Grief & Loss

Life inevitably brings us grief and loss. It is a part of the human legacy. We often refer to grief and loss as something to be avoided, to run from, when in fact the very thing that helps to heal grief and loss is sitting with it, experiencing it and growing from it.

Many years ago, I was being trained to run grief and loss workshops with a group of people who were deeply struggling with their loss. During my ten weeks in the training, I was curious about a young woman who often referred to a male name that was pivotal to her grief and she was obviously suffering acutely. I discovered that her loss was for a bird.

Every member of the group thought that it was a family member that created so much sorrow for her. After opening to the group, the young woman explained that she was very sick as a child and adolescent, often in hospital for lengthy stays but she always had her bird to come home to. One day while she was in hospital, her precious bird had died, and she couldn’t come home to his chirps and welcomes. She believed that she had lost everything as the bird was her lifeline on returning home.

Everything we love

Many people think that loss only relates to losing people, when in fact it relates to anything that we love. That could be our birthplace, pets, relationships, culture, companionship, innocence, ancestry, sense of self, freedom, rights, the ocean, the wilderness, our own lives, our mobility, perhaps our sight or our hearing.

Of course, some loss has a much greater impact on our daily lives than others. The loss of a partner, child or close friend can have devastating consequences on the way we live in the future because those that have shared our lives, our blood, our bond, our secrets or our space are no longer able to do that anymore. It can be outright devastating.

Some grief and loss can also be traumatic depending on the way the loss occurred, the relationship with the loss and a range of circumstances that prevent someone’s ability to grieve their loss, whatever that loss might be.

Traumatic grief and loss are a different form of grief and loss. There could be intense damage to family relationships, PTSD, trust, medical horror, prolonged suffering and many unresolved issues. There could also be ongoing injury and illness attached to the traumatic grief.

Francis Weller from the “The Wild Edge of Sorrow” talks of grief and loss with a new perspective. She says, “Every one of us must undertake an apprenticeship with sorrow. We must learn the art and craft of grief; discover the profound ways it ripens and deepens us. While grief is an intense emotion, it is also a skill we develop through a prolonged walk with loss. Facing grief is hard work……… It takes outrageous courage to face outrageous loss”.

Anticipatory grief – before death

During my time as a therapist working with grief and loss, I have noticed that you can also grieve the loss of yourself or others before death occurs. This is particularly common when people have cancer, dementia or chronic medical conditions. There is much opportunity to explore what you have lost prior to death as the person experiencing grief or as a carer. There are so many things to grieve such as the future planned, holidays, declining mental, physical or emotional ability. Lost love and identity.

Love not known

Weller also speaks of “the places that have not known love…… these neglected pieces of our soul live in utter despair. What we perceive as defective about ourselves, we also experience as loss”. Perhaps there is guilt and shame or other intense feelings about self that have been lost or hidden and we don’t know how to grieve something that is not often accepted as worthy of grieving.

Many people grieve the loss of their childhood through the experience of childhood trauma. To some it is the beginning of the diminishment of their soul.

World sorrow

Lately, especially during the Covid 19 Pandemic and the Climate Crisis there is another loss to be found. It is a collective loss of lives around the world, the extensive suffering, the loss of freedoms, the uncertainty of the future and for those that come after us. This type of loss can be overwhelming, oppressive and sometimes hard to pin down as grief and loss.

The philosopher Thomas Berry said that “We have become autistic to the world and have ceased to register the songs and moods of the singing planet.”

Unused gifts

Weller also describes the grief and loss some people experience after realising they have not used their innate gifts to contribute to their family, community and world. “In our modern culture of hyperactivity and stress, we are seldom asked what we have carried into the world as a gift for the community…………. no one asks, “What is the gift in your soul?”

Many of my clients describe a feeling of emptiness, hollowness, a need to feel connected, valued and not alone in a room full of people. This loss of connection is a loss that is often not discussed as is it difficult to recognise. Human beings want to be touched, valued and to feel part of a bigger collective. They want to express and create. When denied the opportunity to express those gifts it can be an enormous loss.

Ancestral Grief

Ancestral grief is also an often-overlooked loss. This is the type of grief that we carry in our bodies from sorrows experienced by our ancestors. Much of it is denied by the wider community or shunned. Often there is a loss of home, family and communities. Many carry the wounds of prisoner of war camps, genocide, slavery or dictatorships.

Many have lost connection to land, language, imagination, rituals, songs and stories of their ancestors.

A special note on trauma

Trauma always carries grief, although not every grief carries trauma. Grief work is an essential part of trauma work. Our grief belongs to us, and we must give it the attention it so rightly deserves.

