Am I Losing it? Oh this is Grief!! Loss and Grief 101
So often we hear the terms, loss and grief and we go about lives often taking it for granted that we all know exactly what we are talking about or that we are all on the same page. Today we revisit the terms and explore in a bit more detail some types of both.
A simple definition of loss is the removal of something or someone valuable from us. Loss therefore could be as significant as the death of a loved one, it could also be the physical presence of a loved one, but the absence of their cognitive and emotive capacities (think of the person who is in a coma and cannot respond to you, think of a relative or loved one diagnosed with dementia). Loss could be that of something tangible like a motor-vehicle or a house, it could be the loss of a limb or limbs, it could be the loss of intangible phenomena like dreams or hopes (you worked really hard to get into an educational institution or get that job and you did not) , the loss of plans (following a divorce or separation, the plans we had for growing old with our loved ones), the loss of a relationship, the loss of a job, or even a demotion, the loss of innocence. Undoubtedly most if not all of us in the last two and a half years, had an experience with the loss of what we knew as normal; the pandemic is a classic example of that. So much of what we took for granted and as normal, soon ceased to exist I hope by now you recognise that there are a multiplicity of different kinds of losses.
So many times there are secondary losses resulting from the primary (main) loss. What do I mean? you may ask, the primary loss is the initial removal of that significant person or thing. Secondary losses are usually those intangible losses resulting from the primary one. Let’s look at the death of a loved one, of course the primary loss is the death of that loved one but flowing from that are all the secondary losses; the relationship we had with that person, the future plans we had for that person or for that person and us, the contribution of that person to our lives. Those are only some of the secondary losses which can flow from a primary loss- the death of a loved one.
Thirteen years ago, I lost my sister, young vivacious girl in the prime of her life (only 37 when she died in a motor vehicle accident). She left behind three young children, the oldest one being nine at the time. The primary loss? her death. Some secondary losses include the painful absence of a filial relationship with her children, the absence of her guidance in their lives and being there to celebrate each milestone with them, the impossibility of being there to see our mother age and to lend support in that process and for me, perhaps the most poignantly excruciating, was the discontinuation of our sibling bonds.
We can also experience primary and secondary losses relating to non-human objects. Approximately 18 months ago, my car was broken into and my laptop was stolen with more than 11 years’ work on it. I was dismayed!!! My primary losses in this case were those of my car window and my laptop to be replaced, but oh yes, there were secondary losses. My 11years of intellectual property down the drain, my research, information and creative expressions gone, my sense of privacy and control, out the window. To make matters worse, some months before, I had backed up the laptop information on an external hard drive and at the time of the loss of my laptop, the hard drive died and could not be revived! To some it may have seemed like only an inconvenience, to me it was a significant loss and I grieved and am still grieving!!
Loss may be experienced and re-experienced across the lifespan, so a child for example who loses a parent when he or she is nine years old, will experience the loss commensurate with his or her developmental stage, but may re-experience the loss of that parent in a different way when he/she is 16, and yet differently when he/she is 21 years old.
Our response to loss is what is referred to as our grief, the emotive expressions (these are internal: example extreme feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, hopelessness, helplessness, feelings of loneliness, denial of the loss can all be symptomatic of grief. Our grief is normally manifested in our mourning (the outward manifestations such as crying, rolling on the floor, withdrawing, changes in eating and sleeping patterns,wearing the other person’s clothing or evenleaving their clothes and personal items untouched for a while). The way we grieve and mourn are highly personal and there is no prescribed way or time schedule. Our grief can be impacted and influenced by our personality style, our relationship to the thing or person lost, our culture, family values, socialization, meaning we make of death, etc. It is important to know that grief is a process, and each person’s process is unique. Two people may experience the death of a loved one and their grief experiences are completely different. Note that it is healthy to grieve both our primary and secondary losses.
Good grief! Grief is not always a simple matter and does not occur in a linear way; there are different types/ways of grieving. There is grief, then there is disenfranchised grief, there is complicated grief, anticipatory grief and there is also delayed grief.
Disenfranchised grief occurs when we have experienced a loss but either believe or is dictated to by society that we cannot openly show our grief. It may also be a loss for which there is no public/social support, because the loss is not valued or because there was some stigma attached to it. Some examples of disenfranchised grief: if you are the “side-chick/side man” of an individual who dies, your grief is palpable and real, right? But culturally you would not be accorded the same show of support and permission to grieve as the spouse of the deceased. Other examples include grief where a child or partner may have been killed because of illegal activities, the death of a relative from substance abuse, the loss resulting from an abortion or dementia experienced by a loved one. It is less so now, but two or three decades ago when a loved one died as a result of HIV/AIDS, that loss was highly stigmatized, so much so, that the cause of death was either never mentioned or it may have been spoken about in hushed tones. Death from suicide is considered highly stigmatized in some cultures. In some societies, especially highly homophobic ones, an adult child embracing an alternate lifestyle can be a loss to the parent (loss of the child and relationship they knew) and with that may come disenfranchised grief.
Anticipatory grief occurs when we begin the grieving process before the person or thing is lost. Let’s say there is an impending operation to remove a limb because of an illness, we may begin to grieve the loss of that limb even before its removal becomes a reality. Even more practically is the case of a loved one being diagnosed with a terminal illness, we may begin the grieving process long before the person actually dies.
Delayed grief: “In short, delayed grief is a reaction to a loss that is often experienced months or even years after the event occurs”.
Complicated grief: : A debilitating feelings of loss, which does not improve over time and can result in impaired functioning for the individual in different settings.
Yvette Boucher is an Associate Counselling Psychologist and member of the Executive Committee of the Jamaican Psychological Society. She specializes in grief and trauma counselling and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brosnan, A. (2013). Stigmatized Loss and Suicide. Retrieved from Sophia, the St. Catherine University repository website: https://sophia.stkate.edu/msw_papers/158
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