It bends my mind to consider how universal and common the experience of losing a loved one is. How could something that feels so catastrophic be such a normal and expected part of being human?
But then I consider that although a living cell is enormously intricate, it is only about 1 micrometer in size. And while there are an estimated 37 trillion living cells in the human body, the Earth is 3.5 million times larger than a single person. And while the Earth is massive, it exists in a solar system about 36 billion times larger. So I guess my point here is that complex, meaningful, and profound things can exist within even larger and more complex systems.
People often underestimate grief. Partly because it’s a normal part of being human and partly because it’s hard to imagine the breadth of it when you’re not living it yourself. But to the person going through it, it’s a mysterious experience that involves incredibly nuanced dynamics. Humans are complicated, and relationships create systems as entangled as balls of yarn. And when loss happens, it’s as though someone cuts your ball of yarn clear in half, leaving a hundred loose and lonely ends.
Your Grief Feels Enormous Because it is Enormous
Though losses come in all shapes and sizes, some are so significant that they turn your life upside down. To better understand why your grief might feel so overwhelming, let’s consider all the types of things a person might grieve after the death of a loved one.
When someone dies, you grieve for them.
It goes without saying that when someone significant in your life dies, you grieve that person. Even if you had a rocky relationship with the deceased, you are likely to have a lot of feelings about the fact that they’ve died because grieving for a person is far more complicated than simply feeling sad that they’re gone.
When someone dies, you will often grieve a timeline that involves the past, present, and future. Memories of happy times may be difficult to access at first because they cause overwhelming sadness, though there’s reason to hope they feel more comforting in the future. You also maybe remember and rehash more troubling experiences – things you never got to say, wrongs you think you never righted, and mistakes you believe you made. (Tip: when looking at life in reverse, be mindful of the impact of hindsight bias and counterfactual thinking).
In the present, you grieve their absence. You may struggle to live alongside the vast, dark, and unfamiliar space they have left behind. You worry the only way you’ll ever feel better is to have them back, which you intellectually know isn’t possible, so at times you may feel hopeless. And finally, you grieve the future they never had. We’ll discuss this further in a few sections.
You grieve for yourself.
It’s natural for loss to cause a person to contemplate things like their own mortality, their identity and purpose here on Earth. However, many people are hesitant to acknowledge that they are grieving for themselves because they worry it’s selfish when it’s their loved one who has died. But if you can recognize a person’s impact on who you are in life, it follows that their death would have one as well. And understanding who you are in the wake of loss is a necessary part of understanding your grief story.
Most obviously, someone might grieve the loss of roles related to their loved one and past life because relational identities (who you are in relation to others) often change. So, for example, a person might grapple with questions like, “Who am I now that I’m not a caregiver?” or “Am I a spouse or a widow, and how do those things differ?”
But beyond roles and identities, people might question things they thought they knew about themselves. For example, we often hear people express that their confidence and self-esteem felt destroyed by grief. They they no longer move through the world with the ease and certainty they once did, and they feel unsure about their ability to show strength in the face of adversity.
You grieve for your day-to-day life.
Something I personally find incredibly distressing is that, as I grow older, there are more and more places in my past that I can never return to. For example, my grandmother’s home or the old Blockbuster on Erie Boulevard that we would hit up every Friday evening in my teen years. Two very different places, but I’m nostalgic for them both.
When someone significant dies, it can feel like the loss has split your life into two parts. There’s the life you live now and the life you lived before that you can never return to. You miss your previous life because your loved one was in it, of course, but also perhaps because you think you felt better back then.
Further, loss may have sets off a domino effect of subsequent losses that impacts things like finances, home, roles, responsibilities, friends and family, worldview, etc. These may present new challenges you have to navigate under a fog of grief, and the culminating effect is that life looks forever altered. Ultimately, your life now feels drastically different, and you struggle to acclimate to your new reality.
You grieve for the future.
As previously mentioned, when someone dies, your grief extends into the future. Contrary to what people often expect, thoughts and ideas about the deceased don’t stay forever locked in the past. As time passes and you move forward, you will likely think about them, the things they missed out on, and the ongoing impact they might have had on your life.
You may grieve for the future they didn’t have–experiences they never had, unaccomplished goals, or hopes and dreams they didn’t realize. And you may grieve for the future you wanted to share with them –conversations you imagine you would have had, a reconciliation you might have come to, things you wish you could have experienced together, or the simple fact that expected them to be by your side.
Finally, you may grieve for your future. The absence of your loved one might have practical impacts that mean you cannot pursue the future you imagined you would. Further, a loss can change your sense of priority, value, and direction, so you may feel you aren’t even the person you imagined you would be as you move into the future.
When someone dies, you grieve your changing worldview
From childhood, we build an understanding of the world and the people in it. Our worldview includes beliefs and assumptions about faith, spirituality, justice, fairness, morality, right and wrong, good and bad, trust, etc.
We’re protective of our worldview because having a sense of how the world works allows us to feel a greater sense of control and security and can help to provide us with purpose and meaning. Though we often have experiences and learn new information throughout life that causes us to revise our assumptions, we resist major shifts and struggle when our belief system is significantly compromised. You can probably see where I’m heading with this.
Though some losses fit within our worldview better than others, many defy our expectations and beliefs about how things should be. We often say that some losses are like violent storms that are so strong they tear your foundational views and assumptions out of your life’s bedrock. As a result, much of grief must focus on reorienting yourself to a vastly different world and reconstructing a sense of meaning, purpose, and understanding, having now been through something life-altering.
Sometimes, the way you come to understand the world can feel far worse and more scary, threatening, or random. And sometimes, with the wisdom you’ve gained and, perhaps, through a continuing bond with your deceased loved one, you’re able to reconstruct beliefs that suit you better or feel stronger and richer than before.
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What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
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