Sometimes grief can be referred to as complicated grief and loss and with that you can also experience post-traumatic stress disorder. They have overlaps and differences, and they can also come at the same time.

Carol lost her close friend to a savage murder. The loss was immense. Carol was traumatised by the events and violence surrounding her friend’s death which made it difficult for her to sleep without nightmares and sickening thoughts about how her friend died. She believed she was somehow responsible for her death. Carol went for a year with these troubling thoughts and felt like she was frozen in time. Her life had lost meaning and she didn’t know how to recover. She believed she wouldn’t recover, and she had to stay like this for the rest of her life.

With the use of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprogramming) and EMIT therapy (Eye Movement Integration Therapy) Carol was able to lessen her intense emotion surrounding her friend’s murder as well as find new ways of processing her grief and loss.

When traumatic events lead to long lasting effects on your emotions, thoughts, and behaviour, (like Carol) it is a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The loss of a loved one or many of the other types of grief mentioned earlier can also create a traumatic event that causes similar problems. When they become prolonged, it is classified as complicated bereavement. Left untreated, it can persist for months or years.

So how are the two distinguished? Is it possible to have both?

Complicated grief and loss and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have overlaps and differences, and they can also come at the same time.

Complicated Grief and Loss:

  • Persistent focus on the loss
  • Intense, daily longing
  • Feeling that life is meaningless
  • Replaying aspects of death in mind
  • Intense attachment or rejection of reminders
  • Bitterness and anger at the world

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:

  • Intense flashbacks
  • Recurring nightmares
  • Sensory experiences that trigger trauma
  • Unwelcome thoughts
  • Paranoia and fear
  • Anxiety
  • Jumpiness

The trauma created by these experiences can seep into your everyday life and make it difficult to function. But the main difference is the defining emotions for each. For complicated grief and loss, it’s longing, while PTSD is more associated with a sense of fear and powerlessness. The loss of a loved one may turn your world into a lonely place that does nothing but remind you of your loss. You may feel lost, even bitter, and these feelings may seem like a burden you will carry for the rest of your life.

Living with PTSD is also distressing but without the focus on personal loss. Although situations like childhood trauma and sexual assault are very personal, the paranoia, anxiety, and jumpiness stem from the fear created by the trauma. No matter where you are or who you’re around, you can feel equally as on edge, and the memories of the traumatic event may trigger fears that it could happen again. With complicated grief, there is no fear of experiencing the same loss—only regret and longing.

Overcoming the grief of a loved one

Experiencing grief is normal, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. When your loved one is alive, the comfort of their presence sets off a neural reward activity in your brain. After they pass away, adapting to the loss parallels the disappearance of this reward activity. Over time, we learn to cope with the death and don’t expect this same reward. But if you struggle with complicated grief and loss, your brain continues to crave it.

Working on this loss will show you that moving on doesn’t mean forgetting your loved one—it means memorializing and remembering them in a way that gives your life new meaning and purpose.

Coping with Trauma

Traumatic events trigger the fight-or-flight response in your brain to such an extreme degree that it throws it off-balance. You become hypersensitive to cues that remind you of the trauma and eventually simply living feels like an uphill struggle. Breaking out of this pattern is difficult because it’s almost impossible to take your mind elsewhere when your adrenaline is flooding your body and your fear response is through the roof.

With tools such as Clinical Hypnotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy and Eye Movement Integration Therapy you will have a safe space that allows you to learn how to accept your painful memories no matter how long that might take. The end goal is to give them less sway over your brain’s biology and, in turn, your life.

“Cath had come highly recommended, so I knew I was in good hands when I booked an appointment with her to help me deal with two traumatic episodes life had thrown at me. But I underestimated the difference it would make. I felt truly listened to and understood, and the techniques that Cath is highly skilled in using worked to dramatically lessen the intensity of emotion I was feeling in relation to the trauma. I haven’t forgotten what happened but can move on with my life now and experience joy once again.”

Jackie (Mother)

“Cath made me feel really relaxed. I was having trouble dealing with loss and she helped me feel so much better about it. She’s nice and really understanding as well. She taught me how to express my feelings more.”

Jai (10-year-old boy)

The Unbroken

By Rashani Rea

“There is a brokenness
Out of which comes the unbroken,
A shatterdness
Out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is sorrow
Beyond all grief which leads to joy
And a fragility
Out of whose depths emerges strength.

There is a hollow space
Too vast for words
Through which we will pass with each loss,
Out of whose darkness
We are sanctified into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sound
Whose serrated edges cut the heart
As we break open to the place inside
Which is unbreakable and whole,
While learning to sing”.