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Is it possible to heal from grief?


I have been seeing so many clients recently who have suffered some very big losses and this has caused me to give the topic of grief a great deal of thought. Having undergone my own grief experience when I lost my father at 22 this is not new to me but it can still be a very big and difficult experience to work with.

When clients come for therapy I guide them to find the hope that things will get better and then assist them along that path of feeling that things are actually improving. With grief you can’t bring back the person, animal or experience that was lost. You can’t make the promise that it will get better when better to the client means that it had not happened in the first place. This makes grief work so very difficult.

Instead, the hope that is given is that the client will eventually be able to accept the new life without the person, animal or experience in it; that they will be able to remember the person, animal or experience without crushing pain and hopelessness; and, finally, that they will actually want to carry on living this life that does not have the person, animal or experience in it. I do not lie and say that it will ever be like it was again. It won’t. Grief can come back in waves years later but it is far more manageable, and with that grief often there can be fond and even joyful memories to counter the sadness.

The most difficult part about grief is how the essence of your world is torn apart and you have to figure out how to go on when the world around you is continuing as if nothing untoward has happened. Work continues, school continues, and daily demands continue in the face of the grief-struck person standing, bewildered in a world that is completely and fundamentally different from the one that existed not so long ago. Even more difficult is that there are others out there who have not experienced grief (and even some that have) that just do not get it and expect the grief-struck person to just get over it and get on with things. This then often causes those who are grieving to feel that there is something wrong with them when there really, mostly, is not (read on for when there might be aspects that need attention).

Originally, the DSM (the ‘bible’ of mental disorders for mental health practitioners like me) used to classify Bereavement as a response following loss that is considered normal. However, under this classification if this grief response persisted for longer than two months and continued to have a major impact on functioning it could then be classified as Major Depressive Disorder (depression).

The  latest edition of the DSM does not have a classification for bereavement. After all, why should a depressed reaction following a loss be labelled as a disorder when such a reaction following any other crisis (such as divorce, for instance) is considered normal? This change to the DSM means that there is no time-frame in which it is ‘normal’ to experience bereavement. HOWEVER, that said, people who are grieving can be labelled with Major Depressive Disorder from two weeks onward following the loss. This was done to ensure that people could receive recognition/treatment in the mental health field following loss.

What I say to my clients is that, while bereavement has no time limit, if prolonged grief is having a major impact on functioning (e.g. poor concentration and motivation, lack of interest or pleasure, insomnia, withdrawal) it would be wise to seek help to see if perhaps the natural process of grieving has been blocked and the resulting depression needs to be worked with.

Grieving is a natural process and, if honoured and acknowledged, in time things do become easier; the heaviness is not as heavy; and functioning becomes more possible. However, unfortunately, often people suppress their grief for various reasons and this can impede that natural process. For instance, some people experience complicated bereavement where guilt, anger or other unresolved issues could get in the way of accepting and letting go.

This is ultimately what grieving involves – accepting and letting go. That is what helps to make it easier. However, it is very important to realise that letting go does NOT mean forgetting. Rather it means letting of of the person, animal or experience in this realm and experiencing them in another way. Thus, meaning becomes very important. I often compare grieving to trauma. Trauma is when something happens that is out of the norm (and causes the threat of or actual injury, disability or death to self or others close to the person). Thus, the loss is often a trauma in itself and trauma is helped by finding a supportive/more healthy meaning for what happened.

We make sense of the world by comparing all that happens to little files in our brain which determine how to feel and respond in various circumstances (based on previous experiences). There is  no file for the trauma or loss. Consequently, there is no way to give it meaning. Accepting and letting go involves having to find new meaning/a different way of understanding in relation to the loss.  And often this is where people get really stuck and need help. There are plenty of books that can assist and of course there are counsellors/therapists and also others who have experienced loss before who can help with this process.

The process of healing from grief can seem impossible. However, if you change your view of healing from that of getting back to ‘normal’ to rather finding a new way of being then healing is possible. Healing from grief is a transformation. It is a transformation of how you see yourself, life and your relationship to the deceased/lost experience. Acknowledging this change and giving yourself gentle space and caring time to do this is what enables healing. Resisting the change impedes the natural grieving process.

Your grief experience is your own experience and you do not have to do it any particular way or according to anyone’s timeline. However, if you feel stuck or are really battling rather reach out to have someone help you through this process in the most healthy and transformative way that is possible. I promise you that, while others may never truly understand your own unique experience, there are many who can still assist you through it.


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