We think that the only time we grieve is when a loved one passes away. But it’s important to grieve all sorts of losses. Moving. Graduating. Retiring. Ending a relationship (even if you’re the one who ended it). Being diagnosed with an illness. Recovering from that illness. Starting a new job or even being promoted.
In short, a loss can be anything, negative or positive. As marriage and family therapist Cheryl Beatrice said, “If we can be connected to it — whatever ‘it’ is — then we can grieve its loss.”
One loss also can spark secondary losses — a kind of domino effect of losses. For instance, you’re getting a divorce. It was your idea. It was something you’ve been wanting for a long time. But when it finally happens, you feel the heavy weight of sadness on your shoulders. You’re not only grieving the loss of the relationship, said Beatrice, who has a private practice in Westlake Village, Calif. You’re also grieving the loss of the future you had planned: buying a home together, having kids, traveling abroad. These are all losses that need to be processed, she said.
Grief is not linear, and it can shift and show up in different ways. For instance, Beatrice said, a person who gets laid off might initially feel relieved because their job was becoming too stressful anyway. But several days later, after having nowhere to go and not feeling “useful,” they start to become depressed. They start ruminating. If I had taken on more projects, they wouldn’t have let me go. If I had a better relationship with the supervisor… If I had finished my degree… If I had stayed after hours… If I had focused more… If I hadn’t taken so much time off…
To process your grief with any loss, Beatrice suggested adapting William Worden’s four tasks of mourning:
- Accept the reality of the loss
- Work through the pain and grief
- Adjust to life without what you lost or adjust to your new circumstances, externally (how you’re living your life); internally (who you are now); and spiritually (what it means for you)
- Find a connection to what you lost while living your new life.
She shared this example: You have to move to a smaller place because of a foreclosure or other financial issues. You start by accepting that you actually have to move (versus ruminating about why it’s unfair or everything you should’ve and could’ve done not to be in this situation). Maybe you talk to a trustworthy, supportive friend.
You work through the pain and grief by experiencing and expressing your emotions. You acknowledge that this is really hard and disappointing and devastating. You don’t judge yourself for feeling this way. And if you have kids, you’re honest with them.
“Oftentimes, parents may put on a brave face and show excitement about moving away for their children,” Beatrice said. “But I believe this can confuse children who may feel excited but scared or sad about moving.”
Which is why she suggested saying something like: “You know, I’m feeling scared about this move, too. And I’m not sure who my new friends will be. I’m also sad that I’m moving away from my friends, our church, and all the places we like to go. Are you feeling that way, too?” This gives your kids an opportunity to explore, identify and honor their feelings, too.
You adjust to your life by discovering new places and trying to meet new people. You use the move and financial situation as an opportunity to learn important lessons and grow as an individual and a family. As Beatrice said, “The persons we are today are the product of the experiences—both good and bad—that we have had in life.”
It’s also helpful to incorporate your losses into the narrative of your life and to find meaning in them. “When we experience a loss—big or small—the story of our life is changed,” she said. “We need to adapt our life story to include the loss we experience.”
For instance, several years ago, the company Beatrice was working for moved an entire department to another state. Which meant that she was laid off. She was riddled with shame for losing her job. Having to go on unemployment for the first time made her feel defeated. She was seeing a therapist at the time, and part of the healing process included talking about the job loss to anyone who asked about her employment status.
“At a certain point, I finally was able to move past my grief and see that, as difficult as the experience was, it opened a door for me to pursue a different dream. I went back to school, got my master’s degree and am now a licensed therapist. This life I have now would never have happened without experiencing that loss.”
Ultimately, every loss is important to grieve, Beatrice said. And we can’t predict how long our grief will last or what it’ll look like. The best thing we can do is to be gentle with ourselves throughout the process, she said. Honor what you’re feeling. Don’t judge or berate yourself for taking too long to get over a loss or for grieving something too small or silly. Your grief is part of your humanity. And that’s a beautiful thing.