Dealing with losses: complete your grief

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In this age of the COVID19 pandemic, many people would have sustained losses. Those that succumbed would have loss of health, and even loss of life of a loved one for those unfortunate ones. To others, maybe a loss of income, jobs and all that are associated with that kind of losses. To all living under the restrictions of a partial lockdown like that of the circuit breaker, loss of personal freedom.

The immediate reaction to loss is often denial. It couldn’t be! It can’t be true! With these reactions, we began to look for evidence that we did not sustain that loss, or it ever happened. We think of all the reasons why the loss should not be. I have seen relatives faced with the immediate loss of their beloved father, could not believe that this could happen. You did promise to do things for me, you are supposed to bring us for that dream holiday, or solve my problems or any of the promises made when he was alive.

Denial

Denial can in fact help us to cope somewhat, especially when there tasks that you need to perform in the aftermath of the loss. For example, arranging for a funeral after a loved one’s demise. Or sorting out the practical things that need to be disposed of or of arrangements to be made when we are faced with a job loss. Losing a job can be denied when one is desperately trying to look for another job to fill in the missing ….. whatever.

We are finally confronted with the loss when the evidence becomes overwhelming. That’s when waking up every morning we miss that familiar face, or we no longer need the routine of going to the office to assume a work role in an organization.  Thus, when what we need to do has been completed or frustrated, we are faced and hit with what actually is – our loss is for real!

Anger

The next psychological reaction to loss is one of frustration and anger. Such anger can sometimes coexists with denial. Whatever it is, anger is inevitable. How can that loss happened? How can our loved ones leave us like that? How can the boss relieve me of my job, or the government restricts my business, and cause this huge loss of income. This anger can cause severe tension bad enough to give us stress symptoms like insomnia or loss of appetite to name a few. 

This frustration and anger can also be disproportionate in some people prone to aggression because of their personality. And not unusually people who are thus predisposed, acts of violence and destruction may be seen directed on physical objects. Thus furniture, appliances such as fans, tables, chairs, plates and bowls, cookers, toasters, telephones, glasses, indeed anything and everything can be destroyed by violence. Worse still, the violence may end up with people being hurt and harmed and in the unfortunate case, a loss of life.

But anger is a necessary component of grief although for most people, this does not lead to violence, but there is always an expression of violent impulses and thoughts. Such thought and impulses should be expressed like pus draining from an infected wound. 

Ideally, for healthy resolution such anger should be given voice in a conversation within an interpersonal context or in a written form for a personal confidante to read. Such expression would lead to some resolution of the aggression. For once it is in the form of words, written or oral, it can be cognitively conveyed and effectively contain the felt emotions in a way that allows for emotional and interpersonal resolution.

Aggression and anger if challenged by another aggressive response often escalates. So to deal with anger, you need a lot of self-control. Words can calm and soothe the emotions. More importantly words can be confronted with logic such that calm supervenes, anger can be resolved by tuning the emotion down, then directing it away fruitfully to another level to be dissipated.

As the anger calms down, and the extent of loss is realized, mourning takes place. Mourning is essentially sadness for the loss and the individual has to separate himself/herself from the past where the object that is lost is part of themselves or their lives.

Mourning

Mourning requires a letting go of the past, retaining the good aspects in memory as we accept that which has been lost as well as an embracing of the future without the lost object. This letting go is not just psychological, it is also symbolic as well so that the loss can be internalized as a foundation for further personal growth. 

Different races and cultures have developed elaborate rituals for us to successfully mourn the loss of loved ones. These rituals allow us to externalize our loss onto external objects, words and ideas which are vehicles that carry our grief and our loss. This enables us to let go of  the emotions and live on henceforth without the lost object. So, whether it be a burial, destruction by burning, cast into the sea or elsewhere, or somehow disposed of, the object is symbolically taken away.

So it is even in a job loss, objects belonging to the past are discarded while a few memorable objects are retained as mementos of what is past.

In clinical situations too, when I help clients to complete their grief, it is externalized in a symbolic way and destroyed while good memories and experiences are retained symbolically in a few objects that are retained.

Once this is done, the mourner can look forward to the future retaining the good of the loss object with treasured souvenirs of the past. These carried with them the insights and valuable experiences  from the past besides  memories of happy times. Such memories serve as a means of providing a  psychological ballast for the future.

Note that the grief cannot be resolved if there are ambivalent feelings towards the lost object. The anger towards such an ambivalent figure somehow cannot find expression. There is a need here for the individual concerned to embrace both the bad and the good parts of the lost object, such as a loving parent who was at the same time quite punitive. Bad parts of the object have to be accepted then forgiven and mourned for. This is how to let go of the past. If not, the unresolved grief can persist for years even decades.

Bad objects can be disposed of easily as there is no emotional attachment to them, and because of a lack of attachment, there is no grief as such. To be free from a bad object like that of a tyrannical authoritarian figure is indeed a liberation for the victims.

Note that grief to be complete has to be interpersonal as well. It is usually done with the help and accompaniment of trusted person(s) who can provide the support. This include spiritual objects such as a priest, pastor, imam or similar, as well as God or similar spiritual object of worship. Psychologically, they can be considered as a projected “other”.

New Beginnings

Once grief is completed, we can move on to a new life and new beginnings. So, wherever you are, whoever you are. If you have sustained losses of any sort, be it a business or financial loss, a personal loss, loss of a beloved family member, loss of health, indeed any losses at all, know that you are not alone, the whole community and country is with you through this pain and suffering.

Work through your losses, deal with it, grieve and get over it. Above all, learn to make up for your losses, find new meaning and new connections and move on. May you find a new lease of life moving forward.

All the best! Let’s overcome it together.