Awake and reflecting on loss, I prepare myself (on this particular morning) to call a friend who is experiencing a new and unexpected loss. A recent pain that holds the potential to awaken every painful place she (my friend) will believe she has failed the person she has lost.
These thoughts beckon me to my own losses, my own people, and the places I want to protect her (and maybe myself) from. Though I know, even if I tried, I cannot protect her from this inevitable experience. (I can only listen, encourage expression, and love her). I expect she will believe she has let her person down. Her brain will find ways, searching for larger reassurance, that if she had only said this, done this, didn’t say this, didn’t do this, would have known. It can go on this way for a long while. This soul wrenching pain, that will absorb blame in the form of regrets, exists in an effort to feel safe. It manifests as a wish to return to the place before loss. The place where we could do better for our loved one. The imaginary place of no regrets.
Both the tendency to search out blame (self and otherwise) and for our brain to link like experiences are normative in grief. They are needed for predictability and, as odd as it sounds, they are needed for safety and survival. We need predictability to feel safe. When loss occurs, life as we knew it is forever changed. We can’t call our person, drop by, or just know they are there. Making sense of this (finding it’s very personal meaning and making it manageable) takes time.
Blame, in some ways, is part of how we make meaning. We rationalize; it would make sense that our person is gone because (we, they, it) did something wrong. It does not make sense that they were here yesterday and now they are not. This is uncomfortable. It seems there has to be a predictable reason. How do we protect ourselves and our loved ones from this? What are we to do with this knowledge? The knowledge that, they aren’t here and they should be. That they might be if only something (some nuanced variable) had or had not occurred? How do we make sure this never happens again? This search, for meaning and safety, seems endless for a time.
It is also worth noting, that our brains ability to find commonality seems a double edged sword in grief. It can bring, along with empathy for experience, heavy doses of emotional numbing. We normally make associations with previous feelings and experiences as a way to learn new skills and to stay safe in our world. It is a deeply ingrained (and needed) survival ability. (i.e. we know not to touch the stove because it is hot, and/or mom or dad (without us ever touching the stove) had a large reaction when we got near it. Our brain associates the hot stove with the experience of touching it and/or the reaction of others. We remember because our own or trusted others reaction to the experience. We made an association that will , ideally, keep us safe in the future.
For my friend, her brain is likely finding associations with the many complex feelings she is attempting to navigate. This loss will touch other places of loss, and can bring further complexity (pain) to her process. This is such a difficult piece to sort in grief. It is important to feel this loss and at some point to recognize (the very non-conscious process) that this loss may be triggering (re-igniting) past experiences of loss. This makes it all the more difficult to make sense of. At times, it can bring long lasting complications around recovery.
As described above, my brain easily finds associations (based on my own experiences of pain and loss) with what (I expect) my friend may feel. I know my feelings attached to sudden and unexpected (non predictable) loss because I have associated experiences. This makes it possible to anticipate what she may be experiencing. I prepare myself (which is why I am awake so early) for our initial conversation by revisiting my loss. Again, this is normative. I imagine she will journey the strange and painful landscape of grief by blaming herself or potentially others. This (could occur) in an attempt to make meaning, by trying to make reality predictable and therefore manageable. I also know it won’t be, at least not, in the beginning.
At this point, because no writing on grief would be complete without referencing Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, it is important to note researched , legitimately helpful, and beautiful writing (primarily by these authors) exist on this topic. Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler who collaborated on several books (see links in the recommendations section) provide beautiful and informative guidelines. Kubler Ross provided the well known 5 stages of grief ( denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) and Kessler added a 6th in his latest book Finding Meaning, The Sixth Stage of Grief.
It is also worth noting, as both authors do, that while there is a framework, grief is a uniquely individual journey. It is a process with similar reference points but no set roadmap. We can have differing responses to this process. Like many human reactions, our responses are laid across a continuum of possible reactions. In this writer’s opinion, these reactions range from denial and avoidance to active and conscious grieving. In the beginning, as we are acclimating to the realization that our person and predictability is gone, it seems we can only survive. Sometimes the best we can do is to just get through the day. It takes time to adjust to loss and grasp what this genuinely means to us. Time that must be respected.
It also takes awareness. As noted, a range of possible reactions exist. An individual in denial (which is normative initially) of his or her own pain might engage in activities that numb their own experience. This could take many forms including avoidance through busyness, over-sleeping, addictive behaviors, care-giving, care-seeking, and /or advice-giving (and many other forms) that can minimize or dismiss their own and others experiences. A goal, in navigating grief and loss, is to stay consciously connected to what is occurring internally. This is not easy, and as noted almost impossible, in the beginning phases of the grief process. Overtime, it is however essential.
This (staying consciously connected) means staying aware that one is struggling to make sense of this non-sensible loss. Allowing expression to take shape in ways that acknowledge and not push pain deeper by avoiding, minimizing, or dismissing. Reaching for expression and healthy coping is individual. It can include many strategies. These are considered healthy if there is acknowledgement (primarily to the self) that the coping is pursued to manage the normal feelings connected to loss, that blame and regret are normative, and (if the chosen coping) it is not harmful to self, other, or property.
It is important to recognize in the beginning phases of grief (as Kubler Ross highlights) blame and regret are normative. It is very likely these emotional counterparts will be there is some form. It is a part of the complicated (and again individual) grief process. These emotions may exist in varying degrees. This said, these feelings change overtime. If they do not, it is possible the person is in need of additional support. Self and other blame is not considered normative overtime and will complicate an already complicated and complex process.
It is also worth noting, as often discussed by author and researcher Brene Brown, that blame can perpetuate shame. I would believe that self-blame (can be experienced in the form of regret) and can evolve into a sense of shame overtime. The varied circumstances around unexpected loss are fertile ground for this experience, This is true due to the inability to say what is left unsaid, to share feelings with one’s person, or to physically repair if conflict did exist. If left unspoken or non-supported, these will be complicating factors overtime.
Coming back to my friend, our call, and our connected experience of grief ~ my intention is to show up for her. To be there, to listen, to hear her thoughts and feelings. Providing a safe place for her to be witnessed in her unique pain by being there. I won’t be sharing the thoughts in this writing, my experience of loss, or the following resources, with her today. Possibly at a later time. For now, she needs a listener. Someone to hear about her person, her experience of loss, and all that it means to her. She needs this just as I have needed it in my life and you, quiet likely, have needed in yours.
The experience of loss is not uncommon, especially in our world today. This said, it is a very personal experience and needs a place to be acknowledged in this way. As a personal and unique journey that is collectively understood.
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Hospice Foundation of America~National Hotline: 1-800-227-2345
Hospice Foundation: https://hospicefoundation.org/Grief-(1)
Hospice~ End of Life Care: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/end-of-life-care/hospice-care/how-to find.html#:~:text=Hospice%20care%20providers%20also%20are%20listed%20in%20the,on%20Aging%20or%20a%20local%20United
David Kessler’s Daily On-line (Facebook based) Grief Group: https://www.facebook.com/IamDavidKessler
David Kessler: Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler: Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, David Kessler, et al: On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross MD: On Death and Dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own family
Brene Browm: Podcast with David Kessler on Finding the meaning of Grief
Brene Brown: Short Videos on Shame and Vulnerability: