Most, if not all, clinical descriptions of grief are specific to the loss of a loved one and the process of bereavement that follows that loss. The diagnostic criteria as outlined in the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) acknowledges that grief is extremely painful and a normal process following the death of a loved one but that eventually the bereaved individual should adjust to a new and different life, absent of their loved one(s).
In addition to the process of bereavement, grieving can also be in response to the loss of other things such as a relationship, job, home, or anything else the individual might have valued. Symptoms of grief can include loss of appetite, sleeplessness, poor concentration, shortness of breath, guilt, restlessness, anxiety, intense sadness, and tightness in the throat. It is expected that, over time, the wound associated with the loss will begin to heal and the individual would be able to resume their normal daily activities and experience more prolonged periods of happiness associated with those activities.
The DSM-V which is the 2013 update to the DSM-IV has identified a syndrome referred to as PGD (Prolonged Grief Disorder) which applies to individuals whose grief is persistent and disabling; so much so, that it threatens the individual’s self-identity and security making it impossible to envision any future filled with happiness, meaning or purpose. Studies, however, have shown that pathologizing grief can actually complicate the recovery process and prolong negative symptoms, which is why so much controversy surrounded the inclusion of PFD (Prolonged Grief Disorder) in the DSM-V.
There are many styles of grieving and experts agree that no one style is right or wrong. Whether it involves outward displays of emotion and the need to be supported by others or more mental, problem-solving expressions in response to the loss; one style is not better than the other or more appropriate. What is important to acknowledge is that coping with loss is extremely difficult and we all have individual patterns and outlets for our grief.
In 1969, Swiss psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, identified 5 Stages of Grief in her book, On Death and Dying. Motivated by a lack of material on the subject at the time and her extensive experience working with patients in Hospice, she developed a model that became widely accepted by the general public despite the majority of research never being able to consistently support its validity. In response to this claim she later identified these stages as five common experiences related to any loss that could occur in any order and manner of progression:
During the first stage, the reality of the loss is questioned. A person might believe there was some sort of mistake, such as a mix-up, or an incorrect diagnosis.
Those in grief may begin to cast blame, ask questions like "Why me?", or become angry with the deceased (e.g. "They were so selfish to take their own life!").
The individual may attempt to bargain as a way to avoid the cause of grief. For example, after receiving a terminal diagnosis, they might plead: "I will eat healthier, I'll quit smoking, and I'll do everything right if I can just get better."
During the fourth stage, the grieving enters a period of depression. They may lose motivation for living, isolate themselves, and enter mourning.
The individual comes to accept the loss, although there may still be pain. During this stage there is a sense of calm, and a resumption of normal life activities.
The following is my understanding of grief based on my own personal healing journey and my experience working with clients during the past eleven years:
I often use the analogy that the healing process we embark on is one in which we are always attempting to peel away the infinite layers of our unconscious cellular imprinting. Once again, for those readers who are just joining this blog; the cellular imprinting I’m referring to is the memories that we are holding onto in the 50 trillion cells of our body that we were encoded with primarily during the most critical stages of our early development in which we were overwhelmed by events and circumstances that had our sense of survival hanging in the balance.
I believe that our imprinting provides the only context in which we can truly understand what grief is and what is actually occurring when we grieve. Grief is a deeply held emotional response to a cellular memory being touched in on by stimulus in our current environment that resonates with that memory. In order for this to ring true as an accurate context for understanding what grief is; it’s important to further distinguish what grief is not.
Grief is not denial. Nor is it anger, bargaining, depression or acceptance. Denial and anger are defense mechanisms. Bargaining is an attempt to control a situation that is perceived to be out of your control which would also classify it as a defense response. Depression is a mood disorder caused by chemical (neurotransmitter) imbalances in the brain resulting in physical responses such as sleeplessness and loss of appetite that can lead to increased isolation and decreased energy and activity.
I often describe depression as the experience of having numerous heavy, wet blankets on top of you rendering you completely immobile. It’s not something you can think or feel your way out of, nor is it a grief response. In fact, the state of depression is the absence of being able to grieve at all. Acceptance, on the other hand, is the ability to be in harmony with whatever is occurring which is the absence of any defense mechanisms and a prerequisite for being able to even begin the grieving process.
Over the years I’ve observed consistent patterns in myself and my clients in which expressions of anger are far more prevalent as a response to stimulus in the environment touching in on the cellular imprinting of our trauma/loss memories. This makes perfect sense since anger is an extremely empowering response to something that feels threatening. I believe it’s why most of us get stuck in this place of extreme reactivity which is disproportionate to whatever is happening in the moment because it activates an unconscious cellular memory from our past in which the threat and subsequent overwhelm was quite real. So we defend ourselves to the extent we were unable to at the time of the original trauma.
Defense mechanisms such as denial, anger and bargaining are patterns of resistance in response to whatever is happening in the moment that resonates with cellular memory of a time and place in which we experienced our survival hanging in the balance. When we peel the layer of resistance away we come to fear. This makes perfect sense considering that all of our imprinting is essentially ‘flash-frozen’ cellular memory encoded in the frequency of fear. Had we not been afraid and overwhelmed at the moment of the original trauma we never would have held onto the experience as a physical memory at the cellular level. Instead, we would have fully processed the experience throughout our entire nervous system and moved on, much like non-domesticated animals do when faced with overwhelming and potentially life-threatening situations in the wild.
