It is generally the case that, when we think of grief, we associate it with bereavement – that is, with a death. Of course, death-related losses are indeed major sources of grief, and it would be foolish not to take account of that, whether in professional practice or in the workplace.
However, it is also very important to recognise that grief can arise from any loss situation, and not just those that involve bereavement. If we are not tuned in to this fact, then (at least) three detrimental consequences can arise:
- We may not realise that someone is grieving and may therefore fail to support them at a crucial time when they are perhaps at their most vulnerable.
- Someone’s behaviour or emotional response may make perfect sense to us if we are aware that they are grieving, but without that awareness, we may attribute their response to a situation to other factors and thereby distort our understanding of what is going on.
- Because the association between grief and death is such a strong one, people who are grieving non-death-related losses may not realise that they are grieving. This can then add to their sense of confusion, distress and vulnerability because they do not know what is happening to them, thereby making a difficult situation even more difficult.
Clearly, then, it is vitally important that we are attuned to issues of grief as they relate to any significant loss and not just those that arise as a consequence of bereavement.
A key concept here is that of ‘cathexis’. This refers to an emotional investment and can apply to a relationship (where we love someone or have a close friendship with them), to a job, a place or indeed to anything that really matters to us. When we experience a loss we lose that emotional investment – we experience an emotional void, a sense of emptiness that reflects the loss we have encountered. So, the more we love someone or something, the greater the sense of loss and emotional and spiritual emptiness – that is, of grief – we will experience. This reflects the long-established idea that grief is the price we pay for love.
People can grieve because they lose a skill (through injury, illness or disability, for example) or the opportunity to use it (through changes at work, for example). Grief can also arise when we lose a hope or aspiration when we realise something we really wanted is now beyond us. In fact, we can experience grief in relation to anything we put our heart into (cathexis).
Very often, knowing that grieving is what we are going through can be enough to make the situation manageable (albeit, difficult, painful and exhausting for the most part).
Whereas wrestling with the powerful emotions associated with grief without realising that we are grieving can be extremely challenging. We may even feel that we are going mad because we are having such a strong reaction (to a loss) but we are not sure why we feel the way we do because we have not made the link between the intense reaction we are having and the loss we have encountered.
We therefore need to be wary of ‘hidden grief’ – that is, very real and potentially overwhelming grief reactions that we do not connect to the underlying loss(es) that will have provoked such a reaction.
When we fully recognise the implications of the fact that grief is not just about death, we begin to realise that grief is far more common than we generally realise and a factor (often a key factor) in the situations we encounter in working with people, whether in the caring professions or in the workplace generally or in our personal lives. Being ‘grief aware’ can therefore be not only helpful, but also, in many sets of circumstances, essential for developing an adequate understanding of the situation we are dealing with.
Dr Neil Thompson is an independent writer, educator and adviser and a visiting professor at the Open University, as well as a SWU ambassador. His books include The Loss and Grief Practice Manual, The Social Worker’s Practice Manual and, with John McGowan, How to Survive in Social Work. Access to his Academy, with free learning resources, including his acclaimed Manifesto for Making a Difference, is available at www.NeilThompson.info.