What I know for sure about grief and loss is that it will happen to you, to everyone you know, and to everyone else in the world. And I know it will be very painful, if not excruciating. I also know that grief is a normal emotional reaction of sadness or sorrow to a disturbing situation whether that is change, loss, disaster, or misfortune. Grief is a natural process and it is not a symptom of weakness, nor is it something to fix or overcome. It is something to honor, accept, and learn from. Unfortunately, our society does not view grief and loss as important, nor does it allow us the proper time to heal from its often devastating impact.
There are many types of grief. It might be helpful to familiarize yourself with them in order to anticipate, prepare, or heal from a grief you may have already experienced.
The Many Definitions of Grief
Normal grief: A realization that things are changing, evolving, or transforming and that these events are out of our control. Examples for children or young adults may be: moving from one grade to another, leaving behind a favorite teacher or classmates; and not being chosen as a teammate for a preferred role in play, sports, or other esteemed positions. Examples of normal grieving for adults might be simply growing older, adjusting to a new lifestyle after a job change or retirement, or grieving the youthful appearance you once had. These feelings usually pass with time without too much disruption of normal day-to-day life.
Like all grief, however, it still helps tremendously to be able to acknowledge the loss and/or the hoped-for experience and to share all the accompanying feelings in a safe, nurturing environment. This is a priceless gift we can give to ourselves and our children.
Complicated grief: Often involves tragic, sudden, or unfortunate events, such as death, divorce, and/or situations where there many unanswered questions with no readily available answers.
Unresolved grief: Involves chronic, unremitting feelings of sadness that do not lessen with time, and in fact often worsen over time. This is usually connected to some type of complicated, historical, or disenfranchised grief.
Historical grief: Individual and collective emotional or psychological injury during one’s lifetime and from past generations. Examples of historical grief would be individual and shared experiences of Native Americans who experienced massive loss of life, land, and culture. The Holocaust would be another example of massive loss of life, unresolved trauma, and survivor’s guilt often subconsciously passed down the generations.
Disenfranchised grief: This is a type of grief that is not usually “openly grieved” because society or our own family does not recognize it as being important enough to feel sad about. Examples may include the death of a pet, a miscarriage, feelings, and experiences related to sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia. It may even be a part of the cultural bias many HSPs experience from a dominant culture that views sensitivity as a weakness.
Existential grief: Despite a life of comfort and security, existential grief is a sense of alienation, despair, pain, or deep sorrow for the world at large. This often unexplainable “existential angst” can create a soulful yearning for a connection to a deeper spiritual meaning.
Existential depression may be characterized by a unique sense of hopelessness in feeling that our lives may actually be meaningless. It seems the more one is disconnected from their true, authentic self, the more they are also disconnected from a spiritual practice, a higher self, or a personal relationship with God, however, they choose to define that. It is only when reconnected with the True Authentic Self that this type of depression eases and eventually gives way to a deeper understanding and acceptance of one’s life and their place in it.
We might find ourselves struggling with questions such as: What is the meaning of my life? Is there more to life than this? Does anyone truly care about me? Or, “How does one possibly survive all of life’s sorrows and limitations – especially when there seems to be no tangible way to make a difference?
It is not unusual for some HSPs to experience existential grief and/or depression. I have experienced it both personally and professionally with many HSP clients. A common theme seems to be a loss or disengagement from one’s Authentic Self. Or perhaps, this Self is struggling to be free from oppression and to find ways to manifest latent gifts. So the struggle is a quest or a longing to return home to one’s full self. Sometimes it helps to change the question from “What is the meaning of life” to a simple question: “In what ways do I express love?” In answering this question one may be led closer to their authentic self, beginning to understand a felt sense of: “The closer one feels to an authentic Self, the closer one feels to God.”
There are other ways to grow when experiencing existential grief – no one way is right for anyone. Thanks to the internet, much information can be found on this topic. Just go with what feels right for you.
