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.