How many people have you met or heard of who have experienced a loss in their life? As human beings, we are not strangers to loss. Loss is a major life change that we encounter across the lifespan. We experience the losses of people and pets we care about, but we also experience many symbolic losses, as well (Walsh-Burke, 2006). These can include the loss of our identity as parents and caregivers when our children leave home; the loss of our self-worth as a provider if we are fired from our job or retire; and the regret of not experiencing the things that we believe could have been, but never were. Essentially, they represent something more than what is actually lost.
Regardless, loss is something that we work with often in counseling. One thing we can be certain of is that loss is universal and comes in many shapes and sizes.
What Is Complicated Grief?
Grief can look different depending on the individual doing the grieving. There is no set or “normal” time period for grieving, or fixed way of grieving for that matter. Each of us grieves as a result of the unique, subjective, contexts from which we come. According to Walsh-Burke (2006), traditionally, grief can be described as “the emotional, psychological, and physical reactions to loss” (p. 29).
According to Walsh-Burke (2006), complicated, problematic grieving can be characterized as “prolonged distress after the loss has occurred” (p. 49). Often, this type of grief will persist regardless of the amount of support that the individual receives from others (Walsh-Burke, 2006). Individuals with this type of problem will often have difficulty with their everyday functioning due to their grief. For example, making it through an entire school day or work day can be difficult for them; focusing on tasks that they once did with ease can become impaired; relationships can suffer; feelings of hopelessness can ensue; and depression can result.
How Our Thinking Influences How We Feel
I am a practitioner of cognitive-behavioral therapy. I cannot tell you how many times how, after experiencing a loss and meeting with me for counseling, many of my clients have said to me: “Tyler, I understand that you are saying that I can change how I think about this loss, but how else am I supposed to feel about it?” This can be a problem-inducing belief: the belief that it is possible to feel only sadness after a loss. Many of my clients believe that they should feel sad or depressed after a loss because it is the “proper” or “correct” thing to do. By no means would I ever hope for a client to be happy with losing a job, pet, or loved one, but I do believe that we can alleviate problematic thinking that contributes to feelings of hopelessness and despair, thus easing an individual’s pain.
When a client’s grief becomes complicated, their underlying belief is that it is wrong to go on with living their lives, or to be happy at all for that matter, after experiencing a loss. Essentially, they believe: “I must continue to react to this situation with sadness. Doing anything else would make me a bad person;” “How can I be happy after losing my job? That would not be normal. How can I move on when I am this depressed?;” “I regret…;” or “I can’t be happy after my children have left the nest. I no longer have a purpose.” These types of responses come in many shapes and sizes and are often colored by an individual’s unique, subjective experiences and thought processes. Are these the types of responses that people you know have had after a loss? Maybe you have even had some thoughts like this yourself during your time of grieving.
What You Can Do To Feel Better
Here is a well-kept secret that not many people acknowledge: We are in control of how we respond to a situation. It is merely a matter of changing our thinking about that situation which will, in turn, change how we feel about it. A situation does not make us feel the ways in which we do. It is our thinking, however, that makes us feel how we do about a situation. Restructuring one’s thoughts about a loss can be immensely beneficial to alleviating complicated grief responses.
1. Establish a pattern in your thinking. What irrational thoughts and beliefs do you notice are causing you trouble? Which thoughts and beliefs are fueling your unhappiness?
2. Engage in thought-stopping. Each time this thought or belief about your loss enters your head, silently scream “STOP!” to yourself.
3. Restructure/replace irrational thoughts and beliefs. Replacing irrational thoughts with more rational ones will help you to change how you are feeling about your loss. See below for some examples. This should come immediately after thought-stopping.
4. Put these techniques into practice. Practice employing thought-stopping, immediately following it with your new, rational thoughts every day.
For an example, the irrational belief that “I can never be happy again because my loved one passed away” can be broken down into “I am sad that my loved one died, but moving on with my life and doing things that make me happy does not mean that I do not love this person anymore.”
Another helpful, rational, replacement belief could be “Going out with my friends and smiling and laughing does not mean that I have forgotten my loved one or that I disrespect them. I can remember them and respect them all the while. Maybe today I will practice going out and being happy.”
The irrational belief of “I have no purpose now that my children have left the home” can be broken down into “One of my life roles has changed, but I still have a purpose in my work and numerous other aspects of my life. Being a parent is not my only purposeful role in life, and I can be happy about many other things. Today I might try focusing on one of my other purposes.”
The belief of “I regret not doing so-and-so with/for this person” can be broken down into “Although I missed out on doing this one thing I would have liked to have done with/for this person, there were many positive and lasting memories that I made with him or her.”
Lastly, the irrational belief of “I lost my job and I can’t be happy again” can be restructured to look like “Although I lost my job and I’m not happy about it, there are many other things that I could picture myself happily doing to earn money. There isn’t only one set thing for me to do with my life. Maybe I can start searching today.”
As you can see, with new views and thinking about a given situation, the way one feels will change. Thus, a change in perception changes the way we feel and behave. It is merely a matter of breaking down the beliefs that you currently hold and replacing them with new, rational, realistic ones. With a bit of practice, you can engage in self-counseling with these techniques. Each time an old belief pops into your head, silently scream “STOP!” to yourself and replace it with one of your new thoughts.
Although changing your thinking will require some work, as it does with anything, practice makes me perfect! Practice these new thoughts every chance you get!
Walsh-Burke, K. (2006). Grief and loss. Theories and skills for helping professionals. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Andreula, T. (2011). Change Your Thinking To Change Feelings of Hopelessness. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 6, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/change-your-thinking-to-change-feelings-of-hopelessness/0009296
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.