How recognizing the feelings that come with life’s transitions as grief can help us feel better

Loss is an inevitable part of life. We most often think of the emotions that come from the death of a loved one as grief, that wave of sadness that hits us. But we can feel grief for any big change in our lives, such as moving, job loss, or the end of a significant relationship. We can even feel grief for the road not taken when we make a life decision. Acknowledging and processing grief related to these non-death losses is helpful for our emotional well-being and ability to cope with life’s challenges and uncertainty.

So what is it about some changes that trigger those feelings of grief and loss? Recent theories suggest that we create working models of ourselves and the world as part of our childhood development. These models incorporate our beliefs about ourselves, how the world operates, and our past experiences. We use these models to make assumptions about the future, make sense of the world, and respond to events. If the events we experience fit nicely into our working model, we can make sense of them easily and integrate new experiences. However, if an event shatters our model, we must rebuild it to incorporate these new possibilities. We often will feel grief and loss in reaction to an event that makes us reevaluate our ideas of how the world will be. In processing those feelings, we can recreate a model that reflects our actual experiences and find new meaning in the events. 

There are elements to some of these types of changes, or non-death losses, that can make them more difficult for us to process than others. For example, some changes are not finite; they continue to occur, such as losing the ability to walk after an accident. This type of loss can have ongoing feelings of powerlessness or hopelessness. Additionally, non-death losses can be intangible, with no outward sign that they happened. Examples of this are discovering infertility or losing our sense of safety or our faith. These non-tangible losses can trigger feelings that we don’t know who we are anymore or what life will involve. Finally, some non-death losses are ambiguous; they aren’t clear losses. For example, having a parent with dementia, physically, they are still there, but emotionally, they are gone. 

Understanding that grief is a valid and normal response to any loss is important, as the emotional pain experienced from these losses is intense and can be long-lasting. Accepting those feelings as grief can give us permission to experience the emotions fully. Exploring our emotions, thoughts, and beliefs around the loss can help us process the change, move forward, and ultimately find meaning. 

Additionally, acknowledging grief related to non-death losses can help us build resilience and emotional strength. Grief can be a powerful teacher, offering valuable insights into our strengths and vulnerabilities. Understanding our reactions to grief can help us to reach out to others for support. Opening up to others about our losses allows them to offer comfort, understanding, and empathy. Seeking support from friends, family, or a therapist can help us feel less alone in our grief and provide a sense of validation and acceptance.

An important part of healing after any loss is acknowledging our grief. By recognizing and accepting our emotions, exploring our experiences, and seeking support, we can cope with the pain and challenges of non-death losses healthily and constructively. Grief is a natural and normal response to loss, and by honouring our grief, we can find healing, meaning, and resilience in the face of adversity.