We suffer losses throughout our lives – and it’s not just deaths of loved ones. It’s a loss of dreams – what we’ve never had or never will have, loss of roles, of careers, of physical capability, of innocence, of hope, of control over our lives. We grieve over pets, possessions, stuffed toys, being fired or resigning from jobs, loss of trust we’ve had for a loved one or important person, when we’re separated from friends, when our kids move out, when relationships break up, moving to new homes or places. People often experience grief when they retire and after miscarriages, still-births, and abortions. In short, virtually any significant change in our lives can trigger grief and mourning.
A wise man several years ago gave me a good lecture about the grief process – for the living it’s not stages or phases and the living don’t grieve like those who’ve been told they have a finite amount of time left. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross did us all a service with her Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, Acceptance or DABDA phase model, but she wrote for the dying. William Worden wrote for the living, four tasks we have to do to reconcile a loss. I’ve made some minor changes to Worden’s work which for me now reads:
Task 1: To accept the reality of our loss,
Task 2: To process the pain of our grief,
Task 3: To adjust to a world without that which we’ve lost,
Task 4: To find meaning and enduring connection with our loss, in the midst of embarking on a new life, for life does move on.
Losses are permanent. However, grief and mourning are not. In the process of reconciling a loss we will have bad days and good days, and gradually good days will exceed the bad ones. Working Worden’s four tasks is an active process, while stages or phases are passive.
I’ve met and worked with many people experiencing the pain of a loss. Most were still in the early parts of Worden’s tasks, but they were gradually having more good days than bad days.
Grief is typically done when we can think of the loss we’ve had without pain. An important of aspect of resolving a loss is how we view ourselves. The meanings we attach to the loss – making a new normal – affect how we come to view ourselves in light of what’s happened to us, and the world around us.
Common questions people often ask themselves include things like:
- Why me?
- How will I, or will I, ever feel safe in the world?
- How has this change affected me?
- What will this change in life do to me?
- What will my life look like now?
- Who am I now, given this loss?
- What is my purpose in life?
- What is a meaningful life for me now?
Grief and mourning are not mental illnesses although they can feel like it – with a bewildering array of reactions to that loss. Anyone experiencing grief should never be given a psychiatric diagnosis until at least a year after the loss – if then. You may need medications to help cope, but those medications will slow or stop the process of grief and mourning.
These questions are all about meaning, who am I now for having experienced this episode in my life … and now this loss? Losses are painful, true, but there is light, happiness, new growth, and new possibilities on the other side. Life is worth living. Enjoy life, it can and does get better.