Written by Molly Swanberg
At some point in life we all face major losses. Whether it be the loss of a job, a friendship, or the death of a loved one, loss is a human inevitability. Although it is something we all experience, our reaction to loss can be very different. Some people grieve openly with tears and outward displays of emotion. Others are not visibly sad but may feel just as sad inside. Still other people respond to death or loss with an overtly rational style where planning and organizing and “dealing with it” take precedence. We are all different and unique in our response, which is why it is important that we be sensitive to all coping styles.
I recently experience a significant loss. My grandfather died at the impressive old age of 93. I have been blessed in the sense that I had previously not experienced a lot of death in my 28 years. Both of my grandmothers are still alive, and so are all of my family members and dear friends. My initial reaction to the loss of my grandfather was sadness, tearfulness, and probably a small amount of shock and bewilderment. How could it be that he is gone? How will life be without seeing him? The hardest part was to grasp his absence. That he is gone; no longer with me in this physical realm. I will not be seeing him or hearing his voice again. I was sad. My mother on the other hand had a much different reaction. She did not cry. It was not that she didn’t love him, or wasn’t sad, but the outward expression never hit her. Some people may have been bothered by this but I was not, for a couple of reasons. One, I have studied grief and bereavement and I am aware that everyone copes with loss uniquely. I am also aware that there is a strong possibility she could be having a delayed response to his death. Sometimes it takes an additional loss to bring out the emotions of the previous. I guess we will see. Regardless, it is very important to be aware of this phenomenon. We have to be understanding of each other’s process and realize that there is no correct way to grieve.
In addition there are also helpful and unhelpful ways to approach a person who has just experienced a major loss. Grief experts (correctly) warn not to say “I know how you feel.” This is invalidating and in fact untrue because it is impossible to feel another person’s emotions for them. By contrast, simply letting a person know that you are present and here for them is enough. Another way to support a grieving individual is to let them talk. Let them speak about their loved one as little or as much as they need to. Sometimes just talking about the loss helps them process it and move forward.
A wise professor of mine once said “we don’t get over losses but we can learn to incorporate them and make meaning.” I couldn’t agree more.