In all change, there is an element of loss. However, this does not mean that we always greet loss with sorrow and yearning. There are certainly people, places, and things in life we would gladly lose—and do a happy dance about it, to boot!
Grief, when broadly defined, is any reaction to loss. It can range from the feeling you get when you cannot find your keys to losing someone in a breakup—or through death. Yet, when we feel freed by a loss or disallowed to grieve, these appear unusual to most people and can make the bereaved feel guilty, confused, and angry.
Consider the concept of “liberating loss.” In this type of grief, the experience may largely be relief—relief that a parent is no longer suffering or relief that a spouse isn’t alive anymore to abuse the survivor, or relief that a partner can’t make demands on the griever about what to cook or what job to get.
This type of grief can be difficult to talk about, because it appears to be callous and wrong to be relieved that someone’s life has ended. It takes a nonjudgmental ear to hear someone’s silver lining without shaming that person into behaving as expected.
The truth is, the bereaved may actually feel both sadness and relief—but it would be a kindness for them to be able to express both. Optimism is usually a positive indicator of one’s resilience and ability to cope, and in the case of liberating losses, it is nothing short of walking to the end of a dark tunnel by looking for, and acknowledging, the bright side.
Another kind of grief is known as “disenfranchised grief.” Similar to the previous example, it is a struggle to share because not only is it considered unacceptable, it is thought of as nonexistent! Disenfranchised grief might be the loss experienced by someone having an extramarital affair whose lover dies. Would this secret survivor be allowed at the funeral? Do these grievers get to share their grief with others who knew the person, or do they have to keep it hidden and suffer in isolation and silence?
This sort of invalidated grief also arises when people are supposed to be separated emotionally, such as estranged family members or a divorced couple, and someone dies or gets remarried to the shock and sadness of the other person. It is hard to get sympathy when people think, “Well, you couldn’t stand to be in the same room” or “You divorced him, why do you care?”
Consider also when someone loses a pet or animal companion and grieves deeply. “It’s not the same as losing a person” is often whispered, or the perennial advice, “Just get another one.” A broken heart is a broken heart, and attempting to rationalize sadness away by virtue of comparison usually is not helpful.
The idea that someone does not have the right to feel any grief, or should not feel any grief, can be alienating, confusing, and angering for the bereaved. In terms of a mourner expressing and sharing this grief with others, again, it takes a nonjudgmental and usually neutral, noninvolved party to listen to and acknowledge this particular loss and the pain, both personal and social, that can come from it.
Grief During Graduation
Understanding grief as a reaction to loss and change, and understanding that there can be contradictory and unexpected grief reactions, such as a feeling of relief or invalidation, might help in coping with the annual changes those around us go through on an institutional level: graduation!
During graduations and other events that mark transition, there are tears and cheers for the loss of childhood and the entrance into adulthood, a switch of careers, and an achievement of dreams. Graduation is a social and physical representation of an invisible, inward experience. This type of experience happens in schools, in churches and temples, and at weddings. And what a mix of emotions there are during these ceremonies! When we lose one thing and gain another, when we feel as if we should only be happy and have no right to our sadness, our feelings may be hard to sort out.
Aloha, as the Hawaiians say, to this grief. Aloha, meaning both hello and goodbye!
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ivan Chan, MA, MFTi, therapist in Santa Cruz, California
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