What is Grief?
The loss of a loved one can be indescribably painful and life-shattering. The intensity of feelings can be frightening, overwhelming, mercilessly unrelenting and unforgiving. Life can seem empty, robbed of colour and purposeless. While the shock of loss is hard enough perhaps the hardest part of grieving is when the days turn into weeks and the weeks turn into months — externally life moves on but internally it’s as though time has stopped and all that remains is a numb emptiness.
The circumstances surrounding loss can also profoundly affect the normal grieving process — for instance, losses from suicide can be particularly difficult to come to terms with. Other losses may be less obvious — for example, the loss of a pregnancy can be devastating yet largely invisible.
Grief is a normal reaction to such losses and can be expressed in very individual ways. There are almost no limits to the reactions to grief. One person might become sad, another angry, another may withdraw or become more extroverted. These are individual ways of coping with loss and need to be normalised and understood as part of a grief response. Coming to therapy can be beneficial when we are grieving as it helps us come to terms with the loss, and assists the grieving process to unfold at its own pace.
Children are deeply affected by such losses even when they appear to bounce back, so it is important to pay attention to changes in mood or behaviour that may appear months or even years after a significant loss.
Grief can also occur when we lose any important part of our lives, such as a job, a career, a beloved pet, a marriage or relationship. We can also lose security or innocence, understanding, health or faith. Any loss or change to our normal ways of living can bring about a process of grieving.
A therapist can also help to give meaning to the loss over time, supporting the client in recognising their healthy and unhealthy coping strategies. Talking about our losses is difficult and often very painful, but is far more beneficial than repressing or avoiding our feelings, which has the potential to prolong the grieving process and in turn affect many areas of our lives.
Major Life Transitions
Think of the movement from autumn to winter, to spring and then summer as though they were the shapes of a child’s mobile gently dancing in the breeze. Someone comes along and cuts off summer and the whole mobile veers out of kilter. This is sort of how a life transition look and feels like. These human processes represent beginnings and endings, separation and attachment, birth and death, and they are as natural as the seasons. However, they challenge us to let go of the familiar and embrace the unknown und unfamiliar. Not knowing is feared and not encouraged in our society. Think of the many suggestions poured forth from well meaning people that encourage list-making as some sort of a security blanket; how locating yourself on a map can take you from feeling lost to feeling as if you know where you are. As mortals, the tendency to want to cling to what feels certain is almost inevitable. We are all unique creatures of nature and will have completely individual ways of dealing with changes in our lives. But what we all have in common is that change is inevitable and constant.
So some changes are welcome: a change of country, a planned pregnancy, a wedding or moving in together, or returning to school, for example. However, even planned events can be unexpectedly disrupting and life altering. Some changes are inevitable — think about the weather again — childbirth following pregnancy can sometimes turn out differently to how we had hoped or imagined. The empty nest, aging, retirement and death just seem to creep up on us. In fact, all we actually have with certainty is a not knowing. Other changes, like redundancy, infertility, separation, major illness or accidents can leave us completely unprepared and come without warning. We may feel shocked and angry — these sudden changes can knock us for six, undermining who we thought we were.
The great news is that while these transitions can make us uncomfortable, they offer us a chance to think about our strengths, to explore what we really want. Crossing over from familiar to unfamiliar invites us into a time of reflection, encourages us to look at and clean up unfinished business. It gives us a chance to bring that mobile back into equilibrium, resulting in a sense of renewal and stability. The trick is to stay sober, look after yourself, build a support system, accept that you may never understand why it happened, know that its OK to feel confused and afraid, and simply take one step at a time.
Have you ever thought about who you really are? Does your sense of self change and adapt to whatever situation you find yourself in? Do you sometimes feel as if you are living a lie, somehow out of touch with knowing what you want? Perhaps you behave differently to how you really feel? Maybe life feels confusing, as if you don’t quite fit or belong anywhere? It could be that you are searching for your identity, or in other words yourself, or what is known as your ego. The self is made up of distinguishable, individual characteristics and personality that belong uniquely to you. Identity can appear to come in many shapes and sizes – gender, personal, social, cultural, religious, political, sexual, corporate, even online, but who you actually are comes from within.
A conscious sense of self is something we develop through social interactions. We gain a sense of competence by being admired, for example, and this in turn motivates our behaviour and actions. Growing an identity is something that we all face as children and as adults. It is the most important challenge in our development. Each challenge serves as a turning point — by either developing a quality, or failing to. The potential for growth and failure are equally high. The importance of working through each challenge, or stage, is a bit like hopping from one stepping stone of life to the next; it builds and layers until we form a knowing of who we are. If these stages are managed well, and we feel well-supported, loved and accepted, a sense of mastery and confidence emerges. We feel confident about how to go about life and don’t fear making mistakes; instead we see them as opportunities. As these layers build and solidify, they form what is called ego strength.
However, if these transitions are managed poorly — perhaps we don’t get the support, encouragement and validation that nourishes our growth as an individual — a sense of inadequacy and self doubt will be the outcome, leaving a sense of not knowing who we are, or feeling of not being good enough or ‘right’. This is where therapy can help.
What therapy can offer
Growing a more resilient identity is possible in the supportive environment of therapy — a second chance to explore different aspects of who you might become. Teenagers are good at this — it is their work, as they grapple with feelings of identity and confusion. They are in the important throws of intense exploration of looking at the self. How often have teenagers been called selfish and self-indulgent? But this is their work — they are trying out life for size. They are learning what values to throw away and which to keep, what to add to the picture of who they are, what to drop, as they evolve. Perhaps many prior assumptions about the world turn out to be incorrect. This involves having to find their own values, which may differ from the ones they grew up with. This can be a frightening but necessary stage of development.
Experimenting with different aspects of yourself, or the roles you play in different settings is useful in finding out about who you are, what you stand for and what makes you tick. Playing with roles at work, for example, within family and in romantic relationships, can help strengthen personal identity.
Research found that those who made a commitment to an identity tended to be happier and healthier. Interestingly, those who didn’t pursue, or were thwarted in their efforts to find a sense of identity, more often felt out of place in the world.