If you live long enough, you will experience the loss of a loved one:
- Loss of a parent, grandparent, or sibling
- Loss of spouse or significant other
- Loss of a child
As a social worker you may be called upon to help a client or patient through losing a loved one. . .
. . . But what about when you are the one experiencing the loss?
Research suggests that most people will experience uncomplicated or “normal” grief.
Even uncomplicated grief can feel isolating, unfamiliar, and intense.
In today’s post I’m going to share two tips to help you through these challenging times of life:
- A framework to help you understand your feelings and experiences of loss.
- A practical activity to engage in when you are grieving.
Defining Grief vs. Bereavement vs. Mourning
The terms bereavement, grief, and mourning are often used interchangeably.
Using these terms this way is not wrong, per se.
But the distinct experiences can be easier to identify if you appreciate the differences in each.
Let’s look at the definitions more closely:
1. Bereavement refers to the experience of having lost someone close to you.
Not all bereavement experiences are equal. Clearly the person that dies will affect your reaction.
One study suggests, as you may expect, that the loss of a child or life partner are often considered to be the most stressful life events.
2. Grief is the deep and distressing feelings caused by bereavement.
In the The Grief Recovery Handbook, John W. James and Russell Friedman refer to grief these ways:
- “Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind.”
- “Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.”
- “Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who’s always been there, only to discover when I need her [or him] one more time, she’s no longer there.”
3. Mourning is the outward expression of grief.
Mourning can be formal or informal.
Most cultures have some type of symbolic tradition, such as a funeral, as part of the mourning experience.
Now that you’ve got those terms straight, let’s look at a couple of grief and loss models.
Models of Grief and Loss
If you are like me, there is one model of grief and loss that easily comes to mind.
In fact, I’m pretty sure you aren’t allowed to graduate from a school of social work if you can’t recite it:
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Stages of Grief.
In case you need a quick refresher, checkout the image below:
Kübler-Ross’s stages focused on emotions of the person dying.
Over decades these stages have been adopted by the grief community to generally describe the grief process.
You may experience these emotions, but not necessarily in this order.
Alan Wofelt, founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, is well-known for his compassionate approach to healing from grief.
Part of Wofelt’s model is the Six Tasks of Mourning:
- Need to acknowledge the reality of the death
- Need to approach the pain of loss while being supported
- Need to remember the person who has died
- Develop a new self-identity
- Find meaning in what has happened
- Experience continued support in future years
Wofelt suggests that when helping the grieving, you are not a “guide”.
Your task is not about thinking you are responsible for helping someone find their way out of grief.
Rather we are “companions” with the grieving person.
Companioning looks like this:
- Honoring the spirit
- Learning from others
- Being curious and still
- Walking alongside
- Listening with the heart
- Bearing witness to the struggle of others
- Being present to their pain
- Respecting disorder and confusion vs. imposing order and logic
If you are the grieving person, you want someone to partner with you in this way.
As social workers, this companioning approach, should feel very familiar.
How to grieve resiliently
In his book The Other Side of Sadness, Columbia University clinical psychologist reports that 50% to 60% show no symptoms of grief one month after a loss.
I don’t know about you, but I am a part of the 40% to 50% that DO experience grief symptoms well after a month.
After a loss, you’ve probably heard the phrase:
“Time heals all wounds.”
A more accurate statement, I suggest, is:
“What you do with your time helps wounds heal.”
Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino of Harvard University have studied how people cope with significant losses.
They found that the most resilient mourners participated in similar activities.
What were the activities?
Norton and Gino defined a ritual as:
A symbolic activity that is performed before, during, or after a meaningful event in order to achieve some desired outcome.
They described 3 distinct types of grieving rituals—checkout the chart below:
Only 5% of rituals are religious in nature . . . surprising, huh?
I recently experienced a religious ritual:
3 weeks ago I attended a formal Catholic service for my stepfather following his passing.
The service was steeped in tradition and symbolism. The epitome of a religious ritual.
Public rituals were practiced by 10% of participants studied.
Here are 2 examples:
1. My wife’s family spent considerable time in their lives on a family farm in southern Mississippi. For years family members have returned to the family cemetery near the farm, typically around Thanksgiving. They place poinsettias on the headstones of deceased grandparents, parents, and siblings.
2. In the wake of recent terrorist attacks, public ritual displays can be seen throughout Paris, France.
Interestingly, Norton and Gino found something even more common (and powerful) than public rituals:
Private rituals are interesting because they work differently.
A funeral, for example, brings mourners together for a clear purpose:
- To begin the process of closure
- To help each other prepare for the “new normal” without the lost loved one
- To strengthen the bonds between one another
But private rituals don’t do this . . . their purpose is not as obvious.
Here are few anecdotes of personal rituals from the Norton and Gino study:
- One woman played the Natalie Cole song, “I Miss You Like Crazy”, and cried thinking of her mom every time she heard it.
- A man whose wife passed away returned to their same hairdresser for his monthly haircut every first Saturday.
- After one woman’s husband passed, she washed the car every week as he did . . . even though she didn’t drive it.
Let me share an example of my personal ritual.
My mother and I used to handwrite each other letters.
For months after she passed in 2009, I wrote letters to her in my journal.
The personal ritual triggered a very specific feeling in me—the feeling of being in control of my life.
Personal rituals can help you overcome grief by counteracting the turbulence and chaos that follows loss.
Bereavement, grief, mourning . . . All three are an unavoidable experiences in life.
To be an effective social worker you must be able to empathize effectively with your clients and patients.
We need to be knowledgeable of the range of grief and loss experiences, including our own.
An example of good self-care is when you are self-aware of your own healing process after losing a loved one.
When you find yourself grieving, look for personal rituals to help you regain a sense of control.
Did you find this article helpful?
Leave me a comment or share it with a another social worker.
P.s. Much love to my Mom and Frank . . . I miss you both dearly.