Grief can be a complex mix of feelings brought on by a variety of circumstances. As we transition into the new year, the process of starting a new chapter in our lives can trigger feelings in ways that may catch us off guard. As we grow older, we learn that most obstacles we run into come with their own nuances, their own shades of gray. When we think of grief, we think of the pain of someone’s death and of loss. Yet, loss comes in a myriad of forms, sometimes in forms incomprehensible to the mind and hence, grief.
Loss significant enough to cause grief is usually triggered by a big change in circumstance, such as:
1. When a loved one passes away
This is the more obvious and commonly thought of example of a cause of grief. That being said, the loss of a relationship can often feel like a part of you is missing, thereby shaking your perspective of yourself, the world, and thus causing grief.
2. Circumstances that cause change in a core belief
An example can be renouncing the faith of your family of origin. However, do not think that a core belief is solely religious. It can also be a simple belief entrenched in us from childhood by our parents, or other beliefs just as strong that once made up who we are and how we see the world (family structure for example). When this core belief is challenged, we may experience grief in the form of loss of a part of our original sense of identity.
3. Leaving home or part of the country
This type of grief is associated with change, whether it is changing the phase of your life, selling your childhood home, moving on to college and your career, marriage, moving away to a different part of the country, but the physical act of moving to a new area is a part of a symbol of change. The unfamiliarity of a new place can add stress, coupled with the fact that there may not be many people you know. They combine to cause social hurdles, and may lead to feelings of loneliness and disappointment with the recent changes. The new environment can shake our perspective of ourselves since we often change with our environments, thereby causing grief in the form of loss of things you were accustomed to. Grief may coexist with happiness in this situation, but it is important to recognize that grief occurs.
Divorce is the death or breaking of a relationship, something we may have once depended on or thought would last forever. The ending of a relationship can send one into waves of grief because what we once contributed to defining our identity is gone. Divorce may also precipitate a sense of failure, which contributes to the overarching feeling of grief. This is particularly true if there are children involved. When one gets divorced it often impacts other other tangential relationships with family members and friends with whom we have become close. All parties, especially the children are likely to experience grief in some form. It is particularly important to ensure that therapeutic needs of children are addressed.
5. Loss of a sense of self, safety, personal control and innocence (e.g., victim of sexual assault)
The loss of a sense of self and “innocence” can provoke a change in a core identity or the belief in who you are. Victims of sexual assault frequently struggle with a barrage of feelings which can lead to significant mental health issues if not addressed. Grief is just one of these. In sorting through those it is important to know that the process takes a while and that grief is a very valid part of that process. It will manifest differently for each individual.
6. Witnessing the mental decline of a loved one (e.g., dementia)
Grief associated with watching a loved one suffering from dementia has multiple aspects. The first phase occurs while the individual is still alive as you grieve the loss of the person you love and see their personality change essentially before your eyes. This includes mourning the loss of that person’s ability to actively sustain the previous role in your relationship whether it be spouse, friend or parent. You may in fact assume a new role of caretaker or, in many cases, the parent-child roles seem to reverse. Difficult decisions often have to be made.
The second phase occurs when the loved one actually passes away. By that time, the person you knew has not been present for some time you are left grieving memories of who that person was. It is, nonetheless, valid grief, and as usual, the feelings associated with grief can ebb and flow with varying intensity over time.
And so many more that we may not have included in our examples.
Reading this list now may shed light on feelings you have experienced and could not put a name to during a trying time of your life. In fact, you were grieving, a normal process which all of us experience at one time or another. Whether you have processed through yours or are still doing so, it helps to acknowledge it. Most people who are uncomfortable with experiencing their own or someone’s pain often end up in a quandary as to how to proceed. Grief that is not treated, in some cases, lead to other significant mental health, and even physical health (gastrointestinal problems, neck pain, etc.), challenges. Megan Devine, a psychotherapist and grief expert, avers that the best way to help heal someone who is grieving, perhaps a loved one, is not to attempt to bolster their spirits but to instead allow them to feel.¹ The same can be done with yourself, and with acknowledgment comes understanding.
It is now commonly recognized that there are “stages” of grief and various ways to cope. These stages do not occur sequentially, nor with equal intensity. Experts agree that it takes time, sometimes a year to several, and that the process cannot be rushed.
First put forth in 1969 by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the stages of grief are²:
The truth is that these stages are not meant to be used as linear guidelines but as descriptions for processes that those dealing with grief may or may not experience.³ In fact, psychologist Robert A. Neimeyer contended, “At the most obvious level, scientific studies have failed to support any discernible sequence of emotional phases of adaptation to loss or to identify any clear endpoint to grieving that would designate a state of ‘recovery.’”.⁴ Whichever you relate to, those feelings are all real and should be acknowledged as such.
Grief is a convoluted, tortuous process with varying levels of intensity. Grief can also be unexpected; these feelings can come in inundating waves. You could be completely fine until a trigger occurs. Some of us may feel that we skipped a stage, possibly because it was so brief that we barely noticed it. Some of us move on quicker than others. It is only fair that you give yourself, and others, the time to process recognizing that everyone does so at the speed and in the order that works best for them, and not force expectations that it should take a specified period of time, such as a year. For some, it is longer and may just be a lessening over time. This is what it is to be comfortable with grieving.
Under any circumstance, do not feel like you should be dealing with grief on your own. Sharing with others who have been through the experience can be very helpful to the healing process. Find a support group (in person or online) that can relate to your situation or seek a professional in your area. Below we have provided resource options, both articles and support groups, that may resonate with your particular situation.
Grief is clearly not a single emotion, but a complex combination of feelings that are best processed in a healthy way over a period of time. Each of us will, at some point in the cycle of our lives, experience grief. Please allow yourself the gift of acknowledging that it is normal to grieve and allow yourself to reach out for help. That is “normal” too.