, are two of the most potentially damaging things anyone can suffer.

grief; grieving-process; unresolved-loss; loss; stages-of-grief; five-stages-of-grief

Loss and grieving make us more vulnerable than we’d like to admit and certainly more vulnerable than other people are prepared to acknowledge - usually because that would have an impact on them and their lives.

If we are not already vulnerable at the point of the loss, we can’t easily suffer beyond what would be considered “normal” because our resilience, our predictable, trusted and reliable support networks and our self-belief keep us safe from extra vulnerability.

If, however, pre-existing vulnerabilities mean we can’t rely on our own thoughts, decision-making abilities and feelings to keep us safe; and, if we haven’t learned to manage our losses, we’ll remain vulnerable.

Vulnerability brings with it uncertainty and risk, both of which feed the vulnerability until such time that you find yourself completely unsure of yourself and you start to make self-preserving decisions.

grief; grieving-process; unresolved-loss; loss; stages-of-grief; five-stages-of-grief

Decisions like staying at home because the world doesn’t need to endure your misery, or ignoring it (whatever it is) in the vain hope that it will just go away...

As short-term coping strategies, these aren’t without merit but just ask someone who has bailed out of life for a couple of weeks how easy it was for them to leave the house again. “Not very” will be their answer because the only thing they had to keep them company whilst staying indoors, were their own vulnerable and difficult thoughts.

It’s a sure-fire fact that the bad stuff is easier to believe than the good and if it’s your own brain telling you the bad stuff, you’re right back in that cycle of vulnerability and depleting self-esteem.

We are conditioned to believe that if we had counselling for eight sessions, twenty years ago to address the death of a grandparent, that we are “cured” of the impact of that loss; that we have received our treatment and therefore must be “better” and have reached the Acceptance stage.

The truth is that that referral to that counselling service probably did more good for the person who made the referral than it did for you. That person provided you with a solution, gave themselves a pat on the back for being SO understanding and compassionate and moved on with their life embracing the warm and fuzzy feeling that came from being Oh So Helpful.

grief; grieving-process; unresolved-loss; loss; stages-of-grief; five-stages-of-grief

In turn, your grief was time-limited... You only have eight sessions so you’d better get over it in that time. So, we pretend we have got over it because we don’t want to seem weird... if only eight sessions are offered, it must be normal to recover in eight sessions... if I don’t recover in eight sessions, I must not be normal. So, we bury it and try to move on - not for our own sake, but for the sake of not feeling as though we’re being a burden or sounding self-indulgent; both of which, by the way, are fair indicators that your sense of self-worth is still suffering, and you are almost certainly NOT “better” or “cured”.

I know many people who are diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a devastating physical condition which leaves people unable to function. It brings constant pain and fatigue and, I expect, is costing the economy just as much as mental health issues do every year. I also know that most of the people I’ve come across with a fibromyalgia diagnosis have oodles of unresolved loss in their background...

Similarly, those suffering from ‘garden variety’ mental health issues - by which I mean ‘typical’ or ‘unremarkable’ - depression, anxiety, agoraphobia etc are also likely to carry unresolved loss in their backgrounds. I believe that sorting out the unresolved losses would go some significant way to helping anyone in any of these positions to begin recovering.

grief; grieving-process; unresolved-loss; loss; stages-of-grief; five-stages-of-grief

Think about your own losses and how resolved they are, especially if you are currently stuck at home because you are too unwell - physically or otherwise - to work or function in a way that you’d like.

A loss is anything which has a significant impact on the way you live your life and being stuck at home certainly has an impact on the way you live your life. It’s a loss in its own right!

It doesn’t matter how ‘insignificant’ the loss seems, or how long ago it was, it must be resolved in order for you to move on.

It’s worth remembering that childhood losses will often need to be revisited in adulthood as our view and understanding of the world changes and matures. You might think that you’ve dealt with your parents’ divorce which happened when you were nine, but the chances are that as an adult, you’ve had new information given to you, or your understanding of the same information has changed - for example, it’s unlikely that your nine-year-old self will have been told that the divorce was because of, say, adultery, because of your age. It is not at all unlikely that since then, you’ve found out that’s what happened, and furthermore, you now understand what that means. You may even have found yourself in a similar position and, wham! That’s a double unresolved loss and the accumulation of loss continues....

grief; grieving-process; unresolved-loss; loss; stages-of-grief; five-stages-of-grief

Top Tips

  • Grieving is messy and it has no timescale.

  • ‘Insignificant’ losses must still be grieved

  • Grief is a process with five distinct stages

  • Resolve your losses - if it’s important to you, it’s important.

  • Some things need to be grieved more than once – we might find ourselves triggered by future events – this may be an indicator that a past loss needs revisiting, even if we thought we were ‘over it’

grief; grieving-process; unresolved-loss; loss; stages-of-grief; five-stages-of-grief

If you or your child are struggling with grief, loss or unresolved loss please get in touch. JLTS provides free advice to families and can help signpost you to other appropriate services.

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