Attachment and the Need to Belong.

Remember the fairy tale of the Ugly Duckling? A story of rejection and isolation and feeling different. That feeling is one many of us know all too well. Our inbuilt “need to belong”[1], leads to painful emotions and feelings when we sense we are being left out or overlooked in some way.    Rejection really hurts.   For our ancient ancestors to be left on the outskirts of the tribe was a matter of life and death.  And evolution leaves that imprint on us today: to sense feel that we don’t belong within a group can be agonising.   Whether its being ghosted in a romantic relationship, feeling excluded at work, or left on the fringes of family dynamics, our need to belong reminds us how painful isolation and exclusion is. 

What was it like for you in your family of origin? 

Sadly, too many of us have experienced difficult connections and the feeling of being overlooked and left out within the group we first were part of – our family of origin.  Past disconnections and rejections by parents and your earliest caregivers have the potential to impact your here-and-now, with present day isolation and loneliness giving a sharp prod to painful memories of disconnection as a child or teen.   

In an ideal world, you’ll have experienced a strong and supportive connection or attachment in your early days in your family of origin.  Ideally, you will have been easily able to sense your belongingness in the eyes, words, actions and physical connection of others.   

Yet for many of us, there’s a different story. One which can involve strained or difficult attachment relationships and connections with our caregiver(s).  Perhaps part of your own childhood story includes memories of being ignored, or misunderstood, or where the people around you were unable to see or hear what you wanted or needed?   Taking time to consider your childhood attachment history and what belonging in your family of origin was and is like for can be a powerful way to make meaning of your relationships as adults.  A first step to freedom from the hauntings of such painful recollections. 

Bowlby and Attachment Theory

John Bowlby

Attachment Theory, put simply, is the way of understaidng how the connections we experienced with our early caregivers infleunces us in subsequent relationships. British psychologist, John Bowlby, is a key person in helping to formulate what we now call Attachment Theory.  Working in the 1950s, Bowly began to study the attachment relationship between mothers and their young children.  He understood attachment as the psychological connectedness between a caregiver and baby, and how that impacted the child.  For Bowlby, babies enter the world already oriented towards seeking out and finding closeness, connection and belonging.  He observed how children reacted when they were frightened – often moving towards their caregiver. Other research at the time seemed to suggest that infants would seek connection, care, and responsiveness from a parent over and above food and sustenance[2].  In other words, Bowlby and others were recognising how important the drive towards connection and attachment with a supportive and psychologically available caregiver was for children.    

Bowlby was writing at a time when social expectations meant Mothers were more likely to be holding the baby, literally.  Since Bowlby’s time, subsequent research has focussed on the role of primary caregivers in children’s lives.  Nowadays, we recognise the crucial and critical role of Fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings and professional childcarers in the lives of children.  We know that children will seek out the support of a nurturing safe haven, be that Dad, Nanny, or some other important caregiver who is reliable and consistently psychologically available. 

The Strange Situation

Photo by Josh Willink on Pexels.com

Bowlby’s work inspired other researchers, including one of Bowlby’s own students – Mary Ainsworth.  Ainsworth designed an experiment to better understand the attachment relationships between caregivers and young children.  Known as the “Strange Situation”, the research[3],[4] explored how toddlers between the ages of 12 and 18 months behaved when their caregiver left the room, and when a stranger entered the room.  They considered the level of distress the infant showed when their caregiver left the room, how they reacted when the stranger entered the room and how the child responded when their caregiver also came back into the room.  Ainsworth’s research showed there were three different types of responses and suggested that these responses were related to the attachment relationship the toddler had already developed over time with their caregiver.  The three types of attachment relationships identified were labelled:

  • Secure attachment
  • Insecure avoidant attachment
  • Insecure ambivalent/resistant attachment.  

Further research[5] since then have added a fourth category:  disorganised attachment. 

In a later blog, we’ll consider each of these categories of attachment patterns, and how they might play out as you develop and mature into adolescence and adulthood.  

For many people, learning more about attachment styles and patterns gives a language and a framework to talk about the early relationships we had as children. It can support making meaning of your past and your present.   Yet, thinking about attachment patterns and the relationships in our family or origin and even the relationships with our own children can be difficult work.  Connecting with childhood memories and feelings associated with your place in our family of origin can throw up feelings that are challenging to work through.  It’s important to look after yourself in this process.  If you’re on a journey of making meaning of your own attachment patterns, consider how you can find ways to take care of yourself and treat yourself with the gentle nurturing that is so important to our wellbeing, no matter what age we are.   Working with a counsellor or psychotherapist can be part of that taking care of yourself.  

 


[1] Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529

[2] Harlow, H. F. (1961). The development of affectional patterns in infant monkeys. In B. M. Foss (Ed.), Determinants of infant behaviour (pp. 75–88). Wiley.

[3] Ainsworth, M. D. S., Bell, S. M., & Stayton, D. J. (1971) Individual differences in strange- situation behavior of one-year-olds. In H. R. Schaffer (Ed.) The origins of human social relations. London and New York: Academic Press. Pp. 17-58.

[4] Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

[5] Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation. In M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti & E.M. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the Preschool Years (pp. 121–160). Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Gateway to a New Year

In my counselling practice, I welcome clients at the doorway of the counselling venue.  For some, it’s their first time coming to counselling.  Others have crossed the threshold many times.  It’s important to me to provide a warm and accepting welcome at the doorway each and every time. 

And, this with January 2023 fast approaching, my thoughts and reflections have turned to doorways in a more general sense.  I’m reminded that the month of January is named after the Roman god Janus.  The Romans regarded Janus as the god of the doorway, occupying the threshold between the year past and the year head.  According to ancient Roman mythology, Janus is the deity of endings and new beginnings.  Ancient statues depicting Janus show him with two sets of eyes, one to the front of his face and another pair to the back of his head.  In this way, Janus looks both forwards and backwards, reflecting on the past whilst also contemplating the future.  Perhaps you find yourself at this time of year – at the gateway to a new year – looking back over the previous year as well as forwards into a new year.  

At the threshold of the New Year, many of us find ourselves looking back and connecting with regret, loss and disappointment.  You may be reminded of hopes that didn’t come to fruition or fulfilment or where you’ve been let down in some way?  Hopefully, there’s also a recognition of the things you’ve learnt over the past year and the progress you’ve made.  And, as the New Year approaches and we enter through the doorway of 2023, like so many others, you may find yourself looking forwards with hopes and dreams about the year ahead, imagining new possibilities, and new ways of being.  Fear about the future can also be part of the mix.   It’s no surprise then, that many people consider speaking with a counsellor as a New Year dawns. 

And the process of counselling and psychotherapy can, in itself, be a form of crossing a threshold.  I am mindful that as we work together, I am invited to cross the doorway into my client’s world.  Clients open up about their world, their thoughts and their feelings.  Sometimes tentatively, sometimes more directly, clients allow me through the various doorways that mark the edges of their world and their experience.  It is important we go at the pace that feels right for you.  I tread gently and with respect.  Some doors are bolted tightly shut for very good reason.  Establishing safety and a place where people feel okay about choosing which doors to open, and which to leave closed, is an important part of the work.  Together, we may look at the past.  Some doors lead to past childhood memories and experiences. Other doors may lead towards a hoped-for or even a feared-for future.  It’s important too, to stand and linger in the doorway, and note how it feels to be here, in this moment, in the here-and-now and we consider the different doorways of life.   Perhaps there is excitement, or fear, or apprehension, or curiosity?  Perhaps memories of being shut out, or having doors closed to us begin to bubble up?  Perhaps we begin to recall and connect with the feelings of rushing through some past doorways.   All emotions and experiences are welcomed in counselling we contemplate the threshold of entering into discovering more about what it is like to be you, and feel the feelings you experience. 

