Understanding the Waves of Grief and Loss

Written By: Amy Gray, LPC-IT

The passing of a loved one can feel like a ripple, or at times perhaps a tidal wave, of emotional pain and grief. Grief, loss, and life changes impact so many people and I would like to offer a warm invitation to reflect and connect on the subject. Grief can be thought of as an emotional reaction to a significant change in life. Some common changes that lead to feelings of grief can range anywhere from a death of a loved one or pet, employment changes, the break-up of a relationship, or a crisis event within a community. It is widely understood in the field of mental health that there are five stages of grief that a person can go through after a major life change, these stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Kubler-Ross, Kessler, & M, 2014).

Some indications that someone is going through denial, might be feelings of disbelief or “This can’t be happening.” Denial is a common defensive response when feelings of shock are present, or if the change feels too difficult to accept. Someone in denial might also use distractions, such as working longer hours or engaging in other activities that take up significant amounts of time, in order to maintain the belief that “I can’t think about this right now.” The use of distractions can be a helpful tool when it is not the appropriate time or place to actively grieve, with the understanding that we will allow ourselves to grieve when the time and place become appropriate again.

Another common emotion felt during grief, is anger. Anger is an emotion that can surface when we’re feeling vulnerable. Life changes can certainly challenge our sense of safety and leave us feeling vulnerable. Someone experiencing grief-related anger might feel resentment toward the change, the circumstances of change, or those who are involved with the change. “The doctors should have saved them,” or “this never should have happened” might be some common thoughts when experiencing grief-related anger.

Bargaining is another common reaction to grief. Bargaining can be thought of as a search to regain control over the life change. One sign of bargaining might be “what if” or “if, then…” statements. For example, “If we had only acted sooner, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened” or “what if I had made this decision instead, then this never would have happened.” It is a desire for safety and balance after life changes have led us to feel vulnerable.

After a life change, feelings of depression can surface as we continue to process what has happened. This processing often takes the form of questioning the future, or how our life roles have been altered after a change. Some questions could be “what does this change mean?” Or a questioning of our purpose in life, such as “where do I go from here?” It could also be a feeling of loss surrounding what we expected our future to look like, such as “I always envisioned my life being this way, and now that can’t happen.” These questions are a sign that a grieving person might be looking at how their future has changed as a result of the change.

Through all of this processing, those who are grieving may reach a point of acceptance. Grief-related acceptance is not typically a thought of “I am glad that this has happened,” rather it is “this life change has happened. Now how can I move forward?” Acceptance is the product of all of this intense mental processing. It is a sense of “this changed happened and I will be ok.”

We all have different reactions to change which makes experiencing grief diverse, and incredibly human. The reality of grief is that often it does not fit neatly into categories or stages. Grief can look different depending on the person, and this is completely normal. If you, or someone you know, is grieving, know that you are not alone. Reach out to someone you trust, such as a family member, a close friend, or a counselor, and share your experience. You do not have to weather the waves of grief and loss alone.

References

Kubler-Ross, E., Kessler, D., & M, S. (2014). On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.