Supporting People through Grief And Loss
To experience loss, we need attachment. There are many theories about why humans and some animals make emotional attachments to others. Survival could be one reason. Some theorists argue that it is purely biological, whilst others argue that attachments form due to the need for safety and security. John Bowlby (1980) supported the latter view.
We learn attachment behaviour from the time we are born and this affects our relationships throughout our lives. If we learn to trust and have steady, dependable care, we are able to grow up with high self-esteem and independence. We are also able to love and be loved. The greater the attachment, there is obviously the greater potential for loss. We may experience many losses throughout our lives, the loss of a loved one, a pet, a job, financial security, but we may also experience the loss of potential, that is, what might have been – the job we might have had, the parent we never knew and so on.
Impact of Death
Death of a loved one, or facing up to one's own imminent death, is probably the most distressing event that most people will experience. Not only do we lose the relationship with someone close to use who dies, but we also lose many shared experiences and memories. We also often lose the emotional support of that person, and perhaps financial and other means of support. It can be a terribly lonely experience for those with poor social support networks or who were very dependent on a loved one.
When someone close to us dies we experience a range of emotions which can include anger, guilt, denial, sadness, and fear. Even if the relationship was not going so well, we are still likely to experience the same range of emotions and it can be equally as powerful - even more so sometimes because the guilt may become overbearing.
When someone is older and entering the twilight years of their life, or if they are dying from a terminal illness, we often have months or years to prepare for the impending loss. The person who is going to die and close family members may experience any or all of the stages of grief which have been previously outlined.
If the death is sudden or unexpected however, we do not have the time to develop coping strategies and it can result in a crisis situation. In these cases, the grieving process can become longer than usual. Other instances of death may be further complicated because they throw up doubts and feelings of guilt. For instance suicide of a family member or spouse may conflict with the survivor's beliefs and values in relation to taking one's own life. It may cause a stigma to family members which they find difficult to deal with.
Other Major Causes of Grief
A number of life events have been found to be highly stressful and many of these are associated with grief and loss. Of course, everyone is different so whilst some people may find a particular event to be exceedingly distressing the next person may not be so adversely affected.
Divorce and Separation - often, the second most disturbing loss which adults face is divorce or relationship breakdown. Like death, it inevitably culminates in many lifestyle changes in the family. However, it also often causes feelings of anger and guilt in both partners. Divorce also affects children and results in changed relationships between parents and children. One parent may suffer the loss of being unable to rear the children or of only having limited access in addition to the loss of the spousal relationship.
Illness or Injury - this may be experienced as a loss where the illness or injury is severe. This applies to both physical and mental illnesses. Severe or debilitating illnesses can result in loss of control, self-esteem and independence. They may challenge relationship roles and causes stress to relationships. Family members may struggle to find ways to cope.
Marriage - although this is often a happy experience it also means changes in relationships which can be very testing. The newlyweds may have never lived away from home before and this could cause a sense of loss and sadness. There may also be conflicts between the newlyweds leading up to the marriage because they have become more aware of differing values in relation to family, children, and so forth. There may also be conflicts between the views of family members and the new wife or husband.
Childbirth - again, this brings change. Whilst a new family member is usually something to celebrate it can also signify losses. There is inevitably a change in the dynamics of the relationship between mother and father of the newborn. The birth of the first child is often particularly challenging and it can result in a crisis.
Are you interested in learning more about the psychological impact of grief and loss? Then we can help.