Complicated Grief: Reframing the Way We Think About Love and Loss - Pacific Standard

Complicated Grief: Reframing the Way We Think About Love and Loss

It’s not exactly true that everyone grieves in their own way. It’s a universal experience, which is good, because that can help us to better understand the mourning among us.
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(Photo: Jule_Berlin/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Jule_Berlin/Shutterstock)

The stabbing of two Brooklyn children by a recently released mentally ill convict raises several pressing public issues. It also raises the private issue of a family’s grief. The parents of slain six-year-old P.J. Avitto were stalwart and hopeful. Yet no one doubts that P.J.’s family has been cast into a deeply sorrowful place.

Grief is both a universal experience and a unique one. Like the love that spawns it, grief is unique to each bereaved person. P.J.’s family appear to be solidly grounded in a comforting belief system and enveloped in a supportive secular and spiritual community. They still seem able to envision a meaningful life. But many bereaved people feel deeply confused, emotionally unsettled, and profoundly isolated in the acute aftermath of a loss. The isolation and confusion is intensified by our cultural aversion to conversation about loss and death and by uncertainties about what to expect in grief.

I believe that grief is neither a brief reaction to loss that can and should be quickly resolved, nor is it so completely unique that any form it takes should be welcomed and validated as suggested by the maxim that everyone grieves in their own way.

Scientists who study close relationships define them as providing comfort during times of trouble and encouragement during times of learning, taking risks, and performing. There is a lot of evidence that we are biologically predisposed to seek, form, and maintain such relationships and to adjust to their loss.

Grief is the response to loss but it is not one thing. It is different for different people and for the same person over time. Grief entails a changing array of thoughts feelings and behaviors evoked by the loss. Emotions often surge in ways that can feel unfamiliar, unpredictable, and confusing, As C.S. Lewis famously said, “No one ever told me grief felt so much like fear.”

The universality of grief is as incontrovertible as its uniqueness. Grief is an experience shared by all humanity. It is an instinctive response that we understand at an intuitive level. We naturally expect grief to progress over time, becoming reshaped and integrated as we make peace with the grim new reality. Still, we are often confused about what that transformation looks like and how long it should take.

My work at Columbia University’s Center for Complicated Grief focuses on people whose grief is not reshaped over time, whose reactions to difficult losses continue to dominate their minds and hold hostage their lives. To understand what they are experiencing and help them reclaim the possibility for joy and satisfaction, I need to understand what grief is and how it works. It has often been said that grief is the price we pay for love; I think the best way to understand grief is to understand love.

Scientists who study close relationships define them as providing comfort during times of trouble and encouragement during times of learning, taking risks, and performing. There is a lot of evidence that we are biologically predisposed to seek, form, and maintain such relationships and to adjust to their loss.

The central importance of loved ones is obvious. Just knowing they are there fortifies us to face life’s challenges and encourages us to take risks, express ourselves, and try new things. But our closest relationships are also important in ways we do not recognize. Our close relationships define us, bolster our feelings of self-affirmation, and increase our self-concept clarity. They are literally instantiated in our brains in both explicit and implicit long-term memory systems. Brain circuitry called “working models” utilizes these memories to affect a wide range of functions such as regulation of attention, tolerance of ambiguity, curiosity, decision making, distractibility, hormonal responses to stress, brain reactivity to pain, temperature perception, gene expression, and immune function. This deep intermingling explains why our connection to loved ones is permanent in spite of the loss and why acute grief is so devastating. Happily, though, we usually find ways to reshape grief and regain the capacity to live a satisfying and meaningful life, albeit tinged with sorrow.

Mourning is the process by which grief is reshaped; think of it as a learning process. We must incorporate the finality and consequences of the loss into implicit and explicit memory systems, reconfigure the working model of the deceased, and redefine our self-concept in the face of the new reality. This learning takes time, faith in ourselves and others, courage, and self-compassion. Successful mourning often brings recognition that grief is the form love takes when someone we love dies.

Bereaved people need to give grief its rightful place as a permanent part of their lives. This means neither over- nor under-emphasizing its importance. It means staying as true to the moment as possible, letting the pain work its way through our lives, until we are like George Eliot’s Adam who, “...though you see him quite master of himself, working hard and delighting in his work after his inborn inalienable nature, had not outlived his sorrow—had not felt it slip from him as a temporary burden, and leave him the same man again.” It is this we should expect for P.J Avitto’s family.

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