Photo by Chelsea Cook on Pexels.com

So, doorways offer scope for all sorts of adventures and explorations.  As the doorway and gateway to a new year approaches, one of my hopes is that I can continue to offer a warm and accepting welcome at the physical doorway of the counselling space I work from.  And, my wish for you, too, is that you can find spaces and ways to get what you need from reflecting on your past and looking ahead to your future. 

Breath Practice to Help Manage Anxiety

This blog is the second in a series of two blogs focusing on how our breath can be a form of self-support when experiencing anxious feelings of fear, panic and worry.  In a previous blog, we considered the role of awareness in any breath work practice.  We also explored how breath allows us to find regulation within our autonomic nervous system.  Both blogs have been informed by the accessible books on the topic of breathing: Breath, by James Nestor and Close your Mouth by Patrick McKeown. In this blog, we consider three practical and simple breathing exercises that I’ve found beneficial for tapping into the power of the breath to aid emotional and neurological regulation. 

Attend to Posture

How we sit, stand and move our bodies impacts our breath.  A tight, restricted posture can result in tight and restricted breathing. A more open and relaxed posture allows for expansion that supports smooth and fluid movement of the breath within the body.  To support a more expanded state, aim for posture that is supportive of breathing by allowing space for the respiratory muscles of the diaphragm to expand.  If you notice your shoulders rounding and your bank hunching over, invite greater ease and expansion into your body.   Allow your body to do what it naturally does: breathe. Breathing can be well supported when your posture allows your spine to extend, with your shoulders back and without tension. Aim to notice ease in your body and to allow your posture to support efficient and effective breathing.

Slow Down

When we are relaxed, our breathing slows down. By slowing down your breathing, you can affect other bodily systems so that heart rate decreases, and cortisol levels drop.  

·      Find a comfortable sitting position, and place your feet flat on the ground. 

·      Let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it.

·      Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

·      Breathe in gently and regularly. Some people find it helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5. You may not be able to reach 5 at first.

·      Then, without pausing or holding your breath, let it flow out gently, counting from 1 to 5 again, if you find this helpful. In time, you can begin to slow down and extend the outbreath. 

·      Keep doing this for 3 to 5 minutes.

Square Breathing

This technique requires us to concentrate on our breathing and can bring a greater sense of balance and harmony. 

·      Begin by slowly exhaling all your air out.

·      Then, gently inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4.

·      Hold at the top of the breath for a count of 4.

·      Then gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 4.

·      At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for the count of 4.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Find freedom from anxiety with breathwork

Take a Moment to Breathe and Put it into Practice.

So, in these times of economic uncertainty and elevated tension, attending to the breath can be a cost effective (i.e., free!) form of self-care and self-support, equipping you to find greater ease, calm and balance in your daily life. I’d love to hear if any of the suggestions here free you up to catch our breath, and breathe a sigh of relief during an otherwise hectic world.  And if you are curious to know more, I’d certainly recommend Nestor’s and McKeown’s books.

References:

·      Gerritsen, R., & Band, G. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 397.

·      Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874.

·      McKeown, P. (2004). Close Your Mouth. Buteyko Books: Moycullen.

·      Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Penguin Books: London.

The Psychology of Gift Giving

It’s the time of year when many people consider buying and receiving gifts.  Shops and online ads lure us to consider what present we might purchase for loved ones at Christmas.   Many of us find ourselves invited into Secret Santa gift exchanges with family and friends and, whilst not a festival traditionally associated with gift giving, the December Jewish celebration of Hannukah sometimes also includes the exchange of presents.  Sure, gift giving and present receiving can feel heart-warming. And, it can also stir up difficult feelings and tensions both within and between people – often prompting people to consider counselling as a way to make meaning of these complex feelings.  Here we consider some of the psychological factors at play with gifting.

The Benefits of Gift Giving

Gift giving is one of many ways we communicate our care, interest, love and connection with others.   Gift giving can be an expression of our thoughtfulness and kindness – we are likely to have invested either time, thought, creativity and / or money into the gift we give.  That can serve the purpose of strengthening relationships and the bonds of connection between people.   

Gift giving is a way we can express our own empathy and attunement towards important people in our lives.  When it comes to choosing a gift, most people aim to match the gift to the recipients’ interests, preferences and lifestyle.  In doing so – they communicate that they are making efforts to understand the other person and have noticed and paid attention to them.  Giving and receiving such empathic understanding, when the gift is good match, can feel positive for both the gift giver and the receiver.  

Gift giving has also been shown to be a boost to physical wellbeing and overall health.  Research from by Random Acts of Kindness Foundation shows that acts of giving (of time, money or care) can result in an increase in energy and can even help relieve pain and lower blood pressure.  

Photo by Antoni Shkraba on Pexels.com

Gift Giving as a Source of Pain

Whilst there can be plenty of benefits to giving gifts, presenting or receiving a present from someone can also be a source of pain and difficulty.  There are many different emotions and responses that you may feel when it comes to giving and receiving gifts, that mean gift exchanges feel complicated and confusing.  Let’s consider some of the messy feelings that can emerge in response to the thought or the reality of gift giving at Christmas, or indeed at any time of the year. 

Photo by Konstantin Mishchenko on Pexels.com

Expectations around Gift Giving

The exchanging of gifts at Christmas can come with a whole host of expectations.  For example, one way of understanding gift giving is that the present is gifted without any expectation of return.  However, there may well be a firm expectation that if you prepare and present a present to someone, you do expect a gift in return.  There may also be expectations around the financial cost of gifts, and what would be classed at “too much” or “too little” to spend on a gift.  Sometimes such expectations are acknowledged communicated clearly and openly between people, other times these remain unvoiced, sitting silently and unexpressed between people.  Either way, when expectations exist – so does the possibility of disappointment.  That can take the form of present disappointments, or memories from pasts disappointments which surface at this time of year.  Having felt the edge of disappointment – for those of us who’ve been raised in families where we were expected to show gratitude and hide any disappointment, it may feel difficult and even shameful to experience feelings around unmet expectations.   

Different Love Languages

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Perhaps you’ve heard of the idea of “love languages”, made popular through Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages books?   Chapman makes the case for different ways and preferences around communicating love and affection within relationships, which include the giving of gifts. He identifies the 5 Love Languages as:

They are:

  • Words of affirmation
  • Quality time
  • Physical touch
  • Acts of service
  • Receiving gifts

Chapman argues that we tend to have one or two primary ways we prefer to receive love – ways that we can most easily understand another’s communication towards us.  And, the ways that we prefer to receive love are often the same ways we tend to show and communicate our affection, fondness and love for others.  So – for example, for people whose primary love language is acts of service, a homemade meal prepared and served for them may mean far more than an expensive gift.  Whereas, if someone has a primary love language of receiving gifts, an offer or help or a greetings card with carefully chosen words may feel paltry and measly in comparison to the investment in a gift of value. 

