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University Counseling Center

Grief and Loss

Causes of Grief

Death of a loved one is one of the most devastating losses we will experience. It is synonymous with grief. There are dimensions to this kind of loss that go beyond the profound missing of our loved one. Often, we are also grieving a way of life we shared, things we had hoped to experience with the person who has died and what will never come to be. We might also be grieving who we were to this person, and the role they played in our lives. Sometimes the experience of one loss or death will evoke fresh memories of past losses.

We experience many losses in addition to death in our lifetimes. Some of these are not as obvious as the death of a loved one, but they may be deeply felt and just as life-changing. Loss of a job, a pet, a dream, a romantic relationship, a friendship, our health can all be devastating experiences that are overlooked or minimized by those around us. It is important to be able to acknowledge the feelings of loss and grief that accompany these times of change and to reach out for support. In order to heal, we need to treat ourselves with care and sensitivity.

The Many Faces of Grief

Grief does not merely involve the single emotion of intense sadness. Instead it can encompass a maelstrom of feelings that include:

anger guilt
anxiety helplessness
bitterness hopelessness
blame irritability
confusion loneliness
depression loss of pleasure
despair numbness
detachment being overwhelmed
disbelief preoccupation
fear sadness
shame vulnerability
shock yearning

(list partially taken from The Healing Journey Through Grief, Rich, 1999)

Which of these many feelings are experienced, when, in what intensity, and in what order can be as individual as the person who is grieving. There is not a “right way” to grieve. There is just the way you are doing it.

Phases of Grief

Grieving does not have a time frame or a map. For some people there will be strong and sustained feelings just following the loss, while others may feel numb for quite a while only to be surprised by feelings related to grief at an unexpected time. It is generally helpful to try to stay open to and accepting of your own way of grieving. However, there seem to be some likely phases or stages of grieving that many people experience. These are not experienced in a reliable order, nor is each stage experienced by everyone dealing with loss. Yet it can be helpful to be aware of the possibility of these phases, and to remember that grieving is a fluid or changing process.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grieving. Other writers have identified similar stages, but in general they have included phases of shock, emotional suffering and struggle, and recovery. The stages identified by Kubler-Ross are:

  • Denial-The person struggles with disbelief that the loss has occurred. They may feel numb, or as if the events are “unreal.”
  • Anger-The person experiences anger or even rage at the loss or at the person who has died. Sometimes the anger is directed at God, sometimes at a doctor, friend or family member.
  • Bargaining-This stage involves some “magical thinking” that a deal can be made with the forces that be. The person struggles to hold onto some sense of control in a situation that feels out of control.
  • Depression-As the reality of the loss is taken in, the person experiences intense sadness, hopelessness, and despair.
  • Acceptance-The person moves into an acceptance of the truth of the loss, and is able to start to come to peace with it.

Sometimes there is a belief that grief should be “done” within a certain time frame, and that grief extending beyond or lessening before that time is extreme or insufficient. In fact, what is more important is whether the person grieving is able to experience the feelings. If the mourner is having trouble allowing him or herself to grieve, they may be helped by seeing a counselor or attending a bereavement group.

Why You Might Feel Alone

One of the most important truths about grief and loss is that they are inevitable and recurring elements of life. Unfortunately, sometimes those around the mourner believe that they can help him or her deal with grief by staying silent about the loss and by encouraging him/her to think of other things and “move on.” This silence can create a profound loneliness that only intensifies the feelings of loss. The expectation that the mourner should think and speak of other things can interfere with the natural and healing process of grief.

Dealing With and Living Throught Grief and Loss

According to Rich (1999) in The Healing Journey Through Grief, the work of grief is to:

  • Face the reality of your loss
  • Work through painful memories
  • Experience the full range of emotions associated with loss
  • Cope with the situational and lifestyle changes resulting from your loss
  • Adapt to the loss and reconfigure your life

How you choose to meet each of these challenges will be unique to your life and to your loss. Living through grief and loss requires acceptance of our emotions, patience with ourselves, and the commitment to care for ourselves emotionally, physically, and spiritually. For many of us, it will also involve a willingness to accept the support and empathy that others offer.

Some suggestions for helping you to cope with grief and loss include:

  • Remembering to take care of your health. Continuing to eat well and to take care of your body will help you have the energy you need to get through this time.
  • Giving yourself time. You may feel somewhat slowed down and require time away from your normal activities. Make these allowances as needed.
  • Spending time with the memory of the person that has been lost. Allow yourself to think and talk about that person as much as you feel you need to.
  • Talking to others about what you are going through. You don’t need to go this alone. Talk to those who you find are sensitive and supportive about your loss.
  • Seeking out counseling if you find you do not have sufficient support. The University Counseling Center offers counseling services as well as a 24 hour, 7 day a week crisis on-call service. You can make an appointment during business hours or reach the on-call service at any time by calling (585) 275-3113.

Certain factors have been found to contribute to what is termed “complicated bereavement.” These factors include:

  • Lack of social support
  • The simultaneous occurrence of other crises or stressors
  • Intensely ambivalent relationships with the person who has been lost
  • Dependent relationships with the person who was lost
  • Sudden, unexpected, and shocking circumstances of death or loss

When these potentially complicating elements exist, it can be useful to seek additional support through bereavement counseling or a group.

Suggestions for Helping Other Who are Grieving

  • Stay in touch-let the person know you are available if and when they need you. Don’t stay silent because of your own discomfort about loss.
  • Offer practical help-take note of a task that you may be able to help with and make the offer.
  • Be a good listener-be patient and accepting with the person’s way of dealing with and expressing grief. Try to stay non-judgmental.
  • Encourage self-care-help the person experiencing the loss to remember that they will need to go easy on themselves as they are going through this process. They may need to be reminded that this is not the time to make big decisions, or to try to “carry on” as usual.
  • Accept their way of grieving-respect that they are probably moving into and through this loss in the best way they can. .

Related Links

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Understanding Suicide and Grief

Bearing the Special Grief of Suicide