The Nature of Grief: What Makes It So Difficult to Overcome?

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Most caregivers have experienced grief following the loss of a loved one and struggled to recover their joy for life following the loss. It’s an all too common occurrence for caregivers of loved ones with progressive or acute illness. While they may have spent years preparing themselves for the inevitable loss, when it occurs, it may come with the same impact as a sudden death.

The person who died may have been a central part of their life, and without her, nothing matters anymore.

The pain may be so intense, they are afraid to risk developing new relationships if it holds the possibility of another substantial loss. I’ve heard clients say, “I’d rather remain alone than experience the type of pain I had when my husband died." They, just as many people often look at the past as a reference point for what will be experienced in the future.

When You Can't Move On

It’s difficult “moving on” when the pain from the past doesn’t leave. Not engaging is one strategy those who mourn use is to insulate themselves from pain.

Their grief is so great it echoes the pain expressed by Henry IV in Shakespeare’s History of Richard II. My grief lies all within, and these external manners of lament are merely shadows of the unseen grief that swells with silence within the tortured soul.

Richard II’s pain was so intense, external expressions couldn’t come close to what he felt. Most people have had that feeling; a loss so significant normal functioning becomes impossible.

While Shakespeare was brilliant at describing the nature of intense grief in The History of Richard II, there were no suggestions in his masterpiece for how to re-engage when life turns meaningless.

Strategies That Often Don't Work

Caregivers who have lost a loved one and whose grief is as great as Richard II ask themselves the question “How can I become part of the world again?” Based on the people I’ve counseled over the past 30 years, I’ve found some approaches to be more successful than others.

One with limited success is waiting until the pain subsides by itself. For many people this approach takes too long; for others, it never happens. Similar problems result when blindly substituting activities to fill in the time that had been occupied by the person who died.

A third approach is based on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief theory, where moving from grief to recovery is done through systematic steps. But rarely is grief longitudinal—it jumps around, retreats, disregards some steps, and appears illogical. Trying to force one’s grief into prescribed steps rarely works.

These three well-meaning approaches negate the central issue with loss: The grief one experiences isn’t for a specific person, activity, or object, but rather the emotion it generated. You don’t grieve the loss of a partner; rather the wonderful sense of fulfillment she provided. I don’t miss running marathons, but rather the euphoria it gave me. By ignoring the emotion and focusing on the concrete loss, those who grieve may never feel whole again.

Think of life as a dance containing twists, turns, dips, and wild spins. If you sit and watch—the equivalent to waiting for the pain to subside—you may never experience the dancer’s joy. Blindly racing onto the dance floor—similar to mindlessly filling time—may result in stumbling when the dance steps are unknown. Trying to adhere to step-wise approach to regaining joy doesn’t fit with how we experience losses. So what’s left? A basic understanding of the nature of grief.

Understanding Grief's Intensity

Losses can’t be placed into hierarchies, despite our attempts to do so. How often have you heard someone being derisive to a person who endlessly grieves the death of a pet? “It’s only a dog,” I recently heard someone say when a friend broke down talking about the intense pain he experienced over the loss of a dog who had been his companion for 12 years. The critic, who had children, couldn’t understand how her friend was so upset about the loss of an animal. In her mind, there was no way a person should grieve the death of an animal with the intensity of grief associated with the death of a person.

This judgmental approach doesn’t consider the importance the loss has to the person. Counseling people experiencing various types of losses has convinced me that grief and loss can only be understood in terms of how important the object, animal, activity or person was in the life of the one who is grieving. As a client once said to me, “Grief is grief regardless what causes it.”

What I have seen in my clients is that the greater the identification or dependence on what was lost, the greater the grief. A client was distraught after the death of her husband who battled cancer for ten years. Her friends knew she restructured her life during that time to care for her husband, giving up a fulfilling career. She did everything for him from a profound sense of love and loyalty, not guilt. Her friends assumed she would feel relief following his death but were shocked when she became despondent.

Yes, it was good no longer being responsible for his 24/7 care, but a significant part of her life ended as did an identity created by ten years of caregiving. Most people’s identity can be tagged to at least four parts of their life: 

  • work/professional role
  • social
  • leisure activities
  • intimacy      

Work/Professional Role. Embedded within roles are the rules that govern a significant part of our adult lives. As a University professor, I was expected to act in certain ways appropriate for the academic community. After functioning in that capacity for many years, I found it carried over into my social and family life. It was difficult not being the “professor” outside of the university. When I retired, a giant gap in my identity was created. Work expectations structure our lives for five or more days a week. When the role ends, as it did with me because of my retirement, we become different people.

If a person’s spouse had little or nothing to do with their profession, that part of her life wouldn’t be affected as much as if she was a business partner, as the case with Anne. She was married to the same man for 15 years and together ran an email marketing company from their house. They made decisions jointly and regularly discussed their business. With the death of her husband she felt cut in half. She knew every aspect of the operation, so her loss had nothing to do with business competence—she lost a large part of her identity. How would you react if a significant part of your identity is stripped away? When the loss is sudden, and there has been insufficient time to adjust, the loss is magnified.

Social. Some people believe the most important variable for defining themselves is relationships. For many, it’s the center of their identity. It makes little difference if it was good or terrible, what’s critical is how dominating it was in their life. Unless you are a hermit, you interact with other people for a significant part of the day, either in person, on the phone, or through social media. If you are alive, you have social interactions. Many of them may be mundane—such as the obligatory attendance at a family event—but others are important in defining who you are, as was the case of a devoted opera fan.

Throughout their marriage, Joe and his wife had an ongoing subscription to the San Francisco Opera. When the season ended, they attended monthly gatherings of friends, who like them, would spend hours discussing performances, librettos and the competencies of various singers. An important part of his life ended when his wife died. He didn’t miss going to the opera, but going to the opera with his wife. He didn’t miss the monthly social events to discuss opera, but sitting next to his wife discussing The Barber of Seville.

Leisure Activities. You did many things by yourself before your loved one died; other activities you did jointly. You may continue your enjoyable solo activities without experiencing a change in identity. But if you did the most enjoyable activities together, there will be a change in the joy it will give you.

A client who spent almost every weekend with his wife traversing San Francisco Bay was asked after his wife died by fellow kayakers to rejoin them for their weekly outings. They assumed their compassionate offer would be quickly accepted. What they didn’t understand was the activity he missed wasn’t the two hours rowing from Sausalito to Angel Island and back, but rather sliding through the water with the love of his life talking about their past and future. Even tracing the exact water route couldn’t bring back the emotion he experienced with his wife.

Intimacy Physical and emotional Intimacy involves vulnerability. Your loved one shared with you parts of her life that were off-limits to others, and you did the same. They could have been sexual behaviors she may have been embarrassed to acknowledge with anyone other than you, or emotions left unexplored with other people. These types of losses are difficult to replace since they involve opening up to vulnerabilities.

A client and his wife were best friends since their marriage forty years ago. Their intimacy had so much depth that when he started saying something, she often finished the sentence and vice verse. After she died, he would say something out loud and expect to have his sentence completed, but it never was.

Grief is an inevitable outcome of living passionately. What isn’t inevitable is that we must live with it. Different coping strategies work for different people, and understandably it's difficult to cope with grief. Understanding the nature of grief, and why you're feeling it, can help.

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