The Grieving Process

Photograph © 2016 Yvonne Fontijn

Dealing with a loss can be seen as a grieving process, which based on Fiddelaers (2004) and Worden (2009) contains five tasks that need to be fulfilled:

  • Is: The loss allowed to be there;
  • That: Acknowledgement of the loss;
  • What: Recognition of the consequences;
  • How: Exploring of new possibilities; and
  • Further: Making the connection between past and future.

These tasks, however, aren’t executed sequentially and checked off one by one: It is a dynamic to-and-fro switching between tasks. In another post I intend to discuss coping mechanisms and Stroebe and Schut’s (2010) dual process model, for now just a description of what someone with a loss is faced with. Below therefore a summary of what the five tasks involve.

Break the taboo: Is the loss allowed to be there

Often, people in the person’s environment avoid the griever or the subject of loss, simply because they do not know how to approach them or the event, or feel uncomfortable about broaching the subject. This could lead to the loss being hushed up, or the result that much is not expressed at all. People then interact with each other on the basis of what they think the other wants or needs. This is why the first task really is about breaking the taboo. Fiddelaers (2004) calls this the zero-task, which she suggests means finding out ‘how a person meets the loss’, for example due to how losses were dealt with in the family (of origin). Breaking the taboo boils down to the question of whether the loss is allowed to be there.

Accepting that there is an irreversible loss

Especially in the period directly after the loss, people often still react with disbelief, as if the loss didn’t occur, as if they are in a bad dream from which they still need to awaken. This is not the time for rational arguments; the emotional experience is still centre stage. Avoiding the subject (by starting a long conversation on a neutral subject, for example) equally misses the point. The best you can do, especially when the loss is still fresh, is simply to be there. Be present, physically if possible, and be understanding. Statements such as: ‘It’s quite unbelievable’, ‘What’s happened cannot be grasped’, etcetera, may be used now and it’s quite okay to stay silent for longer periods of time.

People often need a lot of time and much information before this task can be adequately completed. They can be filled with all kinds of questions. More frequently than not this isn’t information you can provide. You may need to distinguish the difference between an actual question and the venting of the underlying emotion. When someone grieving asks: ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why is this happening (to me)?’ this is seldom a serious question requiring a rational answer, but far more the expression of their disbelief. It is then better to show understanding than to try and provide a serious answer.

Some will not want to acknowledge the loss, whilst they obviously are suffering under it. They could, for example, still be hoping for the old situation to return, or might trivialise the loss by stating that the old situation wasn’t that meaningful for them in the first place. Here again it is also better to let them know you are there for them and wait until they are ready to face their loss.

The crux of this task is the realisation of the irreversibility of the loss, that there has been a loss. This is already the first consequence: The situation as it was, exists no more, and a new situation is to follow.

Knowing what the loss means

This task is about recognising the consequences, especially about what was lost. This can be in a material sense (such as financial); usually that which causes the pain is relational. Then it is more about the emotions that the loss elicits. A loss can draw out a combination of several emotions. Where one might only experience absence and the sadness which that brings about, another might be relieved that it’s over, but can simultaneously feel ashamed about just that. Another will be angry (at any of several people, or perhaps at God), and some will be anxious about their future. It is sometimes useful to normalise these emotions, in other words be accepting and help the other accept the emotions they are experiencing.

What can stand in the way of this task is when people try at all costs to avoid or suppress feeling the negative emotions, and use all kinds of (sometimes inventive) methods to do this, such as throwing themselves into their work or using alcohol. Expressing emotions isn’t always self-evident or natural for some people; nor do those who do express their emotions do so in the same way. For one it might be done by telling a story about the loss, or by recounting memories; another might do it through music (listening or making music); another might do it via creative activities like painting, pottery, etcetera. Note, though, that grieving people frequently are ashamed, even if it is only because they don’t know how to behave in the situation, or because they cannot fulfil the grieving process on their own.

Perspective on how to deal with the consequences

Exploring new possibilities is the crux of this task, which comprises two types of possibility, of which how to deal with the consequences is the first. For example, which new responsibilities now fall onto the person’s shoulders, and how should they tackle these? It could be that some new skills will need to be learned. Also, when there are financial consequences, this could mean addressing all kinds of practical affairs, such as selling the home and finding new accommodation. The how-to-deal-with-it question also has an emotional element: Where, for example, the lost partner always offered a listening ear, and thereby was an emotional support, another way will need to be found to replace that. Also in a relational sense: What, for example, is the impact on your relationship when your partner is no longer are able to fulfil your sexual needs (take Alzheimer’s, for example), and how does one overcome that issue?

Another kind of possibility might at first glance even sound lurid, but a loss also opens the door to new possibilities. In an almost sick sense one looks at what the advantages of the loss are. For this you can use questions such as: ‘What would you be able to do now, which wasn’t an option beforehand?’ ‘What are the things that are important to you?’ ‘Are there things that are important to you that you can work towards from your new situation?’ ‘In what ways did the old situation limit you?’ ‘What new possibilities are now available to you?’ etcetera. Note that these new possibilities need time to develop. Being too pushy or too early with these questions could be counterproductive, as if you are trivialising the loss with the exaggerated (unspoken) subtitle: ‘You will be happy about what happened’. So it’s not about the loss suddenly becoming positive. When, for example, someone has always loved travelling, but his wife was claustrophobic and didn’t dare to fly, he will still experience her death as a loss, but the chance to travel more extensively may come as a positive side-effect of this negative life event. By realising new possibilities, one is easier able to move on to the next task. In short, this step is about looking at how to move on.

Give the loss an honourable place so that one can proceed

This task is about connecting past and future: It is unrealistic to think that someone can ever forget what happened. That is a perfect example of this task. The loss belongs to the past, and the memories of that which was lost to the future. The past is given an honourable place. That doesn’t mean that it has vanished, simply that it (no longer) is in the way of proceeding towards a new situation. Often, this task can be rounded off with some form of ritual, which may or may not be religious by nature. It can also be as simple or as elaborate as the griever feels appropriate. Sometimes it is nothing more than reading a letter out loud at the grave of a loved one, or the ritual burning of an object symbolising all the pain of the loss. The keyword is that they can proceed, pick up the thread of their life again.

Bibliography

  • Fiddelaers-Jaspers, R. (2004). Mijn troostende ik. Kwetsbaarheid en kracht van rouwende jongeren [My comforting self. Vulnerability and power of grieving youths]. Kampen: Kok.
  • Stroebe, M., & Schut, H. (2010). The dual process model of coping – a decade on. Omega, 61, 273-289.
  • Worden, J. W. (2009). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Fourth Edition: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner. New York: Springer.

Excerpted from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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