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Grief and Loss: The Elephant in the Room

by Alicia Carson, M.Ed.

Grief and loss are very complicated topics that often bring up uncomfortable feelings. This discomfort often leads to avoiding addressing a loss and, instead, letting it be “the elephant in the room”. Further, it can be challenging to bring up the topic and you may worry you might make someone else sad. However, it is always okay to share how you feel, especially regarding grief and loss. Sharing your feelings about sensitive topics can help build emotional resilience. Thus, it is important to have one or more go-to support people. These individuals can be friends, teachers, counselors, and family members. Regardless of your connection to the person, having someone to share your thoughts and feelings with is paramount. This is because grief is a topic that is sensitive and unique to each individual experience.

Although there are many types of grief and loss experiences other than the few mentioned here, three of the most common are mourning, grief, and bereavement. Mourning is the external experience of grief. This can be seen as the outward expression of the loss, such as a funeral service, wearing black, and/or sharing memories. On the other hand, grief refers to the internal and emotional experience. The internal expression of grief can look like sadness, anxiety, missing a lost loved one, and many other emotions. Alternatively, bereavement refers to a specific period of time after a loved one dies that includes both mourning and grieving. Sometimes bereavement is specific to the amount of time a person is able to take leave from work as a result of grief and loss.

Grief experts further classify types of loss as primary and secondary. Primary loss is the initial impact of the loss of a loved one. Secondary loss is what comes afterward and can be understood as a hidden loss. Specifically, these are the aspects of grief that are not immediately addressed until some of the initial shock of the loss wears off. It is the loss of other aspects the person played in someone's life; for instance, hidden losses could be emotional or financial support. Further, secondary loss is often seen as disenfranchised grief, which is grief that is not acknowledged or recognized by others. Disenfranchised grief occurs when an individual does not receive validation for the experience of loss; rather, it creates shame for an individual's experience through denial and judgment. As a result, grief can cause a variety of reactions. Be mindful of not spending too much time, if possible, in isolation after a significant loss. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to experience grief.

Vicarious trauma can occur when we witness a loved one suffering after the death of a mutual loved one. It is very challenging to see and sit with a loved one’s experience of intense grief. Additionally, each experience of grief throughout your life will build and compound. Thus, during intensely emotional periods of grief, it can be helpful to focus on meeting basic needs and practicing self-care. Grief is like a wound that continues to be reopened. This is frustrating and upsetting, yet it is inevitable. Despite this, we must remember that wounds can heal, both emotionally and physically. Our bodies are capable of many amazing things, including the ability to heal.

It can be daunting to think that the experience of grief can continue throughout our lifetimes. Further, there are things in life that we have to deal with that are not always pleasant, particularly death. Memento mori is a Latin phrase that roughly translates to remembering that you die and the inevitability of death. It is a reminder to live every day to its fullest and enjoy the little things. The concept of memento mori can help provide perspective and find gratitude in our daily lives.

When working with individuals who are experiencing grief and loss, consider the following:

Be mindful of language/ advice-giving

Not trying to find a “silver lining”

Avoid “at least” statements

Encourage individuals to seek help and avoid isolation

Encourage individuals to do activities that they enjoy

Ask who their support person is

Be mindful of rituals

Memorial services: Funerals and viewings

Holidays can be reminders

Anniversaries & Birthdays*

Cultural & religious practices: Do your research and ask if you are not sure

*It can be important for families to create new rituals as a way to pay tribute to their loved ones on loss anniversaries and/or birthdays. Ideas include: cooking a favorite meal together, baking something from scratch, spending time outside going for a hike, visiting a place where you had good memories with the loved one, planting a tree, sharing photographs or cherished memories, story-telling, starting a memory box, writing letters, or creating an on-going art project.


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