Grieving after a death or other loss (e.g. divorce/separation, abortion, job, health, loss of safety such as after violence, relocation) is a natural and necessary process that most people experience and come out the other side of in a reasonably healthy way. However, sometimes people just don’t have support (or the right kind of support) to hold them emotionally as they move through the pain of loss. Sometimes the loss can involve complicated and conflicting feelings and this can feel confusing. A common fear is of losing one’s mind. Certain losses are more difficult to cope with, e.g. anticipatory grief (a period of limbo while waiting for a known loss), death by suicide or murder, the death of a child or multiple losses.
Grief can remain unresolved for years, only re-emerging when another loss is experienced. The grief response to the present and past event(s) can then seem overwhelming and frightening. Grief can also be masked – expressed through physical symptoms.
William Worden (PhD) describes 4 tasks of mourning:
- Task 1 – To accept the reality of the loss – feelings that are common during this stage are pain (each time the loss is remembered), searching and longing. Sometimes denial is a means of self-protection to avoid the pain. People can deny the facts of the loss (perhaps by keeping things the same), the meaning of the loss (by describing the loss as less significant than it is e.g. “he wasn’t a very nice person”) or the irreversibility of the loss (trying to maintain contact e.g. seeing a spiritualist). Acceptance of loss takes time as it has to be realised both intellectually and emotionally. Also, acceptance is a moving target, some days it will be possible and other days it won’t.
- Task 2 – To work through to the pain of grief – anything that allows someone to avoid or suppress the pain of loss prolongs the grieving process. Unfortunately our society’s beliefs are that grieving is weak or self-indulgent and that people need to be distracted from their pain. Suppressing pain often leads to depression and counselling is a safe space in which to experience the pain in a supported way so that a person doesn’t have to carry it with them for the rest of their life.
- Task 3 – To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing – the full meaning of a loss may not be realised straight away, it can only be fully realised through living without the valued aspects of whom or what we have lost over time. New ways of doing things can be hard to contemplate and often people feel helpless and hopeless at this stage. This is also the stage at which awareness of the need to evaluate oneself emerges e.g. who am I now that…..? This can also be a period of existential questioning as beliefs about the world and life itself are challenged.
- Task 4 – To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life – this is not about forgetting or detaching, it’s about being able to internally find a place for the lost person/object/activity while still being able to engage with life and all it offers in a meaningful way – similar to learning a new language, at first the meaning isn’t apparent unless it is translated into the primary language, but eventually it’s possible to understand the meaning of the new language without having to translate it first (without forgetting the primary language).
Counselling can help a person understand their own grief (and that it might be different to other people’s grief). It can be useful for identifying where a person may be stuck in their grieving process or what might be complicating the process. It can help by validating and normalising feelings, thoughts and behaviours (helping a person to hold onto their sense of self as they navigate the choppy waters of their grief). Counselling can be a space in which to make sense of the nonsense and begin to re-establish some feelings of safety through understanding of self.