May 6, 2019
The word, grief, is understood and acknowledged in our culture mainly as a reaction to a death or the loss of a relationship. But that narrow perception fails to encompass the range of human experiences that create and trigger sorrow, according to a report by Psychology Today.
In fact, family therapist Sarah Epstein says, we suffer true anguish over several types of deprivations or forfeitures—among them, loss of identity, loss of safety, loss of autonomy, and loss of expectations or dreams, with examples as follows:
- Loss of identity (a lost role or affiliation):
- A person going through a divorce feels the loss of his or her role as “spouse.”
- A breast cancer survivor grieves her lost sense of femininity after a double mastectomy.
- An empty nester mourns the lost identity of parenthood in its most direct form.
- A person who loses his or her job, or switches careers grieves a lost identity.
- Someone who leaves a religious group feels the loss of affiliation and community.
Whenever a person loses a primary identity, he or she mourns a lost sense of self and eventually creates a new story that integrates the loss into his or her personal narrative. In some instances, the identity feels “stolen,” as in the cases of the person who feels blindsided by divorce and the breast cancer survivor. For those individuals, the grief may feel compounded by the lack of control they had in the decision. Others choose to shed an identity, as in the case of switching careers or leaving a religious community. Although this may seem easier, those individuals may feel their grief compounded by the ambivalence of choosing to leave something that they also will mourn. Indeed, Psychology Today says, that person may feel less entitled to grieve, because the decision was self-imposed.
- Loss of safety (the lost sense of physical, emotional, and mental well-being):
- Survivors of physical, emotional, or sexual trauma struggle to feel safe in everyday life.
- Families who experience eviction and housing instability feel unprotected and unstable.
- Children of divorce who grieve the loss of safety in the “intact” family (although they may be able to articulate it).
- Members of a community that encountered violence feel destabilized and unsafe.
- A person discovering his or her partner’s romantic infidelity may feel emotionally unsafe in the relationship.
On a basic level, we expect to feel safe in our homes, our communities, and our relationships. The lost sense of safety— be it physical (after a break-in) or emotional (after an affair), the research finds—can make a person’s world feel extremely unsafe. Symptoms of lost safety may include a sense of hypervigilance even in the absence of danger—or a sense of numbness. For many, especially those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, numbness and hypervigilance occur intermittently. For survivors of trauma, violence, and instability, that feeling of internal safety may feel hard to restore, even if circumstances stabilize. In addition to healing from the trauma, the individual is tasked with grieving the lost sense of safety and learning to rebuild it.
- Loss of autonomy (the forfeiture of the ability to manage one’s own life and affairs):
- A person with a degenerative illness grieves the loss of physical or cognitive abilities.
- An older adult no longer able to care for himself or herself grieves that decline (which also may be tied to a lost sense of identity as a contributing member of society).
- A person experiencing a financial setback feels a lost sense of autonomy as he or she must rely on others for help.
This type of grief cuts at the core of every person’s need to manage his or her body and life. Loss of autonomy triggers grief over the lost sense of control and the struggle to maintain a sense of self. In cases of illness and disability, lost autonomy (and often, lost identity) marks every step. A person suffering from a profound financial setback may experience this same feeling of loss, Psychology today says—manifested as a feeling of options shrinking, along with a sense of failure or despair.
- Loss of dreams or expectations (when personal goals are not fulfilled):
- A person or couple who struggle(s) with infertility.
- An overachieving student who is at pains to find his or her place in the “real world.”
- A person whose career trajectory does not reflect their expectations.
- A person whose community takes a political turn in an unwanted direction.
This type of grief, Psychology Today notes, is characterized by a deep sense of disorientation. Most of us walk around with a vision of how our lives will play out and how we expect the world to operate. When life events violate our expectations, we can experience a deep sense of grief and unfairness. For example, both those who are struggling to conceive and the student who is striving to make his or her way in the world may experience a sense of failure that compounds the grief process. They may find themselves comparing their process and outcomes to what others are achieving. Unexpected political shifts also can lead to a lost sense of assumptive reality and stability in the world.
Loss of identity, safety, autonomy, or expectations all warrant a sense of grief. Grief and mourning as a framework can help each of us work through a moment or chapter of chaos. The mourner receives compassion and is entitled to anger, sadness, numbness, disorientation, and nonlinear healing.
The word, grief, both accurately characterizes the internal reality of the process and legitimizes the process.
So, give yourself permission to tear up. Your loss is real.
Research contact: @PsychToday