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Grief and Grieving

Grief is not an emotion most people spend time talking about regularly. There have been times when I looked to escape a loss conversation as quickly as possible while still maintaining some semblance of etiquette. Yet while this natural, communicative emotion is experienced universally, comfort with the experience is less common.

What is the rush?

Why was I in such a hurry to avoid grief? Uncomfortable emotions - anger, sadness, worry, and others – are hard enough to deal with when there may be a possible solution. Many of us avoid those more common emotions when we can. Then add that someone is gone - there is no "back to normal" - and we become ill at ease. Few of us know what to say, and each episode of grief is unique and can change day-to-day. When there is no one path, maps are of limited use.

It is okay to be unsure.

Showing grief is vulnerable, and it is vulnerable to share that you care. It is okay to recognize the loss and to recognize that no words will fix it. Holding space for the griever’s emotions is extremely valuable, although it feels simply like listening without judgment or solutions.[1]

What about this grief?

The grief and grieving associated with a loved one's death is an emotional journey that few would question. However, other forms of grief are important to recognize.

  • Secondary grief is the loss of experiences with a loved one. You will feel this twinge when holidays, milestones, and anniversaries arrive. It may soften with time but may never completely disappear.[2]

  • Vicarious bereavement is the grief felt as a witness to another’s loss. The healthcare community felt this grief during the COVID-19 pandemic,[3] and the city of Nashville experienced it after the Covenant School shooting.

  • Mourning of expectations can occur with experiences like the end of long-term relationships or the acceptance of infertility. Rather than grieving an individual, you are grieving your hopes for a future that is now impossible. Those expectations were real, and you put energy toward them, so moving through those feelings is key to well-being.

  • Pet grief can be difficult in part because the process is less structured. Perspectives on pet ownership and an animal’s place in the family can vary within social circles and within the family itself.

Why grieve?

Clinical psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor, author of “The Grieving Brain,” describes grieving as a learning process.[4] You are learning how to move in a changed world. Your brain has to adapt to the new reality.[5] Determining what is possible – and what is now impossible – takes time and involves a range of emotions and cognitive effort. Difficulty concentrating and confusion commonly accompany the sadness and yearning we associate with grieving.[6]

When to seek help.

Grief and grieving are hard to move through and hard to witness. However, a shift in perspective that expects and allows for grieving in the open alleviates the loneliness that can accompany a loss. Most individuals can accept the loss naturally, especially if supported by caring family and friends willing to hold space for their hurting loved one.

However, some grief requires counseling or a support group. Prolonged grief disorder affects approximately ten percent of those grieving.[7] The condition can include, among other symptoms, difficulty resuming life’s activities, emotional numbness, or intense disbelief about the death.[8] The grief must follow a loss from at least a year ago for adults and at least six months prior for children and teens.[9] Grief counseling can help those suffering prolonged grief to successfully process it.

Grief accompanied by extreme distress, reliving the circumstances of the death, guilt, withdrawal, suicidal thoughts, or panic attacks would also benefit from professional assistance. If the grieving individual worries about their well-being – or others express that worry – it is time to find help.

At its core, grief is an acknowledgment of the importance of what was lost. Taking the time to acknowledge and process grief is a nod to the connected life of the griever and to our ability to create such a life.

Stephanie Barca is a therapist at Benjamin Holmes Counseling.

[1] Some tips to consider can be found here: House, M. What “Holding Space” for Others Really Means + How to Do It. MBGMindfulness. What Does It Mean To Hold Space For Someone? 6 Tips To Follow | mindbodygreen

[2] Gillette, H. (2022). 9 Different Types of Grief. PsychCentral. What Are the Types of Grief? | Psych Central

[3] Abhyankar, L. (2020). COVID-19 and the Burden of Secondary Grief. Fresh Perspectives. American Academy of Family Physicians. COVID-19 and the Burden of Secondary Grief | AAFP

[4] McCoy, B. (2021). How your brain copes with grief, and why it takes time to heal. NPR. How grief and loss affect your brain, and why it takes time to adapt : Shots - Health News : NPR

[5] Id.

[6] McCoy, B. (2021). How your brain copes with grief, and why it takes time to heal. NPR. How grief and loss affect your brain, and why it takes time to adapt : Shots - Health News : NPR

[7] McCoy, B. (2021). How your brain copes with grief, and why it takes time to heal. NPR. How grief and loss affect your brain, and why it takes time to adapt : Shots - Health News : NPR

[8] American Psychiatric Association (2022). Prolonged Grief Disorder. - Prolonged Grief Disorder

[9] Id.

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