Communication Counselling skills

Must You Talk About A Loss

Lake Bohinj, Slovenia. Photograph © 2011 M.F. van Alphen

Loss has its roots in the environment – a situation arises in which something is lost. A loss is generally something irreversible, something permanent. It can be a loss of all kinds of things such as a loved one, your health (including the capabilities that are no longer available to you), a job, a relationship, trust (for example when your partner has had an affair), a marriage (after a divorce), or feelings of security or safety (after a traumatic experience). The key association with loss is that an attachment which has been developed is no more. Usually, sadness and depressive feelings stand at the forefront; but the whole gamut of negative emotions can also play a role.

Loss can be traumatic

First, a note of explanation: Trauma and loss have a lot in common, but aren’t the same. A trauma is a drastic, usually sudden, unexpected and extremely negative event that the person experiences as shocking, in which intense negative emotions are experienced and on which the person frequently thinks back, often accompanied by reliving the event. A loss is far more general in nature. One can experience a loss without it being traumatic. When the loss is expected (for example, a loved one dying at advanced age or after a long illness), this may still lead to intense negative emotions, but doesn’t necessarily need to be traumatic. However, whereas a loss may be expected or unexpected and doesn’t have to be traumatic, there is almost always some form of loss after experiencing a traumatic event.

Give someone enough time

People generally believe that people must talk about their loss. Yet who says they must? Studies on giving victims aid directly after an incident show that not everyone actually benefits from this assistance. Directly after the shock of the event is too fast. A so-called single debriefing with psycho-education tends to increase the chance of traumatisation (Sijbrandij, 2007). People first need the time for the initial shock to land. And not everyone will want to talk after it has landed. Some people would rather process their loss independently, which means that talking about it has an adverse rather than beneficial effect: By repeatedly digging up the things they have already worked through in their own way, they only become more sad or depressed. Research into the trauma situation by Sijbrandij et al (2007), for example, shows that a short cognitive-behavioural intervention soon after the incident does have positive effects, but that these effects are equalled within four weeks by others who did not get the intervention. They go a step further: About 80% of victims of a traumatic experience recover by themselves and don’t require professional help at all. Although this research is about trauma, one can expect similar results when dealing with loss generally.

Be present!

Does that mean you can lean back and do nothing? No. Social support can be very beneficial, especially when the other knows that you are there for them, while you give them the room to engage in their own processing. In the meantime, you keep an eye on them so that you can intervene if the process grinds to a halt. If after a few weeks you notice they aren’t moving forward, you might suggest talking about the loss. In brief therefore: Not everyone benefits by talking about their loss, and just knowing there are others to fall back on may be all that is necessary.


  • Sijbrandij, M. E. (2007). Early interventions following psychological trauma. Amsterdam: Universiteit van Amsterdam.
  • Sijbrandij, M. E., Olff, M., Reitsma, J. B., Carlier, I. V., De Vries, M. H., & Gersons, B. P. (2007). Treatment of acute posttraumatic stress disorder with brief cognitive behavioural therapy: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164, 82-90.

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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