Love Languages are inevitably involved when it comes to Christmas gift lists and present exchanges.  And that also means there is the possibility of misunderstanding and complicated feelings.  Of languages getting lost in translation.  A person may feel rejected or let down by others who speak different love languages to them.  Perhaps they may have the awareness to notice and name these feelings of rejection or feeling let down.  Sadly, for many people, such feelings can be a trigger to old wounds relating to rejection and abandonment, meaning that past emotional hurts now mingle alongside current feelings.  This can lead to feelings of shame, anger, resentment amongst others.  Each person’s response to feeling misunderstood around love languages connected to gift exchanges will be unique and very much informed by past experiences.  

Gift giving also impinges on feelings of grief and loss. Death does not erase memories. For those of us imapcted by grief (as we all are in our lives) seasonal and festive gift giving can remind us of feelings of loss and bereftness as we recall gifts we exchanged with loved ones no longer here with us.

Photo by Serkan Gu00f6ktay on Pexels.com

Pressure to Gift

It’s important to also acknowledge the pressure people can feel under when it comes to gift buying and giving.  Tight budgets may mean little in the way of money to spend of gifts.  Yet, advertising continues, relentlessly, aiming to encourage us to part with money.  Feeling under pressure from family and friends to enter shared gift exchanges can leave people worried and anxious and taking on debt.  Difficulties in communication boundaries about what we do and don’t want to do, and can and can’t commit, can feel difficult.  It’s not uncommon for people to blame themselves and experience shame and self-loathing in response to gift giving pressure.

Receiving Gifts

One final psychological area related to gifting can be the difficulty some people experience in receiving gifts.  An outward sign of someone else’s gratitude, or care and love for us can feel at odds if we view ourselves as being less than or unworthy or such care and thought.  Negative views of self and finding it hard to accept who we are can make the act of receiving a gift feel excruciatingly difficult.  We may find ourselves telling other people they “really shouldn’t have” or that they’ve “wasted their money” in getting you a gift. This can, inevitably feel difficult to hear for the person giving the gift.

And, sadly, some people know from experience how gifts can be used to manipulate or abuse another.  Gifts can be used as a way of grooming others.  Sometimes referred to as a form of “love bombing”, the extravagant lavishing of gifts in the early stages of a romantic relationship by someone intent on abusing another as a can feel destabilizing and disorientating for the person on the receiving end of such gifts. 

Yet, as a culture, we are often expected to receive a gift graciously.  There can be a lot of “shoulds” around gift giving and receiving that might feel at odds with how we actually feel or what we really want or need. It is noticing this incongruence and disconnect between inner feelings and outer expectations that prompts some people to seek out counselling or psychotherapy to talk through feelings and thoughts that emerge in relation to receiving gifts.    

This blog has, hopefully, helped to explore some of the complexity around the psychological processes involved in gift giving.  If you are aware of emotional and relational difficulty connected to gift giving and gift receiving, then speaking about this with a counsellor or psychotherapy could be a helpful gift you can give to yourself. 

Reflecting on Burnout:

Considering the Physical, Mental, Emotional and Spiritual.

On a recent break, I took time out from my usual schedule to recharge my batteries.  During this time, I came across a book which caught my interest: Burnout: a spiritual crisis by Stephen G. Wright.   Published in 2021, the book pays particular attention to how people in the Health Care sector can be at risk of Burnout, and factors in the impact the Covid-19 has had on people in caring and Health Care professionals as they tried to keep services in the face of the Pandemic. These themes of mental, physical exhaustion are not limited to those who work in the Health Care Sector: burnout can impact any of us: office workers, retail employees, third sector staff, self-employed people and parents. I’ve previously reflected on some of the causes, symptoms and ways of managing and preventing burnout in my previous blogs.  Here, I want to consider some of the additional insights I’ve taken from Wright’s book.

Photo of Preston based offices
Burnout can affect employees, self-employed and those whose energies are spent caring for others.

 

Burnout – A Crisis of Meaning and Purpose.

Wright speaks about the Essence that makes us who we are.  For Wright, rediscovering our true Essence in the face of Burnout is a Spiritual Quest. Yes, we can – and indeed will need to – attend to physical, mental and emotional needs if we are to recover from Burnout – but, for Wright, to neglect attending to those questions about our purpose or Essence is to miss the mark.  Wright makes the point that for holistic healing from burnout, we must also come face-to-face with questions of ultimate meaning:  what is the purpose of my life?  Who am I, at my core, without reference to my work, or my career or my doing? 

Women questioning the purpose and meaning of her life
Photo by Jonathan Andrew on Pexels.com

These questions are of real interest to me.  So often, as I meet with clients, we come to rest upon questions of meaning and purpose.  Finding the meaning and purpose in life can help provide some sense of certainty and solidity in the face of difficulty.  In fact, I often think of these questions as a type of Quest – a chance to go in search of something that has the potential to be transformative.   As I chat with friends about the frustrations in life, meaning and purpose seems to be the thing that we can “hold firm” onto as we navigate the complexity that is modern life.  I also know from my own experience – it is when I am straying too far away from my own values and my own sense of purpose and meaning in life that I most feel at risk of overwhelm. 

So, as I read through Wright’s book, I returned to questions that I have asked myself before – and often support clients to address for themselves:  what is it that matters to me?  What do I value in life?  Where do I find meaning?  Which environments, tasks and people, support me in feeling like I am living a life with purpose?   What are my next steps as a result?  

Pain and Potential.

Wright makes the point that whilst burnout is painful, it can be a turning point and a chance for growth:

“Although burnout is a terribly painful experience, it is also full of potential for living a happier, truthful and more fulfilling life”.  

Of course, when someone in is the midst of burnout, it can seem trite to adopt a pollyannaish approach that says “don’t worry!” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.  In fact, that’s an example of toxic positivity.  But it’s also possible, with empathic and compassionate support, to integrate that sense of painful brokenness.  Along with the breaking down, there can be a rebuilding and a reshaping – a breaking through.  Counselling and psychotherapy can be a chance to explore what, or rather who, remains when the external identity forged and shaped through work, activity and business is removed.  Burnout offers chance to reconnect with the essence of who we are and how we want to live our life.  Burnout is chance to expand our awareness of self and to consider how to embrace transformation in the face of that pain. 

Perhaps you are familiar with the Japanese art form of Kintsugi?  This art form developed as way of mending damaged ceramics by putting shattered pottery pieces back together with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold.  Instead of hiding evidence of the cracks, they are highlighted and honored.  This art form is a creative and visual insight to both the pain and potential of burnout and seems to me to be a visual example of what Wright speaks about.  With gentle, careful and compassionate responses to burnout, both the pain and potential of this life experience can be integrated – becoming far more than the sum of its parts in the process. 

Japanese bowl decorated with two fish.  A crack in the bowl has been repaired with golden laquer.
The Japanese art form of Kintsugi: previsiously exhibited at Preston’s Harris Art Gallery

There is hope in this message.  Burnout need not be a permanent or fixed state of being, and can, in fact, point us towards change and adaptation towards a healthier and more balanced existence.  A thriving, rather than surviving mindset. 

Rest, Re-energize, Recuperate

Wright’s focus on the Spiritual aspect from burnout does not negate a care for the physical body.  Healthy eating, gentle exercise and sleeping better are all ways that Wright encourages when recovering from burnout.  Indeed, when we consider human experience of burnout, it makes sense to think of our physical and spiritual wellbeing, as well as our mental and emotional wellbeing as all contributing to the whole.   It doesn’t have to be an either-or thing!  Finding ways to integrate these different aspects of self-care are essential when looking to address burnout from a holistic perspective.   

