“It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
What are the signs and symptoms?
If you are reading this, then you are in pain right now. For some people, this can manifest outwardly and obviously. You may be crying uncontrollably and feeling great sadness most of the time. The world knows you have endured a great loss and it is clear you are grieving. For others, there may be more subtle symptoms and signs like a loss of appetite, irritability, and not experiencing as much pleasure in activities that were fun in the past. You may not feel sad but angry. You could be quite stoic, feeling nothing at all, like a numb outer shell walking around town. You may be stuffing your feelings.
If someone you love has died or a significant relationship has ended, you have experienced a loss. Whether you know it or not, you are grieving. People grieve in all sorts of ways but ultimately, there is a general pattern of behavior that human beings experience. Remember, if someone we were attached to is missing, our brain and our body feel that severing and there are reactions. Sometimes we can find ourselves grieving the end of a relationship even though we are still technically in it! We are hardwired to attach to each other, to love each other.
What about Closure?
Honestly, I do not believe in closure. Do we ever just get over a person? Rather than this idea of truly moving on and forward, there is an integration process. For example, if someone we loved has died we would go through the grieving process and in the end there would be growth and a new kind of life. There is really no choice if we want that new life or not, that is simply what we have been given. Doesn’t seem too fair? It is true, it isn’t really fair. After going through the stages and uncovering that new life, you will feel some healing and the pain will lessen over time. But that doesn’t eliminate it or erase the person or the sadness created by the void or emptiness. We are each unique and our attachments are splendid because of it. To lose someone and experience the sadness is the tragedy — to understand the depth of that relationship. It cannot be reproduced. However, the suffering and subsequent depression that ensues for some people, is not necessary and therapy will help alleviate those symptoms.
What are the stages of grief and loss?
Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross originally described the five stages of grief. Something to keep in mind is that we do not travel through the stages in a particular order. I have heard clients describe their stages as coming on like waves. Another client told me he is stuck in one stage and that’s where he is at for years. There is no correct or wrong way to grief. The stages below are meant to simply give you an idea of the process most people go through when experiencing grief or loss.
In grief counseling denial is an important stage. This is the brain’s way of making sense of nonsensical events. The brain is wondering where is his attachment figure? Just like a child searching for her caretaker, the brain realizes that to survive she must find that figure. It may even feel like you are dying, literally! The brain is trying to help you survive. This stage is a survival mechanism. It is not unusual to start to wonder things like: what’s the point in anything? What’s the point in being alive? Life can seem meaningless or vapid. Ultimately, through exploration in therapy, you will ask questions and begin to process this great loss. You will find meaning again.
Who wouldn’t be angry? This is unfair and unjust. Lots of horrible people walk around this earth, alive and well, but your spouse, friend, parent is gone forever and it is not okay. You may feel ripped off or duped. Why has this happened to you? Or maybe you thought you had an okay relationship, your beloved ended it and now you see your ex on a dating site. It feels horrible. Anger is not only normal, it is healthy! Repressing your emotions only exacerbates the upset. You may struggle with feelings of abandonment because your brain is trying to do its best to make sense of this situation and really, there has been a tremendous loss. Anger expressed in grief counseling is key to the healing process. I encourage it and welcome it.
Bargaining is a place where we tell ourselves, if only I had handled that last fight differently. Or, I wish I hadn’t refused to see her that one last time. I wish I had told him I loved him. It’s a place people often get stuck because of guilt and even shame. There is the desire to turn back the clock and do it again. Do it differently. Do it better. We often do not get those opportunities with the people we lose. But, there is the chance with future people who enter into our lives. Bargaining entails a bit of wishful or magical thinking because we are imagining we could make a better move and control the outcome or feel better. Usually when people work through this stage and get to the next one, they see that things unfolded as they did for a reason, and though we may not like the actual events and wish they hadn’t happened, we are standing just where we should be.
Do you think you will always be sad? That this feeling will never lift? It is not uncommon to feel hopeless and down, so sad that you just cannot smile or locate your sense of humor. Where has it gone? You might stay in bed all day or have trouble making it to work. The little things that used to bring you joy or pleasure, like a cup of coffee or a book, just do not anymore. You wish you could feel better, but that feeling is out of reach. Once you start to truly accept the finality of your loss, it is common to feel depressed. In grief counseling, we will work through this stage as well, with encouragement that there will be a time when you can feel hopeful again and even happy.
Acceptance does not mean that you are okay with the loss in your life. If a person in your life has died or a relationship has ended, there is no implication here that accepting that means you are joyful. You were deeply attached to this person and now they are gone. In the acceptance stage in grief counseling, there is more of an understanding about how to integrate this very sad experience into your life. How has it changed you? How does it impact your other relationships? How does it influence how you value life? How do you want to shape your interactions with yourself and others, knowing that our time here is fleeting? Once you travel through the acceptance stage you will find greater meaning in life.