Losing and grieving
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), grief is a normal response to loss. It can be in response to a disaster or traumatic event or can be in response to a loss in terms of expectations, losing a loved one (human or animal), losing a job, relationship, sense of identity or home. “Grief can happen in response to loss of life, as well as to drastic changes to daily routings and ways of life that usually bring us comfort and a feeling of stability.” (https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/) Common grief reactions include:
- Shock, disbelief, or denial
- Periods of sadness
- Loss of sleep
- Loss of appetite
Sometimes losses come together. I’m mindful this morning, the day after the 2022 Federal Election in Australia, that there are many politicians probably experiencing the very start of their compounded grieving experience, and I think using them as an example might demonstrate this idea very well. Not only have they lost their job (sense of purpose), their job title/position (sense of identity), salary (financial loss), but they may also have lost connections to others (loss of relationships). That’s a lot of different kinds of losses and likely will result in a whole bunch of messy feelings which if not managed well can complicate or prolong grief and delay how we might adapt, heal and recover.
Grief and loss are universal human experiences. None of us escape their collective impact. So why then, are we so rubbish at talking about, and more importantly, listening to other people’s pain around loss? There are a whole range of reasons behind this, the first of which is the nature of our cultural response to loss which is largely to tough it out or maybe it’s ok to be messy until the funeral is done and dusted but after that it really is time to ‘keep calm and carry on’. I think the other big reason speaks a little to a broader issue of how generally uncomfortable we are around talking about, and sitting with big, sad, hard emotions. And we often just want to make things better for people that we love and care about, so when we see our loved ones hurting, we just long for them to stop talking about the loss and ‘move on’.
But what so many people really need to do when someone is coming to terms with loss is allow them to talk about it. Even if that sounds like a looping, repetitive story, where we might hear the same events told over and over. I think of it as our brain’s way of making sense of what has happened. That somehow by hearing ourselves tell the story of the loss time and again normalises it as we recover from the shock. It’s not problematic for people to do that, especially in the early days of coming to terms with things, it isn’t something that needs to be hurried.
In addition to listening to people experiencing loss, there a range of other things we can do to improve the way we navigate grief alongside others:
- If you’re supporting someone who has lost a human or animal – say the name of the person (or animal) who has passed and keep on mentioning it. It’s so difficult when people around us tiptoe around ‘the subject’ as if naming it is going to make us feel sad again. One of the most painful things of losing someone is when we feel that they’ve been forgotten by everyone but us – using their name helps keep them alive.
- Please don’t try to ‘silver-line’ the situation – there’s no silver lining to grief, it just sucks, and it hurts. If you’re going to start a sentence with “at least…” Nothing good is going to follow those words.
- Avoid the grief/loss platitudes at all costs. They are the worst kind of toxic-positivity. Tip: if it sounds like it could be written in a Hallmark card probably don’t say it.
- A person who is navigating loss won’t ever be the same again. Losing your partner, child, best friend, parent, grandparent, home, job, purpose, identity, pet is life changing. It just means that person is going to be changed by that experience. Your job is to adjust to that.
- Don’t say, “I know how you feel”. Because you don’t. You know how you felt when something similar (possibly remarkably similar) and that’s just not the same.