So what does this have to do with grief?
Well, from my perspective, pretty much everything.
Defense mechanisms are patterns of resistance that have us in opposition to whatever is happening in the moment in our environment that resonates with a cellular memory of a time and place from our past in which we experienced our survival as hanging in the balance. We resist the experience because we are attempting to protect ourselves from being compromised or diminished in any way. Underneath all resistance is fear but we prefer not to be in fear because that has us feeling much more vulnerable in response to the perceived threat. So rather than be vulnerable, most of us unconsciously choose anger as a reflexive response to the perceived threat. Anger is a defense mechanism, a form of resistance, and underneath all resistance is fear.
So what do you suppose we will find when we look underneath all expressions of fear?
What we find is what we’ve all been resisting from the moment we began defending ourselves.
We find grief.
The whole entire healing process I facilitate for myself and my clients is directed towards getting to this exact place. It is a place of total surrender in which all of the defense mechanisms we have so carefully honed over the years are dropped. We don’t judge these mechanisms; quite the opposite. We give gratitude for our wisdom and fortitude for having unconsciously crafted such effective defenses that ensured our survival over the years. And we give gratitude for having finally arrived at a place that we have resisted going to for so long.
This resistance, I believe, comes largely from a deep misunderstanding of what it really means to grieve and years of social and cultural conditioning that reinforced the misunderstanding.
Grief is not a process. Nor is it a feeling. And it does not have stages.
Grief is not a sign of weakness but rather an expression of incredible strength and courage.
It is an experience that comes from very deep within in response to letting go.
Letting go of what?
Letting go of the fear of what might happen if we stop defending ourselves.
Letting go of the fear of what might happen if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
Letting go of the fear that we might become totally consumed by what we’ve never allowed ourselves to feel.
For most of my life I resisted letting go with every fiber of my being. My Celtic lineage as reflected in my own name, Catherine Michele Francis O’Connell, ensured that I would be able to aptly defend any threat that might present itself. It did not, however, ensure that I would avoid more than my fair share of trauma imprinting before reaching adolescence. As a result, being vulnerable was never an option for me in an unconscious attempt to ensure my continued survival into adulthood.
So you can only imagine my surprise to discover very late in life that the key to healing all of my trauma imprinting and subsequent imbalances and dis-ease expressions rested in my ability to put down my weapons and my shield; to let go and allow, and to trust that in doing so, not only would I survive but I would become more than I could ever have imagined was possible.
Grief is not so much an expression in response to what is happening in the moment. Instead, I believe that most of what the Western therapeutic perspective is describing as grief is actually a trauma response. Grief is actually an expression of a memory that has been deeply buried in our respective psyches regarding our own self-identity at a particular time and place in our own personal history. What is happening in the moment resonates with a memory of who we once were when the memory of a particular event from our past occurred. When that memory gets touched in on, so does a number of other awareness’s that were prevalent at that time regarding our ongoing identity formation including what we believed to be true and possible about ourselves, those we loved, and our future.
So when a loved one dies, I believe that grief is not so much a response to their continued absence in our lives but rather a response to the recognition that the relationship we had with that person will never actualize it's full potential. Even when it's a parent whose lived a long and fulfilling life; what we grieve is what was never able to be spoken between us before they left. What is grieved is the awareness that the capacity to be in a truly loving and intimate relationship absent of any dysfunctional relationship patterns was never realized. It's that loss that we grieve; what it wasn't, and the loss of what it could have been had the circumstance of life been different. When it's someone who has died prematurely; we grieve not only what will never be realized in our relationship with that person but also what they will never become. We grieve on their behalf.
Therefore, I believe that grief is simply an expression of the loss of potential of who we thought we would become including our dreams, aspirations, beliefs and hopes for what had yet to unfold for us. Simply put, grief is an expression of the loss of who and what we did not become; what we once thought was possible but were unable to actualize due to circumstances beyond our control.
This understanding also helps to explain why there was such a strong collective grief response to the recent passing of such musical icons as David Bowie, Glenn Frye, and Prince. It’s an experience that feels much more personal than the situation would suggest because, after all, only a small percentage of people actually knew them personally and yet millions of people grieved their passing as if they had. That is because their music became a huge archetypal imprint during our most formative stages of development and therefore had great personal meaning and significance as a thread in the tapestry that helped form our individual identities.
These memories are deep stirrings and glimpses of what we once believed to be true about ourselves. Our grief is simply the acknowledgement of the loss of potential for the person who we once were and who we thought we would become. I have yet to meet anyone, including myself, who would have written their life story exactly as it unfolded.
Our ability to grieve is essential in being able to dissolve our imprints. There are no detours. In order to move beyond our imprinting towards a more integrated, balanced, and authentic expression of the self we must be able and willing to let go and grieve the only loss we can ever truly grieve; the loss of ourselves.
This quality of grief is almost indescribable. It is gentle and nourishing and poignant beyond description. It is a salve that soothes the heart and soul; full of grace, gratitude and profound love for having finally found the courage to let go. It is the place of complete transparency. It is our inner heaven. Only from this place, is it possible to truly know ourselves and one another. Only from this place, is it possible to truly love ourselves and one another.