Grief is the term we apply to losses of any kind.
Basically, grief is triggered when we lose a connection with something or someone we value.
My rule of thumb is that if we name something, we have a connection. That is true for cars, pets, houses and other properties we may acquire.
However, that does not exhaust the connections we feel in this world.
Congregations finding themselves in facilities that cannot be sustained due to costly repairs or expensive overhead can split over a decision of how to move forward. The building is a repository of experiences and memories that will die if the congregation replaces the structures or moves away.
We are connection makers, which means grief will come to all.
Generally, when we speak of grief, we speak about it in relationship to a tangible person, or a significant relationship. People die, marriages die, friendships die. Such deaths usher in grief.
The factors that shape grief are personal. The length and overall value of the connection, the positives and negatives of the connection, and the nature of the end of the connection all influence the shape and depth of one’s grief.
COVID-19 has brought grief to the forefront because so many have died from the virus and in similar settings.
The setting for the loss is unlike our previous experience with loss. Most losses happen with some forewarning – with an opportunity for family to gather, for conversations to be finished and some closure with the connection to begin.
COVID-19 losses may often have our loved one isolated away from family for a length of time in the ICU, only to receive word of the loved one’s death. Early in the pandemic, some settings required cremation, so the family received back an urn of ashes.
Such loss has brought a new designation into the public circle. It is not a new term, just an infrequently used term called “complicated/complex grief.”
Grief closure is really a process one moves through over time.
The grieving person ruminates over the loss so that the reality of loss can be accepted. Our coping mechanisms help us to limit the reality of our loss as we can face it, acknowledge it and begin to digest it.
Working with over a thousand people at the point of their loss or losses has helped me to see that rumination and acceptance happen at a different pace for everyone. Sometimes it is within a few minutes or over several days.
Grief is about moving on from a connection that has died. Since we most often use the term “grief” in connection with people with whom we are connected, grief work is about moving on from that connection which has ended.
Research on grief is rather recent, with little done before 1942 and then the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her foundational book, On Death and Dying, garnering most of the attention.
Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief could better be understood as the emotional landscape of grief.
Grief is more than feelings. It also involves tasks that need to be completed over time, the reasons for which will become obvious as we move along.
Complex grief or complicated grief means a person encounters problems in their grieving that keep them stuck or mired so they cannot move forward.
One analogy is a car stuck in mud in such a way that the tire cannot gain traction to move on. Complex/complicated grief is getting stuck and being unable to move on.
It is accurate to say that one does not get stuck in the emotions of grief (shock/denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) but more likely with the tasks of grief.
Erich Lindemann identified three great tasks grief must accomplish in a 1944 article, “Symptomatology and the Management of Acute Grief.”
First, separate the one living from the ties that bind one to the deceased.
Loss does not automatically sever the ties that bind one to the deceased. In fact, the more dysfunctional the relationship in which the loss occurred, the more challenging it may be to find those connections.
Second, reorient to a world in which the deceased is not present.
Often this experience can trigger powerful emotions such as the first time the person attends church or eats out alone, or even sits at the meal table with an empty chair. All of those experiences can provoke powerful emotional memories and responses.
The temptation is to flee those experiences and seek seclusion and safety. However, instead of retreating, one knuckles down and use all one’s inner strength to endure the moment or event.
Such tenacity will mean grief has taken another step toward resolution.
Third, form new relationships.
If one has lost a pet, perhaps this involves coming to the place where one is open to another pet.
In losing friends or family, such a step means the guarded heart opens to new relationships and friendships, which is a powerful step toward moving on.
Most often grief does not resolve itself in a year or even two.
My rule of thumb is it takes a year just to get a sense of the magnitude of the relationship which has been lost. Then grieving begins.
When should a loss turn one toward a counselor or therapist? I would say at least two times.
First, when one feels alone in their loss. There is no one to talk to or no one to trust.
Second, when over time one’s grief seems to deepen or feels intractable.
Wash your hands, wear your double masks for others, mind the gap and be kind.