To take the example of gentle exercise.  Movement and gentle stretches can help us to physically feel healthier.  It also allows us an experience of taking ownership of our own recovery and a sense of agency.  That can help us mentally, and emotionally – after all, one of the known factors that can increase risk of burnout is a feeling of having little control or autonomy in the workplace.  Physical movement can also remind us that one of the constants of life is change – we are always in a state of flux and movement whilst we are alive – our heart beats, out blood flows through the network of veins, the weather and seasons change, and we move through time each day.  In this way, movement can become a Spiritual teacher – supporting us to reflect on the constancy of change in life and our own relationship to that change.    In this way, signing up to that Tai-Chi class, taking a gentle stroll each day or even trying a Yoga video on YouTube can be a way that we rest, re-energize and recuperate physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

So, as I reflect upon Wright’s focus on rest, re-energizing and recuperation, I’ve been considering how simple acts of self-care in my daily life might support me physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  For me, I’ve been cycling that bit more, and enjoying nature as I do so.   Which is always easier in the sunshine!  Surprisingly (for Preston) I’ve even had the delight, as I idly cycled by, of spotting Parakeets nesting in a tree along the Lancaster Canal!   This for me is a way to safeguard against burnout.  Of course, if I was in the grips of overwhelm and burnout, a cycle ride might feel too much.  Wright addresses that pervasive sense that physical care for the body equates to movement by recognizing that rest, re-energizing and recuperation for the physical can also include not “doing”.  It’s okay to allow ourselves to be passive participants as part of that re-energizing, and we can do that physically through a massage, some gentle breathing and mindfulness practice or attending to noticing in our body where we feel ease and relaxation.

A bike propper against a tree
Cycle-based self-care

So, resting, re-energizing and recuperating in ways that seem a good fit for us and our own needs in the here-and-now – and, with big doses of self-compassion, are part of Wright’s advice for managing and also guarding against Burnout.   That will look different for different people, which is why there can never be any one single “remedy” for Burnout.  Knowing yourself and your own needs, and –importantly – trusting yourself, and tuning into your own sense of self and Essence in the process is more of an attitude and approach than a specific “treatment” for Burnout.  

And, if you feel that you’d find it helpful to explore your own experiences of burnout, and resting, re-energizing and recuperating, consider whether counselling might also be part of your support plan to moving forwards. 

Finding a Way Through Loss:  What Can Help with Grief?

This blog is the final in a series of five in-depth blogs looking at the experience of grief and loss. 

In a sense, we’ve been considering what can help with feelings of grief and loss in each of the blogs so far.  We’ve considered some of the forms grief can take in the first blog, as well as the impact and effects of loss for many people. Knowing what to potentially expect when experiencing grief can be of comfort, and help to provide reassurance.   In the second, third and fourth blogs, we looked closely at various theoretical models often used to help explain grief and loss.  It’s important to know that there are many different models, and each one of these is simply an attempt – always an imperfect one – to give structure and meaning to the experience of grief.  Whilst these models can feel a bit too remote, distant and theoretical, they can help some people to recognise and name some of the things they experience in their own grief.  This can normalise otherwise confusing and disorientating feelings. 

And so, this blog picks up where the other articles have left off – to ensure that a clear and robust answer is given to the question:  what can help with grief?

In the depth of winter, there can be signs of spring emerging. In the depth of grief, there are things that can help to bring a sense of hope.

What can help with grief?

The short answer:  plenty of care and compassion.  Throughout these blogs, we’ve taken time to consider how adopting a non-judgemental and accepting approach to yourself and your own feelings can be helpful.  After any form of loss, self-care and taking gentle and compassionate steps to soothe and comfort yourself is important.  That may, or many not, come easily to you.  Try to offer compassion and acceptance to any part of you that resists looking after yourself or being gentle with yourself.   Grief is a natural process in response to loss.  The grieving process can be painful and difficult. It is important, then, to find ways to look after yourself if you have experienced loss of any kind.

Self-care and self-compassion can be helpful.

Self-care examples:

Self-care comes in many different forms.  You are likely to have an inner sense of what helps you to feel more at ease with yourself, and more supported.  If you are stuck for ideas, consider whether any of these suggestions seem a good fit for you:

  • Expressing your feelings in a journal.
  • Talking to trusted friends.
  • Speaking to a grief counsellor.
  • Taking one day at a time.
  • Managing your commitments and pacing yourself.
  • Saying “no” to social engagements or commitments that seem too much for now. 
  • Eating healthy meals.
  • Exercise.
  • Asking for help. 
Speaking with a grief counsellor is one of a range of ways you can take care of your self when you have experienced loss.

Accept your feelings:

Acknowledging and accepting your feelings without judgment can be a real act of self-care when facing loss.  Feelings such as anger, guilt, loneliness, and sadness are likely to arise during the grief process.  Try to remember feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are.  Finding ways to express your feelings can help.  This can be via a journal or diary, speaking with a trusted friend, arranging an appointment with a counsellor, or calling a helpline to speak to someone outside of the family.

Journalling is one way to express your feelings – you may prefer a printed journal with prompts. For many, a blank (or lined) exercise book works just as well.

Be patient with yourself:

The motto of “one day at a time” can be a helpful form of self-care when facing loss.  You are likely to have better days than others.  Try to focus on each day at a time and set yourself small, achievable goals.  If you feel frustrated with yourself, consider what you’d say to a friend in the same situation and aim to offer yourself this same level of care with kindness and patience.  Aim to avoid saying “yes” to commitments that are unrealistic, so you give yourself the time and space you need.  It’s okay to take your time.

Offer yourself physical care:

Attending to your physical needs is a way you can offer yourself care during the difficult process of grief.  Consider what steps you can take towards getting adequate sleep, eating nutritionally balanced meals and finding ways for regular exercise and relaxation.  Above all, be kind to yourself in this process. Offer yourself compassion if you are finding it hard to eat healthy, regular meals or take regular exercise. But, where you can, aim to look after yourself physically in gentle and compassionate ways. Can you take a short walk outside? Or fix up a simple meal that will give your body what you need? If you are finding that you begin to use drugs, alcohol or other methods to self-medicate, aim to offer yourself care and seek support. 

Find your own ways to remember:

The Continuing Bonds Model demonstrates that for many people, finding ways to continue bonds with a person after their death can be helpful.  If you consider that to be the case for you, find your own ways to remember.  This could include making a memory box, displaying photographs and visiting places you enjoyed together.  Such a resource can then – if you feel it is appropriate and helpful for you – be shared with a trusted friend or family member to facilitate shared conversation about your loss. 

You may, or may not, find it helpful to use photos as a way to connect with your feelings around loss and grief.

Accept others’ help:

Grieving a loss can be very draining.  You may want to “go it alone”.  However, it can be an act of self-care to accept, and even ask for the help from others.  Consider who in your social circle you feel comfortable with and let them know when you are finding things difficult.  There are also a range of peer-support and professional support services who can help you.  For example, online peer support is available via the Sue Ryder online bereavement community

It’s okay to ask for help

Below are a list of some useful forms of support and information relating to various forms of grief and loss:

Anne Robson Trust:  Support for people and their loved ones facing the end of life.

Blue Cross:  Pet bereavement and pet loss. 

Child Bereavement UK:  Help for families after a child dies, or when a child in grieving. 

Cruse and Cruse Scotland:  Bereavement support, information and campaigning. 

Tell us Once:  A service that lets you report a death to most government organisations in one go.

Life Ledger:  Free, easy to use death notification service.

Sands:  Stillbirth and neonatal death charity, ssupporting anyone affected by the death of a baby.

