Grief and Loss

"You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it."
- J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
 Grief is a human reaction to loss or the threat of failure. Sigmund Freud wrote that "we not only mourn for the loss of tangible bonds, such as the loss of people, but we also grieve for the loss of such intangibles as self-image, dreams, and health (Freud, 1917). Moreover, we begin to grieve as soon as there is a hint that a bond is threatened.
What is grief?
Grief is how we feel when we lose a person, place, and/or thing. It involves mixed emotions:  sorrow, anger, shock, fear, distress, etc. Grief is not a disease. Instead, grief is a process – dealing with the emotions that are a direct result of experiencing a loss.
 This process is universally recognized across all cultures. Furthermore, and important to realize, is that although grief usually occurs when the loss involves a death, the grief model may also be applied to other situations, including the breakup of a relationship or divorce, loss of job, or loss of license to practice law, and/or coming to terms with the loss of health through an illness or a disability.
 Unfortunately, we cannot know how a particular loss will feel until that loss occurs. One of our first reactions, however, is to shut down. In other words, we react to our loss with shock, numbness, and disbelief. Fortunately, this reaction cushions us from overwhelming feelings during the first hours or even weeks of the loss. How long it takes an individual to come out of their numbness to the loss depends on the individual circumstances surrounding it.
 At some point, however, the individual realizes that the loss is real. As the numbness wears off, they begin to realize what the casualty will mean. This explains why many individuals feel worse after a few months have gone by. The reality of this loss starts to sink in. Generally, the most difficult grieving begins here because the support we receive immediately after the loss has tapered off.
 Still, we must allow ourselves to experience the pain - all of the pain - of our loss in all of its forms. There are no shortcuts through the pain. We can "stuff down" feelings and delay grieving, but the grief will not diminish until we travel through it by experiencing it fully.
Therapists use different models - some suggest four stages to grief, while others suggest five stages. Here are the major stages:
  1. Stage One:  Shock/Denial – The reality of the loss often takes time to sink in. One of the first reactions is denial, wherein the individual imagines a false, preferable reality. Similarly, your initial reactions may vary from numbness, denial, disbelief, and hysteria to not thinking straight. These all-natural emotions cushion us against the loss and allow us to experience it more slowly and cope better.
  2. Stage Two:  Protest/Anger – At this stage, it is normal to protest that loss cannot be real, even though you are being confronted with the evidence that it is. When individuals recognize that denial cannot continue, they may become frustrated. As one struggles between denying and eventually accepting the reality of what has happened, the individual experiences waves of strong and powerful feelings such as anger, guilt, sadness, fear, yearning, and searching. Certain psychological responses of a person undergoing this phase would be, "Why me? It's not fair!" How can this happen to me?" "Why would God let this happen?"
  3. Stage Three:  Bargaining. With bargaining, there is a sense that we want life back to the way it used to be.   Usually, the negotiation (bargaining) for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Other times, one may use anything valuable against another human agency to extend or prolong the life. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise.
  4. Stage Four:  Depression. Eventually, grief will enter on a deeper level, bringing intense feelings of emptiness and sadness. One may feel like they do not care about much of anything and wish life would hurry up and pass on by. Getting out of bed can be a considerable burden. Exhaustion and apathy can set if, and we may wonder about the point of life itself.
  5. Stage Five:  Acceptance - "It's going to be okay." "I can't fight it; I may as well prepare for it." In this last stage, individuals embrace mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or another tragic event. People dying may precede the survivors in this state, which typically comes with a clear, retrospective view for the individual and a stable condition of emotions.
What is the correct way to cope with the emotions of loss (grief)?
There is no right nor wrong way to grieve – only your unique path. Whatever gender or difference, including cultural, your way of coping with the emotions resulting from the loss may be positive or negative. Because grieving is like a roller coaster – one day, you may feel up, the next down. Therefore, it is important to come to terms with your grief:
  1. Accept loss
  2. Feel the pain
  3. Talk about it
  4. Take one day at a time
  5. Take care of yourself
  6. Adapt to change
  7. Let go
  8. And, remember these positive tools for coping with a loss:
    1. Allow yourself time to grieve
    2. Accept that you will have bad days and good days
    3. Don't let others tell you how you should feel or just get over it. Grief is different for everyone.
    4. Use a support system. Let family, friends, co-workers, etc. help you. Tell them what you need – it is okay.
    5. Do positive things that bring you comfort?
    6. Move a muscle - change.
    7. Let your feelings out:  talk, cry, pray, write
    8. Try not to get caught up in your thinking. 
    9. Don't play the "if only" or "I wish I had" game
    10. Grow in a positive direction and volunteer
    11. Seek professional grief counseling
    12. Eat healthily
    13. Limit the use of alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and tobacco.
    14. Get rest
Sadly, we must remember, in life – loss is inevitable. It is up to us to use positive coping skills to deal with the change that arises from a loss. Going through the above stages and using most of the above tools allow hope to break through the dark waves in the normally calm seas. Slowly new life incorporates both the loss and the change and has the strength to go on. Some psychologists call it post-traumatic growth.
 Remember too, if you, or someone you know, would like additional information on this topic or help, call The Delaware Lawyers Assistance Program (DE-LAP) at (302) 777-0124 or email

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