The loss of a loved one is accompanied by a range of difficult emotions that tear at the heart and may seem unbearable. Questions arise about whether the pain will ever fade or at least diminish, as well as doubts about the normalcy and adequacy of the experienced emotions. Is there a standard by which one can predict what a person will feel after a loss and how these states will change over time? Those experiencing loss seek descriptions of the grieving process, hoping that their experiences will eventually be named, understood, and normalized. However, it often turns out that the grief process is not linear and does not unfold as described by available models in the literature. This is usually due to additional factors related to the circumstances of the loss or difficulties in determining one’s own state and remaining in a sense of overall emotional chaos.

The stages of grief after the loss of a loved one:

In such a state, the described stages with their characteristic emotions and thoughts occur simultaneously or intertwine in shorter/longer phases. Most likely, a person in mourning will experience the experiences described by Kübler-Ross, such as denial, anger, depression, bargaining, or acceptance.

Denial can take the form of explicit statements such as: “No, this can’t be true,” “It’s impossible,” or “It must be some mistake.” It can also be expressed through a strong internal belief in the unreality of the loss or a feeling that it’s all “just a dream.” Denial is a form of disagreement with the loss. It protects against experiencing pain. It is not always inadequate, especially in the initial stage of coping with the loss.

Experiencing anger is associated with feelings of anger, rage, or rebellion. Questions arise: “Why is this happening to me?” or “Why me again?” These questions express the need to discover meaning, even if temporary, in the senselessness of the experienced loss. Their aim is often to find an object that exists and is responsible for the situation. This gives the illusion of being able to control the situation and provides relief through the presence of a perceived cause for the felt despair and anger.

Experiencing depression in the context of loss encompasses a whole range of experiences related to feelings of emptiness, despair, loss of control, helplessness, and a sense of being deprived of a sense of security and predictability in the world.

Unresolved Grief

The process of dealing with loss can be further complicated by emotions that create internal conflict. This conflict can arise from a sense of responsibility for the loss or the simultaneous experience of conflicting emotions. Sometimes, it is difficult to reconcile and accept the simultaneous experience of states such as grief and relief, for example, in relation to the end of one’s own long-standing emotional burden. In such cases, the process of confronting these emotions may become blocked. This state is referred to as “unresolved or unfinished grief.” There is also a concept of “complicated grief” in the literature, where intense and prolonged grieving leads to a disturbance in mental health. Unresolved grief can manifest as a fixation on the mechanism of denial by disconnecting oneself from everything associated with the experienced loss – denying grief, avoiding discussions about the deceased person or the circumstances of their death. Another form can be an ongoing reenactment of what has happened, such as daily visits to the cemetery or keeping the room or belongings of the deceased child intact for many years.

Currently, it is recognized that the grieving process can be present in a variety of loss situations, not only those related to the death of a loved one. Experiences characteristic of grieving can emerge in the internal world of individuals facing the loss of functionality due to illness, the loss of a limb after a traumatic accident, or in the context of a diagnosis of a mental illness, the breakup of a significant relationship, or any other significant loss. In such situations, it is important to acknowledge the significance of the emotional state being experienced by framing it in terms of the grieving process. This often helps in understanding what is happening and determining the meaning of events. Clarifying the essence of the loss and what it pertains to can bring relief. This is particularly important in the context of coping with losses that may not be recognized by some close individuals, such as early miscarriage or the death of a beloved pet.

When to Seek Professional Help?

Individuals coping with loss often have doubts about the adequacy of their emotions and their intensity. Should they seek additional help? It is difficult to provide a definitive answer to this question. The grieving process is a crisis situation—a time when a person loses a sense of control and their previous coping mechanisms. There is a strong desire to find an immediate solution through the advice of a specialist or a change in the situation, preferably a return to the past “before-loss” state. These desires are natural and appropriate, but they are unrealistic and magical. Crisis support often involves accompanying individuals in their struggle with loss, creating a safe space where the experience of grief can be expressed and processed. This may not always be possible even with the support of loved ones, despite their willingness, strong relationship, or deep bond. During the grieving process, it may also become apparent that the current loss is connected to previous difficult experiences, triggering or intensifying other challenges. In such cases, psychological and therapeutic assistance may be necessary not only to navigate the crisis but also to address these underlying difficulties.

mgr Donata Liberacka
Psycholog i psychoterapeutka specjalizująca się w prowadzeniu psychoterapii indywidualnej osób dorosłych, dzieci i młodzieży. Czytaj więcej