Amparo:  support for anyone impacted by death from suicide. 

Pause to reflect:

So – as we come to the end of the final of these five blogs focussing on grief and loss, take a moment to take stock.  Have you discovered anything about yourself?  About your experience of loss.  Has anything caused you to be curious, disappointed, angry or sad?  And, if so – what do you need just now?  Trust your own process and your own sense of self to listen to your feelings, and thoughts. And above all, be gentle and compassionate to yourself as you do so.  So – for anyone impacted by loss or grief reading this, that is – anyone and everyone of us, of course – wishing you warmth and kindness. 

If you have been impacted by any of the themes or topics in this blog, please reach out for support.  One of the ways you can do this is by speaking to a bereavement counsellor via the free webchat service provided by Cruse. 

More Steps Through Grief

This blog is the fourth in a series of five in-depth blogs looking at the experience of grief and loss.  As a therapist, I’ve supported many people who want to benefit from bereavement counselling, or who are looking for space to find a sense of freedom from the pain of loss.  Many people face issues of loss without necessarily initially considering that grief could be part of their processing – for example, when people are facing retirement and unsure about the future,  when important plans have had to change or even when a house move leaves someone suddenly overcome with difficult feelings.  These experiences are common to many of us, and – as we have seen in previous blogs – loss is a universal given, part of life for each and every one of us. 

In the first blog in the series, we considered some of the forms grief can take, as well as the impact and effects of loss for many people.  In the second blog of the series, we looked closely at the Kübler-Ross model often used to help explain grief and loss.  The third blog explored two mode models of grief: the Tasks of Mourning Model and the Dual Process Model.  This blog will consider two more theoretical models of grief, before we turn our attention in the final blog to considering support for the experience of loss and grief.  As with all of our blogs, please do take care of yourself as you read.  Consider what you may need, and what feelings and thoughts arise for you as you read.  Above all, be compassionate with yourself in response to the content of the blog.  

Continuing Bonds Model:

Like the other theoretical frameworks we’ve considered here and here, the Continuing Bonds Model provides a structure designed to support people to make meaning of their loss and grief.  The Continuing Bonds Model was developed by Dennis Klass, Phyllis Silverman and Steven Nickman.  Their book, Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief, published in 1996, challenges the ideas that the grieving process is about cutting links with that which has been lost.  Instead, they proposed a new way to think about and approach loss – one in which the emphasis is upon the ways in which a deceased person “stays with” the person grieving.  They note that for many people, promoting a continued bond with a deceased loved one provides comfort and support in coping with loss and adjustment.  In this way, it is possible to carry the person with us throughout our lives. 

Is it possible to consider any continuing bond you may have with someone you are grieivng for?

Forms of Continuing Bonds. 

Behaviours and rituals which seem to be instinctive to so many people who experience loss are seen as ways in which a person can continue to feel a bond and connection with the person or even situation they are grieving.  This can take the form of physically holding onto items, such as a piece of clothing or a photo of a loved one.  Private rituals and conversations with your loved one can also be a way that bonds are continued.  Many people report speaking to their deceased loved one, and find this to be helpful and therapeutic.  They may also visit places where they feel close to them.  These are all ways people continue bonds with deceased loved ones.  Whilst these types of behaviours are in fact, common to those who grieve, some people do not tell others about these rituals and forms of comfort as they may feel pressure from others to “move on”.  The Continuing Bonds Model reframes these rituals and behaviours as a helpful part of the grief process. 

People often find their own unique ways to continue to feel a bond with a loved one, even after death.

The “Growing around Grief” Model.

One final model we will consider that offers a framework for thinking about the process of grief and loss, developed by Grief Counsellor, Lois Tonkin, in 1996, is known as the “Growing around Grief” Model.

This model challenges the idea that our grief or sense of loss will shrink and disappear.  Tonkin’s model recognizes that significant losses initially consume most or all areas of our life.  There is little life space left initially for anything other than the feelings of loss.  You may feel the loses you’ve experienced consume you just now.  Grief can feel as it is suffocating or robbing us of any form of life.  It can be hard to feel anything other than our raw pain of loss.    That’s certainly true for many, many people when they first experience grief, and is visually represented to good effect in the haunting, spectre like image, with ghostly, staring eyes in Munch’s painting, Death in the Sickroom

Edvard Munch, Death in the Sickroom (1895).  

An expansion of life:

However, according to this model, in time, it is possible to experience an expansion of life, so that the grieving person gradually grows around their grief.  The bereaved person adjusts to their grief by encompassing it into their lives. They can even grow from their grief.  This process may take some time, or even a very long time, and everyone’s journey through loss is different.  However, according to Tonkin – it is possible to experience a sense in which life has grown around the grief. 

Like tree roots that have found a way to grow round the rocky terrain, some poeple find it is possible for their life to grow round their grief.

It’s not necessary for grief to “go away”:

Some people believe this model is a helpful challenge to the idea that grief is something we should put behind us, that we should “get over” or no longer feel.   In this model, grief does not have to “go away” for a life to develop and grow around the grief.   This can feel comforting and offer hope to anyone who feels any sense of guilt about the idea that, one day, they will be able to “get on” with life.   

Pause and reflect for a moment:

So, take a moment to consider what meaning you make of your own grief, your own loss?  Or, whether indeed, you feel there is any meaning to be made at all amidst the confusion and difficulty of loss.  As we acknowledged in a previous blog, models of grief can feel helpful in making sense of grief and providing a structure.  Equally, they can feel far too abstract, and removed from the raw pain of grief.  There are no right or wrongs here, no best way to approach or navigate grief.  Your grief is unique to you.  Finding ways to give voice and expression to your own feelings of loss, even when these are messy and seemingly without sense or meaning, is one of the ways that counselling can be helpful for anyone experiencing loss, bereavement or grief.  In our final blog of this series, we take a look support for the experience of loss and grief.

Counselling can help you to untangle some of the confusing feelings that are part of grief and loss.

If you have been impacted by any of the themes or topics in this blog, please reach out for support.  One of the ways you can do this is by speaking to a bereavement counsellor via the free webchat service provided by Cruse.  

Making More Meaning of Grief

This blog is the third of a series of five blogs looking at the experience of grief and loss.  Many people seek out counselling for grief, or look to access bereavement counselling after the death of a loved one – including after pregnancy loss.  Others find speaking with a therapist to be helpful after experiencing other forms of loss, such as the feelings and challenges associated with loss of a job, retirement, children leaving home, or the loss of health or even hope.

In the first blog, we considered some of the forms grief can take, as well as the impact and effects of loss for many people.  In the second blog of the series, we looked closely at the Kübler-Ross model or  framework often used to help explain grief and loss.  In this blog, we look a couple of other models of grief that are often used to help provide some structure to making meaning of the grieving process.  We’ll explore the Tasks of Mourning Model proposed by William Worden and also take a look at the Dual Process Model of Grief was developed by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

Tasks of Mourning Model.

Let’s consider the model of grief proposed by William Worden, professor of Psychology at Biola University California.  This model was put forward by Worden in 2008, and suggests that there are four tasks to accomplish during the process of mourning.  Completion of these tasks of mourning can lead to a sense of equilibrium.  Worden is clear there is no set order in which the tasks are to be completed in and that revisiting certain tasks many times may be part of the grief process for some people. 

Task 1 – To accept the reality of the loss.

Accepting that a loss has happened is a task of mourning.  Rituals such as funerals can be helpful in acknowledging the reality of the loss. With other forms of loss this could be to recognize that losing our job, losing our status, losing our income, losing contact with family is a significant loss in our life.  It may even be to recognize a past loss that happened years ago that you have not yet acknowledged. 

