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Grief Work(s)

April 1, 2017

On The Bridge we work with loss as part of the human condition and grief as ‘the bridge between the past, present, and the future’. So what exactly do we mean by the word grief? Grief essentially is a natural reaction to any kind of loss with normal and sometimes conflicting feelings that arise. The word grief is most often associated with the death of someone we love, a partner, family member, friend, or pet. However there are many other life losses that produce grief.

Some examples include:

  • Divorce or separation/ending of relationships
  • Loss of trust/faith (e.g. relating to betrayals and hurts)
  • Loss of identity (eg. From youth to middle age, finding purpose )
  • Loss of innocence (as in cases of children having to grow up too soon)
  • Miscarriages/terminations
  • Moving house/location
  • Ending of addictions (e.g., recovery from drug and alcohol)
  • Major health changes/illness
  • Change of career/Retirement
  • Financial changes
  • Empty nest syndrome

We need to grieve all of life’s losses, not just bereavements, because all of our major endings bring with them a kind of ‘death’. By this I mean a significant change that marks the end of our old life/self as we know it and so can bring with it deep sorrows that require time and space to heal. Such ‘deaths’ can involve losing aspects of ourselves as well as the others in our life.

We all experience loss many times in our lives but for most of us we have been socialised to believe that expressing these feelings is abnormal or wrong in some way. Over time the pain of unresolved grief is cumulative and can have a lifelong impact on a persons capacity for happiness. Depressive mood, hopelessness, and anxious feelings are common reactions to unprocessed grief.

I believe we need to honour these losses in the same way that we mark the gains in our lives, because both events fundamentally change us. You could say that, just as we celebrate the ‘comings’ of life – such as 18th birthday, marriage, and childbirth – we also need to honour the ‘goings’. Whilst we have the ritual of funerals to help us through the loss of friends and family, we are rarely taught how to honour and let go of other hurts, losses, and betrayals in ways that are healthy for us. The result is that many of us store up these griefs, accumulating them year after year until, in our middle adult years, we find ourselves bursting with a pain so great that we can not even contemplate examining it. Instead, many of us simply batten down the hatches of our heart and endure. The result is that our life becomes smaller, shallower, and narrower. Everything is less than it could be, including ourselves. This sense of ‘less than’ can mean not only that we lose our potential to thrive and make the most of our lives, but also that a coldness and bitterness of heart can set in. This is the reason why many walk around in a cloud of negativity and indulge in moaning, bitching and gossip, both at work and at home. Such negative behaviour is often in fact a sign of unexpressed hurt and sadness, what the Psychotherapist David Richo calls ‘a poor man’s grief’. The impact of this avoidance can be far-reaching.

In my work as a coach and facilitator of personal development programmes I have worked with hundreds of people who describe themselves, or have been diagnosed, as ‘depressed’ or ‘anxious’. And I have found again and again over the years that for many people this is a misdiagnosis because what they are really suffering from is unprocessed grief. The truth is that failure to process the impact of major life challenges can result in symptoms that look very similar to depression. This is of course not to deny that some people have clinical depression or anxiety disorders. What I am suggesting is that there are many who sense that they are misdiagnosed, or who believe they are depressives, when in fact they are suffering from an inability to turn and face specific issues of loss in their life that can actually be resolved and in the process save themselves from a lifetime of pain and suffering. But how to tell the difference? In my experience, if people are allowed a safe and nurturing space to express and make sense of blocked emotions arising from past hurts, betrayals and losses, what happens is this… quite simply, they get better.

Donna Lancaster, Co-Founder and facilitator of The Bridge Retreat

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