Part of the struggle when we experience loss, or the death of a loved one, is not being able to imagine finding our way through the grief that follows. We can switch between feelings of despair and hopelessness and not picturing a way forwards, to taking action to spring clean, start a new project and do everything in our power to avoid facing the truth of our emotions.
Of course, both courses of action are entirely necessary but as with all things in life there should be balance. Sinking too far into the place of emotional grief does not help with the practicality of moving on with life. We can become so immersed in grief and refuse to look at ways to move on for fear it means we are forgetting our pain, which means forgetting our loved one.
In this state, we can become apathetic, de-motivated and slide into depression landing in a dark hole that is very difficult to climb out of. Life has no purpose, and we no longer care about the world, and worse still, ourselves.
On the other hand, we can keep ourselves so pre-occupied with being busy and cleaning out those kitchen cupboards for the hundredth time, that we are neglecting the truth of facing those difficult emotions.
I would like to discuss today a model that I was told about by my ambiguous-loss counsellor that really helps to dispel the fears of finding a way forwards, and gives a huge amount of hope in the midst of suffering loss.
As previously mentioned it can become a fear that as we continue with life and attempt to find a new ‘normal’ without the person we grieve, we fear that our grief is too big. Not only do we believe there is not enough space in our world to home both normal functioning with the huge void of grief, but also that if we were to take a magic pill that could shrink our grief, it is too scary a place to want to continue in. The world without our loved one and our grief begins to merge into one.
GROWING AROUND GRIEF by Dr Lois Tonkin
So, thinking about different models and processes, has been incredibly helpful for me and I hope this can bring some light into your world too.
When asked how I pictured a way moving forwards, I asked the question, does it get easier? Does the pain somehow diminish? And I loved the answer I got from Dr Lois’ Tonkins model.
As grief unfolds, apparently it does not reduce in size, it maintains its shape and form that we experience from day one. This would seem a negative thing, until she continues…
Instead of imagining your world staying the same and the grief being forced to shrink, the world increases to encompass the full extent of your grief. (see fig.3). I find this reassuring to know that the world – my world, can grow big enough that it can hold the grief that is so difficult to let go of.
Picture 1. is the big black blob of grief. Picture 2. shows it inside our world where we are trying to make it smaller.
Picture 3. shows what actually happens. The world is shaping and growing around the grief which is exactly the same size as the grief in picture 1.
Another way to look at this is thinking of your grief as a pebble in a jar. The pebble stays the same, but the jar will grow and expand leaving more room.
If you want to read more on Dr Tonkin’s grief model here is a link.
There is another model in psychology called dual process. It is an evolving framework in cognitive psychology concerned with how humans process and store information.
System 1 – is the unconscious, automatic system.
System 2 – is the intentional, conscious system.
This model gives a very holistic approach to grief as developed by Stoeb & Schut. It focuses on the two stressors that contribute to grief: loss orientated and restoration orientated.
This focuses on the tasks we need to rebuild to move on with life. These can be keeping busy with cleaning, paying bills, taking on new projects.
This focuses on the grief of the person we have lost; memories, imagining the future without them, reminiscing, looking at photos, crying etc.
When in the midst of grief, we tend to oscillate between restoration and loss orientated. It is a messy mix until we see it clearly for what it is, which for me, helps to see the process and how both sides are equally necessary but in moderation. We need to face the emotions of loss whilst also re-engaging with life after loss.
Understanding this process can be comforting and reassuring that it is normal. I discovered that mental health problems are far easier to handle when we can ‘step outside’ and see the illness more objectively. This helps to understand and find clarification. The same can be said with understanding different processes and models of grief.
Further reading on the dual process can be found here:
Whilst we cannot avoid the grieving process, it can help if we step outside and look at it and learn a little about the natural process that it is. This helps to gain back a little control in a world that seems to have been turned upside down.
I have learnt on bad days, to let the tears flow, don’t suppress the emotions that are natural. Rather than rushing into escaping them by focusing on a new project, or distracting myself with some task, I see the grief and allow it to pass. I see it as my job to narrow the fluctuation between the two states of total avoidance and total grief.
I believe that during the healing process we can learn ways to better understand and accept the grief, rather than the loss itself. This is more ‘doable’ and acceptable in my world. I hope some of what I say makes sense for you.