Task 2: To process the pain of grief.

This task asks us to find space and ways for the pain associated with loss.  This may involve speaking with others and crying.  Processing pain may also include the expression of other difficult emotions such as anger and guilt. 

Task 3:  To adjust to a world without.

This task requires adaptation as we adjust to the change we experience as a result of our loss.  To live without our loved one.  To live without the sense of identity we once had.  To live without whatever person or cherished thing that we have now lost.  It may mean taking on different roles within our family, conducting a myriad of practical arrangements including financial decisions and also adapting socially. 

Task 4: To find an enduring connection. 

In this task, we consider how to stay emotionally connected with whatever or whoever we have lost without the loss preventing us moving on in our own life.  In this task, memories, thoughts and feelings connected with what or whom we have lost can become significant.  In this task, we remember, rather than forget.  This allows us to connect with other aspects of our life.  

The importance of time to process and self-compassion. 

Before we move onto consider one more model of grief, let’s take a pause at this point in the blog.  Take a moment to consider how you are?  How do you feel just now? And what questions or thoughts have arisen for you as you’ve read about the Tasks of Mourning Model.  Aim to notice your thoughts and feelings without judgements or self-reproach.  This is important.  Whilst learning about theories and models of grief can be helpful, they can also throw up feelings and sensations we hadn’t expected or anticipated.  Take a moment to be compassionate, kind and gentle with yourself.  What do you need just now?  Give yourself the time and the space, with kindness, to allow yourself to feel your feelings, and to find comfort in ways that feel right for you.  If that means abandoning the blog for now, so be it.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

But, if you do feel ready to read on, then, let’s take a look at the final model for making meaning of grief that we are going to cover in this blog – the Dual Process Model of Grief. 

The Dual Process Model of grief. 

Another model for making sense of the loss and grief process is known as the Dual Process Model, developed by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut in 1999.  It helps to convey a sense of fluctuation and change that many people who experience grief describe – the sense that you feel distraught one day, and then more hopeful the next, only to find yourself sobbing and consumed with emptiness the next.  The Dual Process Model describes grief as a process of moving between two different ‘orientations’:  loss orientation and restoration orientation.

Grief is seen as a process of shuttling back and forth between these loss and restoration orientations.  In this model, grief is not understood as a linear or a one-way journey through a series of stages.  The Dual Process Model considers that people move in and out of different forms of grief, often over many years, almost as if they are zig-zagging back and forth between moving forwards and looking back. With this model, it is important to recognise that both orientations are important pats of the grieving process.

Grief can feel as if we are zig-zagging between looking forward and looking back. The path through grief rarely feels straight forward.

Loss orientation.

Loss orientation refers to a focus upon painful emotions connected with loss, and a focus on what or who has been lost.  We may yearn for the person or thing we have lost. We may find ourselves remembering and reminiscing. We may imagine what the person would say if they were still here.  We may yearn for things to be as they were “before”.  We are likely to experience a range of emotions including loneliness, sadness, fear, pain and anger.

Restoration orientation

Restoration orientation refers to a focus upon the changes and practical challenges you need to face to continue with life.   It can provide a state where we gain some respite from the loss-oriented work.  That might mean finding distraction that takes our focus away from our grief, or even living in denial of our grief.  Restoration orientation may also include doing new things, and trying out new roles and relationships. 

Your grief experience? 

And so, as we come to the end of this blog, consider what grief feels like for you?  How do you make meaning or sense of your experience of loss?  Does it help to have some sort of theoretical framework to provide a structure that gives meaning? Or does this feel far too abstract, and a world away from your visceral raw pain of grief.  There are no right or wrongs here, no best way to approach or navigate grief.  Your grief is unique to you.  Finding ways to give voice and expression to your own feelings of loss is one of the ways that counselling can be helpful for anyone experiencing loss, bereavement or grief.  In future blogs, we will look at two more theoretical frameworks for making meaning of grief, before considering support for the experience of loss and grief.

If you have been impacted by any of the themes or topics in this blog, please reach out for support.  One of the ways you can do this is by speaking to a bereavement counsellor via the free webchat service provided by Cruse.   You may also like to consider speaking to a counsellor face-to-face. 

Making Meaning of Grief

Grief and loss are common human experiences that touch us all at some point in our lives.  Death is one of the universal givens of life, and no-one is immune from the pain and sorrow of bereavement.  Likewise, we all face a myriad of losses as we journey through life – the loss of health, of a job or of the hopes and dreams we had, for example.

In the first of five blogs, we considered some of the forms grief can take, as well as the impact and effects of loss for many people.  In this second blog, we look at one of the models or frameworks often used to help explain grief and loss.  We will look at other models in subsequent blogs.   These models can be helpful in making meaning of the experience of loss.  That said, they never eradicate or remove the pain of grief.  Grief and loss remain one of the biggest hurdles that, as a human being, we all face.

Death in the Sickroom.

Before we dive into the first of models of grief, let’s take a moment to pause and consider how grief has been expressed through the medium of art.  Perhaps you are familiar with the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch?  His best-known work, The Scream, is one of the art world’s most iconic and recognisable images.  Edvard’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was 5 years old.  His older sister Sophie also died from the same illness in 1877, when Munch was a teenager.  A number of his paintings touch upon the theme of grief and loss – in particular, his 1893 work, Death in the Sickroom.  This painting was produced 4 years after Munch also experienced the death of his father. It portrays a family overcome by the death of Munch’s sister, Sophie.  In it, we see the raw pain of loss, as each of the characters seem frozen and lost in their own inner world, silenced by grief. One figure, with hollowed eyes looks pale, drawn and almost ghost-like.  Heads bowed, each of the characters refrain from connection and eye contact, and some even seem to need support to stand as they lean against a chair, a wall.  This painting, for those familiar with grief, helps to convey something of the loneliness and agony of loss.  This image is a helpful reminder that grief and loss are debilitating and impact us, no matter our age, economic status or privilege. 

“Death in the Sick Room” by Edvard Munch.
(Credit: Wikipedia)

 The Kübler-Ross Model of grief.

And, so, how to make meaning from grief?  Is there any way that we can find some structure, some explanation that provides a framework to explain the grief experience?  This is what various thinkers have tried to do, in an attempt to being some containment to grief.  Whilst no one model provides clear answers, or a simple “aha” moment – each model does offer something that can help to make some sense of the grief experience.  Let’s look at one of these models – often the model that most people are familiar with – the Kübler-Ross Model. 

The five stages of grief model was developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and became famous after she published her book On Death and Dying in 1969.  Kübler-Ross’ model was a way of explaining the common processes experienced by people with terminal illness facing their own death. But it was soon adapted as a way of thinking about grief and loss in general.  That can include the grief we feel with any form of loss:  loss of status, retirement, loss of income, loss of social contact etc. 

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Is it helpful to think in terms of stages?

Whilst it can be helpful to recognize common phases within the grieving process, it is also important to recognize grief is rarely a predictable journey.  Everyone is unique and everyone’s grief is unique too. There are no set stages of loss that everyone passes through, no neat way to move through grief. That said, there are often common themes, and these are the five stages represented by Kübler-Ross’ model.

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Sadness
  • Acceptance

Denial.

