GRIEF — WHAT IS IT AND CAN IT BE UNDERSTOOD?

By Mickey Skidmore, ACSW

This is the first of a three-part series on Grief. This article was originally published in the 3/11/90 edition of the News Argus, the local newspaper in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

Grief. A feeling we have all experienced in some form during our life. But what is it? Can it be truly understood? Why do we try so hard for an acceptable understanding to this sometime devastating event?

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is largely credited with contributing significant amounts of professional information on this topic, stemming from her pioneering work with terminally ill patients. As her patients prepared themselves for death, and their families with the death of a loved one, Kubler-Ross first began identifying the dynamics associated with grief.

Thanks to her work in this area, knowledge about the grief process is becoming more readily available to physicians, psychotherapists and other health care professionals. More importantly however, there seems to be a gradual trend toward people in general gaining insight as to how grief effects their lives, as well as answers to some of these questions.

Historically, philosophers have believed that understanding of the highest spiritual values of life can come from the study of death and dying. More recently, professionals who study human development have suggested that death is as much a part of the human experience and process as being born. Some will go as far as to say that death is the final stage of growth, and that it is death that gives meaning to our lives. Death is one of the ways in which grief becomes part of our experience, but it is by no means the only way.

If grief were defined as: the process of an intense emotional reaction caused by death, disaster, or misfortune, we could begin to understand how integral a role grief plays in our lives. However, grief also includes the realm of loss, which is a broad one. Experiences of loss are as numerous, diverse, and unique as perception of the event which triggered their loss. Losses may be personal, financial, physical, material, relational, spiritual, symbolic, etc. To be human is to experience loss. How each individual deals with loss depends on their personality and the resources available to them.

The deeper meaning of grief goes far beyond the ordinary understanding of the word. This article not only addresses the usual components of grief such as death and bereavement, but also seeks to expand the definition of grief to include to include the notion of “loss” as its center piece. urthermore, the intense emotions of denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance must also be included. These intense emotions make perfect sense when seen within a given context of events and in fact are stages of the grieving process as identified by Kubler-Ross. These feelings are communicating vital information to us which we can use to cope constructively with the loss(es) we have endured.

John Bradshaw, in his book “Healing the Shame that Binds You“, points out that most of life’s significant events are signaled by strong emotions. He describes emotions as a form of “energy-in-motion”, which are signals of a loss, a threat, or of fulfillment of a need. He gives some examples of grief-related emotions and the messages they bring to us. Sadness is about losing something we cherish, and understanding the value it had for us. Anger and fear signal actual or perceived threats to our well-being. Joy tells us we are fulfilled and satisfied. These feelings can be so intense and uncomfortable during a grief-reaction however, that we often seek to avoid them.

Somewhere along the way in our culture we began to see feelings as less than desirable, or as signaling a weakness. Consequently, we have developed cognitive and intellectual mechanisms which feed this belief and prevent us from grieving naturally. Some of us have developed these abilities to the point that we are unable to receive the signals these emotions were intended to communicate.

Ways of expressing these experiences include physical symptoms such a mixed-up, jumbled sensation in the pit of our stomachs which we sometimes mistake for indigestion. For some of us, our feelings become so intense and uncomfortable that we jump to the conclusion that we are losing control or “going crazy”, because we have denied our feelings and emotions for so long, and because our intellect has been unable to interpret accurately what is going on.

Paradoxically, the opposite is true. Allowing ourselves to “walk through” the grief, enables us to experience the hurt and pain and gain strength and acceptance. It is through the courage of risk and vulnerability that our strength grows. No matter how well we bolster our cognitive and intellectual abilities, the powerful emotions of grief will manifest themselves. And only if we are able to integrate our emotional and intellectual abilities will we be able to make sense of the signals being given to us when we experience grief.

Although not every grief-reaction or experience requires the assistance of a psychotherapist, for many, emotions can become so intense that professional assistance is sought to ensure that they receive a healthy mixture of feedback, guidance, and support in “walking through” their grief. Moreover, as we shall read next month, many seek the help of a professional as they encounter other difficulties which they cannot explain, only to learn in the course of therapy of several significant unresolved losses from the past. Conversely, many people are quite able to cope adequately with certain losses through help and support from ministers, family, friends, and other support systems.

Grief. The process of intense emotional suffering caused by death, disaster, misfortune, or loss. Grief is a vital and important part of human experience and growth — a dynamic and powerful experience which we all share. Grief causes varied responses, including depression and guilt.