Our society seems pretty comfortable with the following if-then logic.
“If there has been a death then there will be grief”
This logic is easily observed and understood by just about anyone. In fact, take a look at Oxford Dictionaries definition of ‘Grief’:
Deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.
We willingly recognize that when a person dies it’s almost certain someone close to him or her will grieve. We have a myriad of rituals and etiquette based on this premise and as loving friends and family we are poised and ready to offer our support and comfort should it be needed. With the correlation between death and grief being so blatantly obvious, we often believe we can reverse the logic and have it still hold true:
“If there is grief then there has been a death.”
Now I am horrible at math and all things related, but I did confirm via this regents prep website (shout out NY public schools) that in a ‘conditional statement‘ when the second condition (the then statement) is false, the whole statement is false. And notice our grief definition says grief is caused especially by a death, not exclusively. If we want to change the statement so that it’s true, then I think it should read:
“If there is grief then there has been a loss”
So why doesn’t Oxford choose a more comprehensive yet simpler definition like:
Deep sorrow caused by loss
I have no idea how definitions are determined so I’m just going to assume that a definition of grief without emphasis on the word death seems too unatural. However, I’m here to prevail upon you that it certainly is not. Here is how Oxford Dictionaries defines ‘Loss’ (as it pertains to our discussion):
The fact or process of losing someone or something
The state or feeling of grief when deprived or something or something of value
A person or thing that is badly missed when lost
Society needs to broaden its understanding of loss and grief. There are many kinds of losses capable of evoking a grief response and, true to grief form, these responses vary from person to person and differ in duration, depth, and complexity. Many types of losses are capable of causing complicated emotions, difficulties in daily functioning and impairment in ones ability to move forward. These losses are often significant enough to require a decent amount of processing and, just like after a death, grievers often view their lives in terms of before and after the loss. Here’s a brief list of events that can evoke feelings of loss and grief:Illness or Injury Shift or weakening of the family/support system Loss of employment or other role Abuse Trauma Exposure to death or trauma Loss of home Incarceration Marital discord Divorce Separation Being the victim of a crime Mental Illness Dementia Serious illness Infertility Divorce Empty nest Substance abuse Addiction Rehabilitation Life transition Estrangement
These events, many of them losses themselves, can have a profound impact on one’s emotional wellbeing and may cause individuals to experience grief due to loss of security, hopes, dreams, innocence, independence, health and/or mobility, comfort, community, connection, love, intimacy, immortality, trust, and faith. Grief may also be felt due to shifts in ones self-perception, identity, purpose, or worldview.
I don’t think that one can fully understand grief until they expand their definition to be inclusive of all types of loss. First, because losses need to be dealt with before they start piling on. Next, many of these losses occur as secondary losses after a death so it’s important to understand how dynamic our situations might become when we have multiple losses to reconcile. Furthermore, new losses can drudge up emotions related to old losses, while old losses can magnify and complicate our ability to deal with new losses. And you thought my logic statements were complicated!
Heck, let me complicate things a little further by pointing out that most people aren’t sure which losses are ‘worthy’ or ‘significant’ enough to be grieved resulting in:
- A lack of support from friends, family and society who don’t understand the significance of the loss
- A grievers uncertainty about whether they have the right to grieve
- Feelings of being misunderstood, unsupported, disenfranchised, etc
- Improperly dealing with losses through avoidance, negative coping, etc.
Taking the time to deal with grief is a luxury for many so when a loss is ambiguous it often doesn’t even get acknowledged. Unfortunately many of the circumstances that lead to loss are complicated – job loss, divorce, illness – one needs to navigate paying bills, details, legalities, treatments, etc. Keep swimming, stay afloat, who can worry about anything else? But we can’t always out swim our losses and leftover feelings of sadness, anger, regret, guilt, and anxiety loom ominously in the dark and murky water.
Litsa and I created an oath a while back for a class we’ve been conducting on loss with individuals experiencing homelessness in Baltimore City. I know, an oath is kind of cheesy. If you prefer to think of it as a contract or a promise to yourself, go for it. The only thing I want is for you to remember that you are entitled to grieve your losses, but it is up to them to identify these losses and to take the time and space you need to deal with them. As we’ve said, those around you may not understand which losses are apt to impact you and to trigger complicated emotions, so if you want support and understanding from others you may need to tell them so.
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