Symptoms of Unresolved Grief
- Grief does not lessen but worsens with time
- Prolonged preoccupation with the loss
- Intense yearning for answers or a connection to a loved one
- Inability or difficulty in moving forward with one’s life
- Withdrawal, mood swings, irritability, anger, bitterness, depression
- Inability to perform tasks
- Lack of trust in others
- Feeling life has lost its meaning
- Emotional numbness or detachment
- Inability to experience life in the ‘present moment’ often drifting off in conversations or when engaged in an activity
New Research on Grief and Loss
Older coping strategies for dealing with grief and loss are fortunately just that – out of date! Advice used to range from: don’t dwell on the loss, get busy doing something for others, don’t hold onto old memories, time heals all, and you’ll find something else to replace the loss.
Newer research is quite to the contrary. In fact, it tells us:
- Time does not heal – it only conceals.
Unless feelings are identified, clarified, shared, and processed they will remain somewhere within our psyche or held within our bodies. Therapies like EMDR and Hakomi utilize this truism when clients experience a strong emotion by asking them to scan the body from top to bottom and identify where there is a feeling of discomfort or tightness in the body. Research has now identified there is a belief, emotion, bodily sensation, and image associated with most trauma.
- It is okay to hold onto memories, and it’s okay to “not let go.”
In fact, research has shown it is healing to use past memories of a loving experience as a source of comfort.
- It’s okay to stay connected in a different way
This might include having an internal dialogue with a loved one asking how they might respond to a situation or imagining them being present to enjoy a celebration or special occasion. For example, “If Dad were here, I’m sure he would …”
- There is often a silver lining in grief and loss
This is probably the most difficult to comprehend especially when the loss is new. However, many who have healed from grief report embarking on different life paths that have helped deepen the richness of their lives. This was brought about by profound changes in their perception and acceptance of life’s mysteries.
Coping Strategies for Healing from Grief
- Do not delay the grieving process. The sooner you can acknowledge the reality of the grief and loss, the sooner you can begin to heal.
- Educate yourself on the stages of grief and loss and find a person, professional, or support group to share these stages with. Sharing grief with others can help ease isolation and feelings of helplessness.
- Become friends with your grief and tears, remembering that tears are like a shower for your soul. Aurora Winter, in From Heartbreak to Happiness, shares it is helpful to remember being in a storm with thunder, lightning, and dark threatening clouds … then remember when the sun came out and you saw a rainbow. This could be the beginning of a process when visions of a new future might emerge.
- Write in a journal on a daily basis. This is a safe place to identify the many emotions you will be experiencing. This would include identifying all of the various parts of yourself connected with the grief issue. The emotions of these personas may include anger, betrayal, sadness, confusion, hurt, powerlessness, frustration, hopelessness, or love and yearning. If given a voice, what would each of these emotions want to say? Give them a voice in your journal.
- Write a letter to the person(s) involved with the issue … Depending upon the content, use discretion on whether or not to actually share it with others.
- Look for meaning by asking yourself “What is there to learn from this?”
- Listen to music, and read poetry to specifically elicit feelings of melancholy. Remember it is okay and important to feel your feelings and find a way to express them. Unexpressed feelings will emerge, and it’s best they do so in a safe environment.
- Research historical examples of generational grief and loss as it may pertain to your own family and culture.
- Make a list of all past grief issues in your life. Be honest with yourself about the need for further healing or closure.
- Talk about the experience until you have fully accepted the reality of the loss. This includes processing the ramifications and consequences of the impact this loss has had on you. Reminder: this is a process and may take months or years to complete.
Finally, let us all choose to be a part of a healthy paradigm shift where grief and loss are honored as the important life passage that it is — one that needs attention, nurturing, and most importantly time to journey through the process. Life can and should be forward-moving and joyful – if we do the necessary work to heal.
James, John W., Friedman, Russell, (1998). The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death Divorce, and Other Losses, Harper Publications.
Neimeyer, Robert A., editor in “Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss.”
Vicki Quarles, LCSW, Boulder, Colorado. (Personal communication with another HSP therapist and colleague, January 2010).
Winter, Aurora, (2005). From Heartbreak to Happiness, A Diary of Intimate Healing.
Whitebeck, LB, et al, (2001). Perceived discrimination traditional practices and depressive symptoms among American Indians in upper Midwest, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43(4), 400-18.