• Understanding Grief

    My name is Jacob Moore, and I am a licensed Psychology Associate and fifth year doctoral student in counseling psychology. I joined the practice as an extern in 2021, and I primarily work with adolescents and adults experiencing anxiety and/or trauma. I approach therapy with a trauma-informed, culturally-focused lens in an attempt to understand people as their complete and holistic selves. I tend to adopt a collaborative and values-based approach to therapy; one that places an emphasis on a person’s lived experience and desire for change. Therapy is a true joy of mine, as are playing/listening to music, Dungeons and Dragons, and playing video games with my wife. I consider myself an ally, advocate, and a perpetual learner. 

    Death, and by extension loss, is one of the most taboo topics in US-based culture. Despite anxiety being influenced by a fear of death, we do so many things to avoid discussing, thinking about, or referencing our own mortality. Although loss is often talked about in the context of death, it occurs much more frequently than we realize.

    We experience loss when something, or someone, very dear to us is taken or removed from our lives. And, although we do all we can to avoid its presence, loss is a regular and expected experience of our human condition. Whether it is the loss of a job, a home, our health, our family/friends, or even pets, loss is an assumption of living. That’s the trouble with loss; despite our best efforts we all likely have, and likely will, experience grief.

    I know, right? Heavy stuff.

    Because loss is to be expected, it is important to acknowledge and identify grief and its many faces. The popularized belief follows a five-stage model of grief. I’m sure you’ve heard this all before, right? Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. That’s the process! Everyone goes through these stages, one at a time, and then grief is gone. Problem solved! Well… It’s a little more complicated than that.

    First of all, we no longer use those five stages of grieving because grief cannot really be placed in a neat package. Grief looks and acts differently across our individual experiences and even within people across experiences of grief. No two people will experience grief the same way, even within the same household. Therefore, we can expect people with different religious affiliations, nationalities, or any variation of identity to experience grief differently as well. Second, we have come to understand grief as an interconnected process of phases, and choices. Rather than stages, grief is a cycle of feelings, choices, and meaning making that individuals both move through, and control. So, while we all have naturally occurring feelings about our loss, we can also actively engage in this difficult process.

    Uncomplicated grief, or grief “as usual” sees the person slowly but surely heal and grow. Through appropriate acknowledgement of their feelings, support, encouragement, and a boatload of bravery, they would start to return to the things they love. No longer avoiding the contexts or situations that remind them of their loss, they can make meaning from the loss, and understand themselves just a bit better than before.  

    On the other hand, complicated grief, or “dysfunctional grief” sees a disruption in one or more of these processes. We may withdraw from social engagement all together, may avoid applying for a new job, or putting ourselves back out into the world for fear of being hurt or experiencing loss again. Our conversations may center around the loss, months or even years later, and we cannot be consoled. We may focus on what went wrong, what could have changed, or even on how to get revenge on those that are perceived to have instigated the loss. We can break down complicated grief into a (maybe not so) fun little acronym, DERAILERS:

    • Difficulty letting go of doubts that you did enough.
    • Embracing ideas about grief that make you want to change or control it. 
    • Ruminating about ways that the death was unfair or wrong.
    • Anger and bitterness you can’t resolve or let go of.
    • “If only” thoughts about imagined alternative scenarios.
    • Lack of faith in the possibility of a promising future.
    • Excessive efforts to avoid grief and/or reminders of the loss.
    • Resistance to letting others help, feeling hurt and alone.
    • Survivor guilt; it feels wrong or uncomfortable to be happy or satisfied.

    Through a variety of reasons, folks with complicated grief remain stuck in loss. In this case, we would likely recommend therapy services to help grieve in a more adaptive way that allows for joy in a life beyond their loss. Ultimately, we can expect grievers to grieve in their own way. The process takes time, and lots of bravery, but loss does eventually heal.