When you hear the words “grief and loss,” what comes to mind? For many of us, it’s an image of the first funeral, memorial service, or wake we attended. Many people think of the popular concept of Kubler-Ross’s Stages of Grief model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But does grief work in such a linear, goal-directed way? And what constitutes loss throughout the course of a lifetime? It is not just loss of life, though death can certainly be the most traumatic and emotionally-fraught experience of loss that we must work through in our lives. Rather, loss today is understood broadly to include all of the losses that are incurred as the result of major life changes, such as miscarriage and pregnancy loss, divorce, becoming seriously disabled, compromised health of a loved one due to major physical or mental illness, job loss, and the death of a dear animal companion. These challenges in our lives are often less acknowledged, and, thus, may not be fully recognized for what they are: real grief for the loss of what once was, or was hoped to be.
In my practice, I see the impact of these major life events almost daily. A child whose family dog was recently euthanized for failing health, who cannot stop hearing the jingle of that collar whenever she opens the door. A father, now unemployed, mourning the expectation of his retirement from a company he helped form. A young woman reeling after the shock of losing her first pregnancy late in the first trimester, just as she was beginning to warm to the idea of motherhood, 6 weeks after hearing the galloping hoof-beats of the new life growing within her. Or parents with an adult son newly diagnosed with serious, chronic and debilitating mental illness, grappling to understand how this once vibrant and high functioning young man can now barely manage to carry on daily tasks of self-care.
The examples go on and on. And considering how common these losses are, there is surprisingly little research or discussion about many of these topics. In many families, major losses like these are minimally acknowledged. Yet as a result of these losses, there can be intense shifts in family roles and communication patterns as the ripple effects of such changes persist over days, weeks, and months.
In my own life, I have encountered losses like those described above—death of loved ones, the type of grief that changes the course of your life and who you are, loss of friendships, and loss of dreams for myself. Also, the loss of my first pet, loyal sidekick, and traveling companion as a young adult, after 14 years of the most formative years of my life: living alone in a new city, through 6 years of graduate school, marriage, internship, post-doc training, purchasing/renovating my first home, and the birth of my two children. Oftentimes, there may be some shame in experiencing grief after losses such as these, in admitting these wounds are truly as profound or difficult as they can be. While some loss is visible, and socially-sanctioned to share openly with others, other losses are not talked about or disclosed.
In this blog, my goal is to shed some light on the various forms of loss, the different ways we may grieve, and the strategies that can help us move through such changes. Hard as it may be- loss is just part of living, we cannot separate the two, and we do ourselves no justice or service by denying the very real and more commonplace losses that erupt throughout our lives. Let’s explore together how we navigate that landscape of loss, and by doing so, how we incorporate the experience of loss into life’s unfolding narrative.