Relationship Connection: Understanding grief and loss

Grieving process | Image by Brett Barrett, St. George News

Ed. Note: This is a republication of Geoff Steurer’s column, first published June 12, 2012.

UPDATED June 13, 2012, with author’s addition pertaining to community loss.

Our community has faced some terrible losses in the past weeks, for some it is the loss of a family member, for some a dear friend, for others an acquaintance or a fellow church member. Regardless of the relationship connection, unexpected losses of people we care about are tragic. Of course, all losses are tragic but the surprises, the ones we cannot make sense of, they invite a special kind of trauma. They must be grieved or we die with them.

Our first instinct when we encounter the trauma of unexpected loss is to deny that it really happened. We search for ways it could have been avoided while we simultaneously look for ways we might have prevented it. Ultimately, we are left with more questions than answers, wishing we could know what really happened.

Uncertainty is a painful part of grieving loss, especially when the loss is ambiguous. C.S. Lewis captured this well when he said:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.

We’re uncertain about the details of the loss, uncertain about how we will carry on without our loved ones, uncertain about our own futures, and uncertain about who is responsible for the loss.

In our efforts to eliminate the uncertainty, we begin drawing conclusions based on limited information. Any answer is better than no answer, even if we have to guess. This is all an understandable part of the grieving process. Our brains are designed to privilege order and efficiency. If something happens that seems out of order, we will work on it in our minds until it can make sense.

Not only does our brain crave information and order, but it also craves connection. This is why the loss is so painful in the first place. We are social creatures designed to feel safety in a group. When a member of our group disappears, we experience not only sadness, we experience that familiar fear spoken of earlier. The way we buffer against the shock of relationship loss is to huddle our group tighter by reaching out to one another.

While searching for facts and answers to the loss helps the bereaved make sense of the tragedy, connecting with others is something that can and should happen immediately. This connection isn’t only physical, such as spending more time together, but also using that time together to talk about what this loss is like for each person.

Research has shown that simply naming emotions calms down the part of our brain that registers the fear response known as “fight or flight.” Telling someone, “I’m scared” or “I am so deeply sad” and having them just stay with that emotion without trying to make it go away (by changing the subject, reassurances, or humor) helps heal grief and loss.

When individuals can come together in the midst of grief, loss, and uncertainty, and authentically tell one another what this is really like for them, the healing begins. Isolation from others during grief and loss only compound the pain of loss and make it difficult, if not impossible, to fully heal. Isolation can certainly be choosing to be alone, but it’s most commonly manifested by not sharing how you really feel with those around you.

In her book, “Trauma and Recovery,” Judith Herman, M.D. captures what can happen in a community when it suffers a tragic loss:

“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness.  Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.

“Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried.  Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work.  Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told.  Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.

The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.”

Renown author Henri Nouwen wrote:

 “Being with a friend in great pain is not easy.  It makes us uncomfortable.  We do not know what to do or what to say, and we worry about how to respond to what we hear.  Our temptation is to say things that come more out of our own fear than out of our care for the person in pain.  Sometimes we say things like ‘Well, you’re doing a lot better than yesterday,’ or ‘You will soon be your old self again,’ or ‘I’m sure you will get over this.’  But often we know that what we’re saying is not true, and our friends know it too.  We do not have to play games with each other.  We can simply say: ‘I am your friend, I am happy to be with you.’  We can say that in words or with touch or with loving silence.  Sometimes it is good to say:  ‘You don’t have to talk.  I am here with you, thinking of you, praying for you, loving you.'”

While we can’t be certain about what may have happened when facing a tragic loss, we can always be certain about how we feel about it. When we reach out and share those realities with others, it gives them permission to access their reality and everyone feels more connected, safe, and prepared to face the uncertainties of life.

Stay connected!


Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this article.

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Copyright 2012 St. George News.

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