The Complexity of Grief

When my daughter was finishing her senior year and preparing for college, I was surprised by the depth of sadness that flooded me whenever I mentioned that she would be leaving home. I knew it was more extreme than the expected grief that comes with transition. I was feeling sorrow about things ending, with no vision of new beginnings. I made time and space to explore what the idea of leaving meant to me, and to understand what I was feeling. This experience opened a door to face other losses in my life that I had not fully acknowledged.

Grief can be complex. Rarely do we experience a loss as one thing. When we lose a job, we lose income, identity, stability and community. With the death of a partner we lose companionship, identity as a couple, support with daily responsibilities, and intimacy with someone who knew us well.  Grief is not always limited to our most recent loss either. A rejection letter from the school of our dreams can stir up deep sadness related to past rejections that we may not have acknowledged. In my case, my daughter’s leaving triggered losses that occurred when, as a young adult, I moved over 800 miles away from my family, especially changes in the relationship with my mother.  At an even deeper level, I discovered grief that needed to be processed regarding the sudden death of a loved one when I was 12 years old. At that time I did not have words to express the emotions or the questions. But over thirty years later, as I welcomed my grief, I realized that leaving was associated with not returning. It felt dark and unsettling, something to brace myself for so that I would not feel as much pain. It was a process of sifting through the emotions that were connected to past experiences, feeling the emotions and releasing them. Then I could be present to the emotions that pertained specifically to this transition. By acknowledging the grief that was associated with my daughter’s leaving I was better able to feel appropriate sadness for the changes to come, but also experience joy for her and our changing relationship.

Understanding the layers to our grief takes time and energy to reflect on our emotions and experiences. Our culture does not value this work. There are unspoken rules about how long one is allowed to grieve before it seems “unhealthy”. We often feel shame in our inability to move on. Most of us learned the 5 stages of grief. Although this is a helpful model, it can give the false impression that we move through the stages step by step and when we are finished, we return to normal.  But grief isn’t linear and we don’t return to the place we were before our loss. Instead, we can grow through the process. As we grieve our losses and feel our emotions, we actually discover that life can still be rich and pleasurable. We learn to be more present as we let go of our attempts to control life in order to avoid pain. As we grieve we discover inner resources that we didn’t know we had. We learn to trust that we will be equipped to face the next challenge.

You may avoid entering into grief work because you are afraid of being overwhelmed with the pain associated with losses.  Having someone journey with you, with gentleness and understanding, can help relieve fear and isolation. If you would like to speak with someone regarding your own grief, please contact us at The Mansio Center.

By Donna Scott, LCSW