Denial after loss can present itself as a numb feeling.  It may involve a person carrying on as if nothing has happened.  Even though we logically understand a loss has occurred, denial makes it hard to believe this in our hearts.  We might feel as if soon we will discover it was all just a bad-dream of that there has been an error or mistake.  With loss that involves death, it’s also very common to feel the presence of someone who has died, hear their voice or even see them.  These experiences can be a form of denial.

The short-term benefits of denial.

Other people may not understand your denial.  However, denial is a helpful short-term coping mechanism that gives you time to adjust to distressing situations.  If you’re in denial, you’re trying to protect yourself by refusing to accept the truth about the loss that’s happening in your life.

Whilst denial can offer short-term benefits, it is also perfectly normal to not experience denial after a loss.  Remember, everyone’s journey and process through loss is different.

Anger.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Anger is a completely natural emotion that humans experience as part of life.  In life, we often get angry when we can’t control what’s happening to us.  Anger can be expressed in ways that are productive and cathartic – such as speaking with a supportive person.  Anger can also be dealt with I ways that are less helpful – such as taking out our anger on others, using violence or turning our anger inwards and attacking ourselves.

Anger after loss.

Anger is common response after a loss, in that loss often involves a situation that we don’t have control over. Whether that is a death, a redundancy or loss of social connection due to the pandemic.  These are all things we have little or no control over, and that can lead to intense feelings of anger.  Loss can seem cruel and unfair and impacts our plans and hopes for a dreamed for future.  We may look to blame or direct our anger towards someone or something – God, the person who has died, the NHS, the Government etc. We may feel intense anger towards ourselves and direct that anger inwards.

Anger isn’t always understood.

Feelings of anger as part of the grieving process are common.  Anger was identified as one of the stages of grief in Kubler-Ross’ model.  Yet, feelings of anger can be misunderstood by others, and can be difficult to talk about.  Perhaps people around us expect us to feel sad, lonely or tearful.  They may be confused or frightened if we express feelings of anger.   

Expressing anger after loss.

If you feel anger after loss, the following considerations may be helpful:

  • It’s common to feel angry and ask why you face this loss?
  • It’s possible you may find yourself taking out your frustration on family and friends.
  • You may feel overwhelmed with a deep sense of resentment.
  • In the case of death, your anger might be directed at the person who’s died for leaving you.
  • You may feel anger towards family members, medical staff, God or even yourself. 
  • Anger can be experienced at any point during the grieving process.
  • If you’re unable to express your feelings in a way which feels safe, feelings of anger may increase.
  • Even the most supportive people around you may not expect anger as a part of grief, and might not know how to deal with it.
  • A grief counsellor or supportive listener may be able to help you to acknowledge and explore your feelings of anger. 

Bargaining to try to reduce the pain of loss.

The pain of loss and grief can leave us feeling desperate.  It is a common experience for people experiencing grief to express that they’d be willing to go to great lengths if it means they no longer had to experience the pain of loss.  If you are facing loss, you may feel willing to do almost anything to alleviate or minimize the pain.  We can make bargains with ourselves to try to avoid the pain we are experiencing.

People can begin to make “promises” as a form of bargaining, that include:

  • “I’ll never argue again with my Mum if she recovers from her terminal illness”.
  • “I will never get angry again if it means the pain will go away”.
  • “I’d do anything just to see my family members”.

Bargaining with a Higher Power.

Bargaining can be directed towards a Higher Power, and many people report questioning their faith or religious beliefs after experiencing a significant bereavement.  Their world view and belief system may adapt and change as a result of the loss.    For example, they may have prayed: 

“God – if you can heal this person, I will never sin ever again. 

Yet, now they are experiencing the ultimate loss of the person they love, they may then question their faith or belief in a Higher Power. 

Such thoughts can help us to deal with the sense that we are human and there is nothing we can do to influence change or a better end result.  This feeling of helplessness can cause us to react by bargaining, which gives us a perceived sense of control over something that feels so out of control.

“What if” questions.

Another aspect of bargaining includes asking “what if” questions that center around our personal faults or regrets.  “What if I’d never said that….”, “What if I’d made different financial choices…”.  Guilt and bargaining often go hand in hand. We may wish we could go back and behave differently.  We might ask “what if” to express the assumption that if we had acted differently, we would not be experiencing this pain now. 

Some of the “what if” questions you may find yourself answering in this bargaining stage include:

  • “What if I hadn’t said that?”
  • “What if we never visited that place on that night?”
  • “What if I’d managed to get her to the hospital sooner?”
  • “What if I’d saved more money before the Pandemic?”
  • “What if I’d never let my family move away from the local area?”
  • “What if I’d worked harder, or put in longer hours at work?”
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The sadness of loss.

Loss involves sadness.  We grieve because we have lost something important and significant to us, and that involves sadness and longing.  Many people also become more acutely aware of their own mortality, which can also prompt sadness. Sadness is an emotion that many people anticipate and expect during the grieving process.  Of course, that doesn’t mean it is easy to experience.   

The Kübler-Ross Model includes depression or sadness as one of the five stages of grief.  Such grief can be both reactive or anticipatory.   We can react to losses we have experienced.  We can also anticipate loss and experience grief as we prepare to face such loss.  This is common when we are anticipating our own death, or the death of someone we love who has a terminal illness, or some degenerative condition such as dementia.   

For some people, a journey through loss can involve both reactive and anticipatory loss.  For example, if you are living with someone with dementia, you will experience a number of reactive losses as you adapt to their many changes and loss of abilities.  You will also be aware of their eventual demise and death as a result of the dementia.  If you are facing the loss of retirement, you may begin to feel a sense of loss months before the actual date of retirement. 

The difference between grief and depression.

Although the Kübler-Ross Model speaks of depression, some people note that the sadness associated with loss is not necessarily the same as clinical depression.  There are many similarities, but also differences between grief and depression.

Grief is an entirely natural response to a loss, while depression is an illness.  People who are grieving find their feelings of sadness and loss come and go, but they’re still able to enjoy things and look forward to the future.  In contrast, people who are depressed constantly feel sad. They find it difficult to enjoy anything or be positive about the future.  Remember that if you do feel depressed, it’s important to seek medical help.  Talking therapies are available on the NHS, via Cruse Bereavement Care, or you can seek support via a private counsellor.    

Losing a sense of purpose. 

The sadness and depression associated with loss can be very intense and come in waves over many months or even years.  Whatever the form of loss, if we have loss something important to us, it is normal and natural to feel sadness.  Life can feel like it no longer holds any meaning or purpose.  In this way, we can lose touch with our own joy and vitality in our loss.  To engage in activities that we enjoy can evoke feelings of guilt.  Our loss is now present and unavoidable. 

The isolation of sadness.

People experience sadness and low mood as a result of loss may seek to retreat from the world.  Socializing can feel very difficult in this stage.  This stage of grief can feel very isolating.

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

Acceptance in the Kübler-Ross model.

Acceptance is one of the five “stages” of in the Kübler-Ross model.  When Kübler-Ross first created her model to explain the process that people with terminal illnesses often faced, she noted that some people were able to come to terms with the prospect of their own death and felt a sense of peace about the future.  

Acceptance of other forms of loss.

Nowadays, the Kübler-Ross model is used to help make sense of other forms of loss.  When we think about the grief and loss we face after the death of a loved one, a retirement, or other form of loss, the idea of peaceful acceptance can feel appealing.  It may also seem like an impossible dream.

A gradual process.

