Psychology
17 Jun 2019

Grief can be a path to new experiences

"There is no life without some aspect of loss. But some bereavements can contribute to our progress" -- says psychotherapist Ewa Chalimoniuk.

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Grief can be a path to new experiences - NewsMavens
Umbrella, PixaBay

The following fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with psychotherapist Ewa Chalimoniuk first appeared in the Polish weekly, Wysokie Obcasy in October 2018.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: Death is not the only loss we experience in life. Does all misfortune require tears and grief?

Ewa Chalimoniuk: First of all, there’s no life without some aspect of loss, yet some bereavements can contribute to our progress -- through losing we gain something else. A child suddenly deprived of breastfeeding or bottlefeeding is angry and disappointed, but in the long run it moves on and learns how to eat with a spoon and becomes more independent. Every teenager at some point has to realize that their parents are not perfect. Mothers and fathers make mistakes and sometimes fail to keep their word. Thanks to this realization, every young person starts to understand that the world is both good and bad and so are the people.

Every stage of our life brings some natural bereavement. And yes, there are plenty of different types of loss that -- just like someone’s death -- require our grief and tears.

AJ: For example?

An end of a friendship, job loss, property dispossession, loss of partner or loss of trust. But except for the loss associated with death, most of these losses are not irreversible. 

For some people a break-up can be as traumatizing as their partner’s demise.

AJ: What affects our immunity to loss?

There are many factors, including our relationship with our parents and our life experiences. For example, a child raised in a cold, hostile environment where its emotions are ignored and its needs remain unaddressed might feel psychologically abandoned. He or she will try different adaptive mechanisms in order to survive but if, years later, they experience a significant loss, either of a close person or a valuable possession, they might find themselves back in the same old painful feeling of loneliness and isolation. And this time, they might require more help, time and effort to recover. Such people seem to “become stuck” in their grief -- especially if it’s caused by a serious tragedy, such as death or diagnosis of terminal illness.

AJ: What does it mean to “become stuck” in grief?

A completed grief is an acceptance of reality. For example: “I’m infertile, I will never have a baby but I can always adopt one or be a great aunt for my nephews and nieces”. We come to terms with the fact that we have to abandon the original plan but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our existence.

People stuck in grief fail to notice and appreciate that what remains in their life has value.

They persistently contemplate their loss, go through their tragedy over and over again and are often confronted with a lack of understanding and reluctance by other people. They grow bitter, sorrowful, angry and don’t give themselves a chance to make use of what they have.

AJ: Some people might get stuck in the grief because the resignation from certain life circumstances and confrontation with reality seem too painful.

Clearly they never experienced a serious loss before and they lived in an illusion, convinced that life would always be perfect and they would never feel helpless. Perhaps they chose not to confront their bereavements or they didn’t have to? Or they were sheltered from the fact that life is full of restrictions and inconveniences?

I have met many teenage patients whose exaggerated self-confidence has been suddenly and dramatically shattered. At the age of 14, they write science fiction novels, take photographs, want to become models or world famous tennis players and their parents support their aspirations…

AJ: Isn’t it a good thing?

Not if they assure their children about their unquestionable talent and future success. At some point these children will have to face reality and the consequences might be tragic.

AJ: Perhaps these parents don’t want to clip their children’s wings?

There’s a difference between clipping somebody’s wings and preparing them for potential failures. To be completely honest, I’m astonished at how immature people are these days. Young couples who seek help in my practice are often surprised that having a child entails a certain loss of freedom. Some of them are shocked that a relationship with another person involves making compromises: “My pregnant wife doesn’t want to have sex!”; “I can’t sleep because my child cries at night.” Tragedy.

AJ: Everything looks so easy on Instagram.

Exactly! Cultural messages reinforce this idealistic vision of life, and hits especially hard those young people who didn’t have the time or the opportunity to grow up. Thrown into the deep end, they start to drown and instead of looking for solutions, they withdraw, escape or attack.

AJ: What are the stages of grief?

Firstly, we’re shocked, we deny what happened and we delude ourselves: “It wasn’t a real break-up. Tomorrow he will call and apologize”. Then, we become slowly overwhelmed with sadness, and sometimes anger. We blame the situation either on ourselves or on those around us. Then rage and despair merge.

AJ: What’s next?

We try to bargain with faith, with God: “Perhaps if I had done this, it would have never happened?”. Then we enter the phase of numbness and emptiness, where we’re so depressed, we can’t even cry anymore. Our body aches, and we’re completely worn out. After that, we gradually start to come out the other side. We manage to accept that our relationship is over and begin to  appreciate what’s left, and what still awaits us. 

AJ: How can we help someone who’s experiencing loss?

Enduring loss involves grieving over wasted efforts, feelings, attachment or unfulfilled plans -- it’s a long healing process. What is more, we have to be strong enough to handle that person’s despair, anger and tears, to help them but simultaneously try to slowly pull them out of their despair: “Shall we watch a movie together?”; “Would you like to try out that new restaurant?” I stress the word “slowly” -- if someone prefers to be alone, let them be alone. However if we see that the depression is lasting too long and that they’re unable to emerge from this miserabale state single-handedly, we should get involved and try to bring that person back to life.

AJ: What are the most common mistakes people make when they try to comfort someone after a loss?

They console too quickly or they pull back too much. Perhaps they’re trying to push the suffering aside, to get rid of it as soon as possible? Maybe they don’t know what to say? Or they do it because they think that’s what’s expected? Another mistake made by friends, family members or therapists is their lack of reaction to a grieving person’s prolonged depression. If there’s nobody around to notice a person’s stagnation, notify them and suggest taking appropriate steps, the consequences can be disastrous.

AJ: Do we benefit from loss at all?

We surely do. It enriches us as humans. We become more adaptable and tolerable, more humble towards ourselves and towards life. Every tragic experience prepares us for the ultimate loss -- our death.

***

Ewa Chalimoniuk - is a certified psychotherapist, a trainer at the Polish Psychological Association (PTP) and a Holder of a European Certificate of Psychotherapy. She runs individual, family and group therapy sessions and specializes in grief and loss counseling, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder treatment. In 2009-2011, she was the president of Polish Association for Integration of Psychotherapy.

Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach

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