Life After 2016: Grieving Our Living Losses Amid Change

Fall scene of young adult with head in hands sits on ledge next to curving train trackAs 2016 fades behind us, many wonder what the months ahead will bring. Depending on whom you ask and where you look, there is hope, anticipation, and perhaps concern as we attempt to shape our lives amid uncertainty and instability. Life brings unexpected changes, and we are too often expected to react quickly; few get the luxury to hit the pause button on life and process what is happening.

2016 challenged many people to engage with significant change and loss. From the deaths of beloved celebrities including Prince, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, and George Michael, to the passing of activists and heroes including Muhammad Ali, to untold personal losses—it’s fair to say most Americans experienced some type of loss in the past year. Many still grapple with grief, bereavement, and the change that comes from loss.

While there are some structures—such as funerals, burial ceremonies, and memorials—designed to hold space for the process of bereavement associated with death, grieving the loss of the living or of something less tangible can be more complicated. How does one grieve the loss of an ideal or a belief—as so many Americans experienced in the recent presidential election? How does one grieve the loss of a friendship or relationship—not because the person has passed away, but because of changes that have disrupted the core of the relationship? These losses often feel as meaningful and real as if someone has passed away, but there is often no structured path for grieving and honoring that which has been lost.

The Kübler-Ross model—a frequently referred-to model for understanding grief—outlines five stages that people commonly experience, albeit not necessarily in this order:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

A brief description of the stages follows, but more comprehensive information can be found in the defining text On Death and Dying, written by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

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Denial

One may not want to believe the change is happening or that a loss is taking place. One might not even use the language of “loss” or “grief.”

Anger

Once the loss is realized, one might become angry at oneself or at another person. This may result in blaming/shaming behavior.

Bargaining

One might attempt to find a way to negate the loss. This may result in attempting to negotiate terms or values with the other person.

Depression

One might experience depressive symptoms—low energy and motivation, sleep disruption, lack of interest—after realizing there might not be anything that can be done to directly change the situation.

Acceptance

One may come to accept that a loss has occurred. This may manifest by disengaging with the other person or ceasing trying to change the situation.

Using this model may help some people cope with living grief—that is, grief that is not linked to death bereavement or a specific person/relationship. Understanding the stages may allow a grieving person the opportunity to recognize where they are in their grieving process and, more importantly, to decide how they want to engage with grief.

Are you grieving and stuck in a stage? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Is this grief? Knowing that grief need not be linked specifically to death, are there relationships or ideas you feel have been lost to you? Have you given yourself time to reflect on what or who you might be grieving?
  • Is denial so strong that you have not been able to acknowledge a loss and enter the grieving process?
  • Is anger overwhelming your ability to disengage from a shaming/blaming pattern?
  • Depression may lead to an inability to think and act beyond the loss, and may lead to greater feelings of helplessness. Has depression created a barrier for you?
  • Has acceptance of the situation led you to think about what’s next or did it move you to resignation and possibly back into the anger or depression stages?

Grieving relationships with the living need not focus on letting go of the relationship. A fracture in a relationship need not destroy all positive memories of the past or set the stage for all future interactions. It may mean honestly acknowledging that something has changed and that in that change there has been a loss of connection. Processing that loss through the model may allow one to reengage in a different—possibly even healthier—way with other.

For some in the coming year, moving through grief with the living may mean having hard conversations with friends or family due to different, contradictory, or conflict-inducing choices. For others, moving through living grief may involve moving through the stages of grief regarding sociopolitical realities and then finding ways to reengage intentionally and thoughtfully in ways that best reflect one’s values.

Processing loss is far from linear. However, by understanding where you may be getting stuck, you might find opportunities to support yourself through the stages and, ultimately, to reengage in your life in intentional and meaningful ways. If you find yourself unable to get unstuck at any point, a professional counselor can help.

Reference:

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. New York, NY: Routledge.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deanna Richards, LMHC, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sheila

    January 9th, 2017 at 8:37 AM

    I have found that it is important to let yourself have all of these feelings, but you also have to process it in a way so that you don’t become bogged down in one area leaving you unable to process on to the next step.

  • Hale

    January 9th, 2017 at 2:17 PM

    I also think that it is important to know that the stages of grieving are not always linear. I mean, you might think that you are finished with the denial process, time to move on and them bam that will come back and hit you all over again.
    I want others to know that this is ok and normal to go back and forth. The important thing is that you allow yourself to have these feelings and not try to deny them

  • John

    January 10th, 2017 at 3:44 AM

    An extremely welcomed and valuable article. My relationship loss experience is very protracted.

    Grieving a cruel parting from a deep intense relationship (which at that time is probably wrong and unsustainable), is nigh impossible where there is no final “Sorry that’s it, and best we cease all contact, let’s block FBk. Thank-you, goodbye, and good luck”. For the sanity of both, that is what should happen: but neither wanting to hurt or even let go of the other, innuendo takes emotional precedence.

    Denial and self-Anger phases are possible to navigate, but at the parting and after, both may well still be in love. Bargaining may be successful to an extent with one or both desperately needing some contact with negotiated infrequent or regular contact. This can “drag on” for years, and all this time there are other friendships (even marriages) occurring, but still the underlying love drags out the pain. Clearly if both parties are married then those marriages were in big trouble before the relationship started. The absolute best solution is to fall in love with someone similar but fully available, where no grieving process will be required. However, it is very unlikely the other party will be able to “move on” in this ideal way, and it is inevitably the quasi – EKR model for the other.

    The danger of both not agreeing to a clean, irrevocable break is that the party left on the EKR model enters an endless Depression/Acceptance cycle, even lost in hope for reconciliation years later of two wonderful, perfect ghosts but actually two people who may now be entirely different. Another big danger is that one doesn’t want to get un-stuck or receive counselling just to keep a little piece of that ghost.

  • Cate

    January 10th, 2017 at 11:08 AM

    I am simply more hopeful for a better year this year than what I had the last.

  • DeeDee

    January 10th, 2017 at 5:40 PM

    Sometimes change is good

  • Sunshine

    January 14th, 2017 at 12:35 PM

    DeeDee you are right! I think that there is too much conversation right now about being sad and grieving the losses when every day I am thankful to still be here and celebrate that fact along with the goodness that I still have in my life.
    Is there a way where others could possibly do a little more of that same thing?

  • Jack

    January 16th, 2017 at 7:30 AM

    I have to continue to believe that the US is strong… we will make it through this

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