For many people, grief comes in waves, and it can feel like nothing will ever be right again. Whilst we may idetify with some of the themes in Kübler-Ross model, it would be unusual if we experienced our grief in a way that neatly follows the five-stages in the order in which Kübler-Ross presented them. Grief can be messy and confusing. However, gradually – over time, many people find that the pain eases to some degree, and it is possible to accept what has happened.  We may never ‘get over’ the loss, but we can learn to live again.    It is possible to feel that you have begun to accept the loss one day, and then feel sadness, anger or some other emotion another day.  Remember, everyone’s journey through loss is unique. 

The mourning process can be helpful in supporting people to begin to move to acceptance.  In time, many people do reach a state of acceptance of their loss.  Some people find creative ways to express their experience of loss, as Edvard Munch did through his painting.  Some people benefit from additional support from a grief counsellor or other professional to help them in the process.  

In subsequent blogs, we will consider other models of grief and also look at support for the experience of loss and grief.

If you have been impacted by any of the themes or topics in this blog, please reach out for support.  One of the ways you can do this is by speaking to a bereavement counsellor via the free webchat service provided by Cruse.  

Understanding Grief

Sadly, the acute pain of loss and grief are an inevitable part of being human.  We cannot escape loss and bereavement and are likely to find ourselves experiencing grief of some sort many times throughout our lives.  This blog, the first in a series of 5, offers a consideration of grief and common reactions to loss.  We also consider why it can be so hard to speak about loss and grief. 

We give the name “grief” to the feelings of loss and emptiness we commonly experience after the death of someone we value or love.  Yet, there are multiple forms of loss. It’s normal and natural to also experience grief when faced with the loss of a job, the death of a pet or even when moving home.   Having a friend or family member with a diagnosis of dementia can be a form of grief, as you anticipate the unknown journey ahead.  Perhaps you’ve known the heart-breaking agony of pregnancy loss?  Or the grief that can result after a life-changing health diagnosis?  For many parents, empty nest syndrome also throws us feelings of loss and grief.  Then there are forms of loss which are less tangible – the transitoriness of youth and the loss of our vitality as we age, the loss of hopes and dreams when plans change and the gradual loss of optimism as we become disillusioned with certain relationships or situations. 

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Why is it so hard to speak about grief?

Talking about grief and loss can feel difficult and daunting.  Thoughts, feelings and physical sensations associated with grief can, in themselves, feel very confusing, overwhelming and disorientating.  We might feel like we don’t know which way is up?  Whether we are coming or going?  People grieving often speak of feeling like they are living in a fog, or a daze, or report a numbness where they are just “going through the motions”.  Feeling such confusion can make it difficult to find the words to express your sense of loss, and connect with the pain.  It’s also possible to feel scared and apprehensive about allowing yourself to identify and name your feelings of loss.  For many people who are grieving, there can be a visceral fear that if they allow themselves to speak of the loss they feel, it will be loke opening a floodgate, and that they will be overwhelmed with a Tsunami of loss. 

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Other people’s reaction to our loss.

There’s also other people’s reactions to deal with.  Perhaps you’ve experienced grief, and attempted to open up to others, but felt shut down by their response?  Perhaps you’ve noticed their desire to “cheer you up” by speaking about something else or seen their discomfort when you’ve begun to share the rawness of your pain. Sadly, people who have been bereaved sometimes report that colleagues, or even friends and family members keep their distance, perhaps unsure of exactly what to say.   It may be that you feel a need to protect others who are grieving, and avoid speaking of your pain out of a concern and a care not to upset them further.  Silencing yourself in this way can make dealing with the pain of loss even more difficult.

Disenfranchised grief.

It’s also possible that you feel unable to give voice to your grief, or feel you can’t tell anyone about what you have experienced.  This is something people sometimes say when they have experienced pregnancy loss, or after the death of a lover where the relationship was not public knowledge.  This form of grief is sometimes called “disenfranchised grief”. Here, the cloak of secrecy and silence can feel heavy and cloying. 

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In this series of 5 blogs, we’ll be exploring loss and grief, including:

  • Common reactions to and symptoms of loss and grief.
  • Different ways of understanding grief.
  • Support for the experience of loss and grief. 

Common reactions to and symptoms of loss and grief.

Let’s take a look at the first of these.  Is it possible to speak of common reactions to loss?  Or to identify symptoms of grief?  These are important questions.  Certainly, there is no one “right” way to grieve, and no standard grief process.  Indeed, everyone’s experience of grief and loss is unique, just as we are unique.  How we feel about and respond to a loss is impacted by many, many factors – including our past experience of loss, and the resources and support we have available, including both inner resources, such as resilience and self-compassion, as well as external resources, such as an understanding employer, supportive friends and access to accurate information.  Therefore, everyone’s experience of loss and grief will be different, and may even feel quite different for a person on different days.   

It’s also important to consider whether there are “symptoms” of grief.  The word symptom has overtones of illness and disease.  Grief is not an illness, although it may feel painful – including physically painful, at times.  Therefore, speaking of symptom of grief can lead to people asking if there is a medication or a solution to “take away” their grief.   Indeed, lots of people will ask for their GP, or another health professional’s input after a bereavement or other loss, and there is some helpful NHS advice available in relation to feelings of loss and grief following a bereavement.   

So, that said, is there any way we can identify some of the things that are common to many people’s experiences of grief?  Doing so provides some sort of a framework that can help to normalise and make sense of grief. 

Some of the reactions and responses that people who have experienced loss report are:

  • Feelings of shock and numbness.
  • Overwhelming sadness, with lots of crying.  Equally, feelings of guilt because there are no tears, despite your sadness. 
  • Tiredness or exhaustion and difficulty sleeping.
  • Seeing, hearing or sensing someone who has died.  
  • Anger – towards the person you’ve lost, towards yourself, or someone or something else.
  • Guilt – for example, guilt about feeling angry, regrets about something you said or did not say, or not being able to prevent the loss. 
  • Physical pain – grief increases inflammation in our body which can impact existing health problems or lead to new aches and pains, as well decreasing our immunity. 

This list is in no way exhaustive, and many people experience changes and fluctuations in their experience of grief.  There’s plenty more information about the effects of grief on the Cruse (the National Bereavement Charity) website.

Adapting to loss and grief.

Many people report, and research shows that, with good support, they are able – in time – to adapt well to bereavement, and regain a sense of balance after some weeks or months of acute grief, although they still feel a sense of loss for a long time after the bereavement.  

However, we also know that some people can experience chronic or complex grief, sometimes known as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder (PCBD) where grief is having a significant impact upon their functioning for a lengthy period of time post-bereavement.  Rates of prolonged grief tend to be higher after the death of a child or violent traumatic death.  It is really important to seek professional help if you feel that grief is having a significant impact in your functioning for a lengthy period of time post-bereavement. 

Counselling for grief and loss.

Counselling can help you process feelings of loss.

Speaking with a qualified and experienced therapist can be helpful in managing feelings of grief and loss, whatever the cause.  Many people seek therapy in the first few months after a loss.  Others seek support years and even decades after a loss.  Psychotherapy can be a great support to help with feelings of loss and grief, our relationship to that loss, and chance to feel our feelings in a non-judgemental space. 

So – grief may be a normal and natural part of life.  It’s also painful and raw.  In this blog, we’ve considered some of the forms grief can take, as well as the impact and effects of loss for many people.  In the second blog in this series, we’ll consider some of the many different models and ways of making sense of the grief process.

If you have been impacted by any of the themes or topics in this blog, please reach out for support.  One of the ways you can do this is by speaking to a bereavement counsellor via the free webchat service provided by Cruse.