When you lose someone you love, the grief can be overwhelming. Though explanations alone can never be enough to soothe soul-searing grief, gaining a better understanding of it may help you through the initial period of acute grief.
According to Dr. Katherine Shear, the founding director for the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University, “Grief is the form love takes when someone we love dies.” She says that although the affection lives on, love becomes yearning and sorrow.
So, to understand grief, you must understand love. True love (in any form) fills you with a sense of being fully accepted and cared about for who you are deep down, as well as offering a sense of emotional warmth. From the psychological perspective known as attachment theory, people we love are important to us in two basic ways. You can turn to them for comfort and support when you are distressed, and so they offer you a safe haven. You can also look to them as a secure base – offering you encouragement as you pursue your interests and explore the world. In addition to receiving love, people have an innate need to offer love.
Dr. Shear emphasizes that when someone you love dies, you are losing them, along with all of the ways that they are important to you. You lose them as a safe haven, so you can no longer turn to them for comfort and support. You lose them as a secure base, so you feel less supported in exploring the world, and this loss can trigger you to lose your motivation to learn, grow, and accomplish goals. If you were a caregiver, the loss can leave you feeling ineffective in this role, maybe even suffocating you with guilt for having failed the person as a caregiver.
Broadly speaking, grief is a reaction to loss, and it is experienced by everyone in their own way. You may experience acute grief, which can include having very strong emotions, such as sadness, hurt, anger, guilt, and anxiety. Unwanted thoughts about the person or images of them may keep coming to your mind. You may also feel the grief physically in your body. And you may act out the grief, such as by easily snapping at people. However, over time, people generally find a place in their hearts for the grief so that the pain gives way to also experiencing bittersweet emotions, comforting thoughts, and being better able to enjoy the good things in life. Importantly, grief is something you should not just do alone – it can help tremendously to share it with others.
Some people get derailed from adapting to their loss, and so they get stuck in their grief. This is called “complicated grief.” One very common obstacle to processing grief is trying to avoid, ignore, or rewrite the reality of what has happened. For instance, a widow might repeatedly think about whether her husband would have lived longer if she had not gone out the day he died at home from a heart attack. Or, she might avoid going out to dinner with friends because her husband would have always gone with her. Another common obstacle is feeling it’s wrong to enjoy life or be excited about the future.
If you are struggling with the pain of grief, it is important to know that grief takes time and you will feel waves of it at unexpected times. But if you think you are stuck in your grief or significantly impaired in your ability to get through your days, reach out for help from a professional trained in grief counseling.
by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD, Clinical psychologist
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