Are You Grieving? - The Process
Updated: Jan 6, 2022
We will all experience grief & loss of some sort during our lives, & whilst we may wish to avoid the potentially overwhelming feelings that can come hand in hand, it is important to go through the process of experiencing these emotions in order move on to new stages in our lives...
Loss is the process of losing something or someone and the feeling of grief that coincides with that loss of what has been greatly valued. Psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907 - 1990) ultimately took all his observations and theories on attachment and separation and applied them to the grief process experienced through bereavement and loss. He suggested there was a relational system in these attachment relationships, in that these attachments form a system in which individuals are constantly impacting each other, trying to maintain their relationship in different ways. Bowlby suggested that grief was a normal adaptive response when loss occurs, and that the response was influenced by the psychological and environmental make-up of the griever and that there were normal reactions one might expect (Bowlby, 1980).
He conceptualised the grief reaction as a special case of separation anxiety and the bereavement response as a consequence of irreversible separation; the early phases of grief consist of an intense form of separation anxiety and the later phases result from the confusion and misery that arise from the realisation that the secure base to whom the bereaved individual would turn to for comfort in distress is the very person who is no longer available (Holmes, 1993). Joined at the Tavistock by British psychiatrist and author Colin Murray Parkes, after undertaking a systematic study of bereavement in adults, Bowlby and Parkes broke down this natural adaptive grief response into four phases or stages of grief (Parkes, 1975).
The first stage of grief is numbness and shock; this is the phase where the loss does not seem real, and is appears impossible to accept. There are somatic symptoms during this phase which can result in physical distress. Based on an emotional calmness in which our feelings are suppressed, we need to progress through this phase or we will struggle to accept and understand our emotions and communicate them; we will emotionally shut down and not progress through the phases of grief (Parkes & Weiss, 1983).
The second stage of grief is yearning, searching and anger; during this phase we are acutely aware of the void left in our life from the loss. As the future we imagined is no longer a possibility, we search for the comfort we used to have from the person we have lost and we try to fill the void of their absence. Appearing to be preoccupied, we continue identifying with the person we have lost, looking for constant reminders of them and ways to be close to them (Parkes & Weiss, 1983).
Bowlby and Parkes feel that if we cannot progress through this phase we will spend the rest of our life trying to fill the void of the loss and remain preoccupied with the person we have lost (Parkes, 1972, 1983).
‘Only if he can tolerate the pining, the more or less conscious searching, the seemingly endless examination of why and how the loss occurred, and anger at everyone who might be responsible, not even sparing the dead person, can he gradually come to realise and accept that loss is in truth permanent and that his life must be shaped anew’ (Bowlby, 1982).
In the final stage of the process of grieving; despair, disorganisation and reorganisation, we have accepted that everything has changed and will never go back to the way it was or the way we imaged the future with the person we have lost to be. As well as the anger and questioning there is a hopelessness and despair that comes with this acceptance; life feels as though it will never improve or make sense again without the presence of the person who we have lost (Parkes & Weiss, 1983). We may feel like withdrawing from others, an inner turmoil has been created and the dilemma, that the loss removes not only the loved one, but the secure base to which the bereaved person would expect to turn to in their hour of need (Holmes, 1993).
Bowlby and Parkes suggest that if we need to progress through this phase, or we will continue to be consumed by depression and anger, and that our attitude toward life will remain negative and hopeless (Parkes, 1972, 1983).
According to the Bowlbian model the opportunity for emotional release is an essential ingredient in healthy mourning as it is the process of this grief which enables us to rebuild an inner secure base, and only by withstanding the hostility of the process that enables new attachments to be formed once old ones are relinquished. Moving on from this disorganisation, as our faith in life begins to be restored; we enter a phase of re-organisation and recovery. We establish new goals and patterns of daily life; the loss recedes to a hidden section of the brain where it continues to influence us but is not at the forefront of the mind (Bowlby, 1980).
If we are unable to work through our grief process over a period of time, if the grieving is still extreme, this can be termed as ‘pathological grief’. Pathological grief is what one experiences if after a certain period of time the intense feelings of grief are still so powerful that they are intruding on a person’s ability to function in their normal lives, the trauma may be so great, and the person may not have been able to work through a particular grieving stage for various reasons, for example; survival. A person may not have allowed themselves to grieve if they have had to keep going, survive.
Psychotherapy can assist you in working through the grieving process by giving you the space to be heard and held with empathetic guidance.
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Eve Houseman MBACP