As we observe Memorial Day this month, we each consider the losses we have experienced throughout our lifetime. Loss is a natural component of the human experience, however in our society we are personally ill-prepared to respond to the grief and emotions that follow.
We may grieve the loss of a loved one, the loss of a beloved pet, the loss of a relationship, or even the loss of a job.
Losses confront us from a wide array of experience. While there are common emotions regardless of the loss we experience, the challenge to our well-being is inevitable.
Grief following the loss of a loved one is perhaps amongst the greatest of such challenges to our psychological and physiological health. Not only can our physical health be expected to be at risk due to our immune response to the stress we are experiencing, psychologically we find ourselves overwhelmed on both emotional and cognitive levels.
Historically our society has not well prepared us to respond to the loss of a beloved individual. In many cases it has become an unspoken event, while a natural expectation for each of us, yet something about which we avoid preparing for both through personal consideration as well as communication with others.
The result of our societal perspectives toward death is a lack of socialization as how to best respond to grief when it challenges us personally as well as within our interpersonal relationships. We are not taught appropriate scripts for communicating with others during times of intense emotionality and loss. It is not uncommon to find that we are avoided by those expected to contribute most intimately during our time of need. The inability to recognize appropriate behavior and response may cause close friends and family to keep their distance when we need them the most.
Psychologists specializing in supporting grieving client populations have abandoned a therapeutic goal of grief recovery and instead work toward incorporation of the grief experience (loss) into the individual’s life experience. I no longer discuss grief completion, but rather focus on moving forward while acknowledging the gravity of the impact of grief on normal functionality. What might have once been considered as normal functionality may no longer be possible. The creation of a new normal may require therapeutic intervention and support.
When we are asked to complete our grief, we are being challenged to cease our embrace of our lost beloved individual. It is not a letting go that the bereaved seeks, but rather a healthy incorporation of memories and emotional ties to the lost individual.
Grief may take many forms. In grief therapy, we consider both complicated and uncomplicated grief challenges. An individual may be well served by interactions with others within a focused therapeutic environment regardless of the presence of complicated or uncomplicated grief.
The priority is to view the grief experience as a highly personalized challenge which is highly specific for every individual. Allowing one’s self to respond in a manner which feels personally therapeutic is important. Allowing ourselves to move through the grief experience within our own comfort and timeline will serve us best.
William Gibson is an Associate Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Graduate School of Marriage and Family Therapy, Brandman University. He is also on the board of directors of Bainbridge Youth Services (www.askBYS.org).