Endings and Leavings | Part 9 of a 9-part series on the deeper Self that awakens in laboring through grief, living through loss, and embracing endings as the seedbed of new beginnings.
The first eight articles in this series sought to explore endings as a reflection of the mystery and complexity that both nuances and nurtures our humanity.
That grief can pull us into the gray, and defy words, doesn’t mean that it lacks definition. At times grief work must respect the human need to categorize and compartmentalize our experience.
The grieving process is shaped by many variables: the type of loss experienced, one’s personality and culture, a person’s individualized style of grieving, and to what degree the loss is complicated by associated trauma or other unresolved, complicating factors.
The following grief synopsis is adapted from Dr. Steven Maybell’s work as director of the Student Counseling Center at Seattle Pacific University.
As Maybell notes, “Grief is not just a response to death, but a response to loss.”
Types of Loss
Concrete Loss: Loss that is tangible, observable, or easily identifiable – a house, a limb, a loved one, a valued possession, health, function or ability, activities, etc.
Symbolic Loss: Loss related to an aspect of one’s identity, or how the Self is defined, perceived or valued. Includes the loss of honesty, respect, integrity, effectiveness, power, strength, love, etc.
Normal or Uncomplicated Loss: Often related to losing a meaningful attachment figure in one’s life. While difficult to bear given the relationship’s significance, this loss is usually expected and not burdened by extenuating circumstances, which may allow for easier closure. (Example: Death from old age, such as an elderly grandparent passing peacefully while sleeping, surrounded by loved ones and with their affairs in order).
Complicated Loss: Losing an attachment (usually a person) when the relationship was unresolved (due to estrangement, conflict or unfinished business). Or, the nature of death is difficult to process (suicide, murder, complex divorce) and creates ongoing complications for those remaining (who may have depended on the deceased, for example).
Tragic Loss: The loss of an important attachment is unexpected, sudden and unnatural (such as the death of a young or healthy person).
Traumatic Loss: When the loss of a significant attachment is not only shocking and overwhelming but continues to haunt the person with both sadness and stress-related symptoms. (For example, a preoccupation with the deceased person or loss, or recurring thoughts, images, nightmares and dreams, which may function as a reflexive avoidance of or defense against stimuli related to the loss.)
First Loss: The experience of loss challenges a person’s optimism, innocence, worldview, or sense of safety and certainty – often raising questions about death and mortality for the first time.
Disenfranchised Loss: The sense of loss is accentuated by feelings of displacement and isolation because societal discrimination or cultural taboos prohibit grievers from sharing their loss openly or publicly (HIV/AIDS, divorce, miscarriage, abortion, disabled child, etc.).
Ambiguous Loss: A form of “complicated loss” in that someone is physically present but emotionally or mentally absent (due to dementia, mental illness, or neglect, for example), or psychologically present but physical unavailable (such as a child longing for a divorced parent who’s moved out, or a new empty-nest parent missing a college-bound child).
Liberating Loss: Confusing and complex emotions, such as mingled sorrow and relief, may arise from loss that was associated with hardship or burden. For example, the adult child who had served as caretaker through an elderly parent’s long illness. Or, an employee who loses a lucrative job that had been draining and difficult.
Rather than focusing on “stages” of grief (see Part 8), what’s important is that people discern their own “individual pathway” of grieving, Maybell says. This means respecting the process that’s most natural and comfortable for them, as well as respecting rituals and rules of grieving that are common to their culture.
“It’s not how you grieve, but that you grieve,” Maybell says.
He outlines three fundamental styles of grieving:
Intuitive: A more emotive style with a focus on sensing one’s inner world, and usually expressing this outwardly and socially. A person may experience “waves” of different emotions, and share them through tears, journaling or a support group. They appreciate being heard and processing their feelings with friends, family, pastors or mentors. Note: there is a cultural bias towards intuitive/emotional grief as it’s easily recognizable and therefore validated; the danger is in overlooking other styles of grieving.
Instrumental: A more cognitive/behavioral style, with an emphasis on logic and practical “doing.” Grief may be described in physical terms (“like a ton of bricks falling on me”), and grievers may try to make sense of the loss by reminiscing about the person in their mind or talking it out with others. While less emotionally expressive, the griever may focus on action steps: setting up a scholarship fund, planning a memorial event or visiting the gravesite regularly. Grief might be worked out physically through exercise, activities or projects.
Blended: Combines features of both intuitive and instrumental styles of grieving – processing feelings and thoughts and taking action.
Healthy Grief Responses
Facing, experiencing, and sharing the reality of the loss – which opens the griever to personal and spiritual growth, new opportunities, greater resiliency and closer connection with others.
Accepting that your way is your way (individual pathway), instead of trying to universalize your grief or grieve the ‘right way.’
Accepting that life is forever changed, and that recurring periods of grieving are natural and human (based on reminders, certain seasons or dates, or associated experiences).
It’s not about “letting go” of a person, but “finding a place” in your inner or outer world for the memory and spirit of that person to continue on with you. This means finding an internal or external way of honoring the memory, dedicating a part of your life to it, and incorporating the person into your life’s journey as a resource to draw strength from.
“Dosing” and “regulating”: We cannot always afford to shut down life in order to grieve; this might not even be physically or psychologically sustainable. Grief can be “dosed” a bit at a time, in safe places and practical ways. (A father may set aside time to sit in his parked car and put on music that his teen daughter loved, allowing himself to feel sad and remember her.) If the fear is that grief will overwhelm, consider the image of a dam with an “overflow valve” – the griever is permitted to regulate the flow at any given point instead of drowning in it.
Unhealthy Grief Responses
What Maybell calls the absence or “avoidant style” of grief. Denying loss leads to dysfunction; so does resisting the grieving process in an attempt to protect oneself.
Numbing the pain through alcohol or drugs, food, sex, over-working, etc.
Not allowing the loss or the deceased’s name to be brought up, or reacting with fresh, intense grief when it is. Dissociating or distancing from those who were close with the person.
Experiencing physical symptoms that mirror the deceased’s struggle just before death, or developing phobias about illness or death.
Radical lifestyle changes, chronic or severe depression, and suicidal thoughts or behavior.
Grief and Loss: Not Going It Alone
Professional Christian counseling can help you to locate where you are on your grief journey, and to explore the underlying narratives that could be complicating your efforts to grieve in a healthy way.
It would be my privilege to companion with you as your pathway reveals itself, and as the Self-in-waiting emerges to embrace the new beginnings God has for you.
Endings & Leavings
You can access this 9-part series in its entirety through these article links:
Part 9 – Navigating Grief and Loss: Finding a Grief Pathway that Works for You
Maybell, Steven. Staff presentation: “SPU Office of Student Life Training on Grief and Loss.” February 2013.
“Early Morning,” courtesy of The Wandering Angel, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Grieving,” courtesy of aka Tman, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)