Responding to Loss and Change
It’s something most people can relate to: experiences of loss and change that turn your world upside down. Maybe it’s the death of a family member, friend, or cherished animal companion. It could be the end of an intimate relationship or friendship. It might involve a dramatic change of location, moving from the familiar to the totally foreign. Or it may be the loss of ability through illness or injury, and the dreams that go with it.
These are just a few examples of experiences that people might respond to with grief or mourning.
Social Responses to Loss
The social responses we receive around any experience of adversity can have a lot to do with how we adjust, heal, and recover.
“Get over it”; “That happened a long time ago”; “Be strong – he wouldn’t want you to be sad”; “Shouldn’t you be over that by now?”; “It was just a cat – you can always get a new one”; “It really wasn’t that big of a deal”
These are all invalidating, yet common messages that many people responding to loss and change receive from a variety of sources – such as the media, friends, or family. These and other similar statements show that there are a lot of regressive and inaccurate ideas about grief and loss in mainstream culture. I was inspired to write this post by the many people who have come through my office whose struggles with loss are made worse by misinformed social responses.
What is Grief?
Grief can be one of the most complex processes we go through as human beings. When people ask me what grief is, I often say this:
- Grief is the process of adjusting to loss and change.
- It is a holistic, integrated response to loss.
- It implicitly affirms that the person or thing that we lost or has changed held significant meaning for us.
Grief is not an illness. It is not weakness. It is not a sign that you are going crazy. It is a healthy and necessary response and process. It serves as proof that things matter to you. It is a testament to our humanity.
As a holistic process and response, grief relates to the five life areas or domains that we occupy:
By this, I mean that when we're grieving, we're likely to experience responses that fit with these five life areas. Examples of emotional responses could be sadness, guilt, anger, or relief. Physical responses could include fatigue, headaches, stomachaches, and changes in appetite. Some of the ways we respond may be inextricably tied to several life areas at once - or even all five.
Unhelpful Responses to Grief
Sexist Views on Emotion
The range of unhelpful responses to grief that I've learned through both my personal and professional experience is vast. These responses are informed by an array of discourses and perspectives. For example, men often feel discouraged from crying publicly because the act of shedding tears is likened to femininity and "weakness". This sexist orientation to gender facilitates judgment against men for doing what could be most supportive of their healing.
This sort of view is not just applied to men. I've also spoken with women who have shared how people in their lives have labeled them as "too emotional", "moody", and "emotionally unstable" when responding to significant loss, change, and trauma. These judgments imply that it's problematic or even pathological to feel and express our emotions when we have a very good reason to do so.
Prescribed Models of Grief
Most of us have probably come across some models of grief in our time on this Earth. People often like models or frameworks because they help simplify things . They help us make sense of our experiences in a cleaned-up sort of way. In doing so, they relieve us of the burden of navigating all the nuances, ambiguity, and intricacies that come with experiences of loss and change.
You've probably heard of the five stages of grief model. This is a framework that was introduced in 1969 by a Swiss psychiatrist named Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Since then it has been widely accepted within mainstream Western cultures, with a variety of pop-culture references that continue into the present day. In short, Kubler-Ross' proposed that grief consists of five sequential stages:
While models like this can help to normalize our experiences when they closely align with a given framework, they can also do the opposite. They can make it seem as though we're doing it wrong when our expressions of grief do not match the prescribed stages of the model. I've met with several folks who thought there was something wrong with themselves because their grief didn't look anything like the model outlined above. I've also heard from people who were told by professionals that their grieving process "could last up to three months". I'm sure you could imagine their distress at the six month mark, when they're still regularly responding with tears and actions akin to grief.
Toward Grieving Inclusivity
Positive, supportive, non-judgmental social responses to grief are, at the very least, helpful in terms of encouraging healing and recovery. There are volumes of literature on a huge range of subjects that attest to the deleterious implications of many of the expectations associated with gender – for men, women, and those who identify otherwise. Grief is no different. To expect men not to cry, or women not to feel angry is inherently inhibitive when it comes to the emotional expression of grief. These unfair and unrealistic expectations can seriously limit a person’s ability to engage with their grieving process.
Prescriptive models may be of some benefit to those whose grief closely approximates their frameworks, but can be disconfirming for those whose experiences of mourning differ. I believe this is a testament to how the concept of normalcy works: it’s not so bad for those who fit within what is considered “normal”, but can be alienating and disenfranchising for those who fit somewhere outside. For this reason I encourage flexibility and patience when it comes to grief.
I’m in favour of a culture of grief inclusivity. This means openness to all the many responses people might take up in the wake of loss and change. I believe that the ways people respond to loss, trauma, and adversity in general always make sense within their given contexts. This perspective is supportive of people grieving on their own terms, and doing what fits for them when it comes to healing.
Have you ever felt that your grief was invalidated by another person's response?
Has anyone ever responded in a way that was particularly helpful after you went through a big loss or change?
What's important to you when it comes to the kinds of responses you receive when you're grieving?