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MSU CAPS counselor offers advice for coping with grief from loss

July 29, 2020
<p>Green flags with motivational messages written by students as part of the Green Flag Challenge on March 19, 2018, at The Rock on Farm Lane. (Charles Benoit | State News)</p>

Green flags with motivational messages written by students as part of the Green Flag Challenge on March 19, 2018, at The Rock on Farm Lane. (Charles Benoit | State News)

Photo by Charles Benoit | The State News

Loss comes in a multitude of different shapes and sizes.

For one, it may look like the death of a loved family member or friend. For another, it may look like being fired from a job or evicted from a home. For many this fall, it may look like the absence of first- or last-time college experiences.

For most people since March, it has looked like the loss of normality.

Regardless, suffering from any type of loss is hard and, according to Abigail Waller, a therapist from Michigan State's Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS), few know how to properly analyze and cope with it.

"Modern cultures usually do not do a good job of educating people about grief," Waller said. She deemed now a crucial time to learn, as each day over the last five months has proven how inevitable and prominent loss is in our daily lives.

Grief is the universal reaction to loss.

Waller said that grief is not a neat or linear process, rather that it's messy, follows no timeline and warrants no end point.

The intensity and duration of grief depends on the type of loss, how significant the relationship or situation was and how large of a hole was left behind. While most people experience a range of recognizable reactions and emotions, no two people will be affected the same. One person may cry, another may be angry and another may withdraw or feel empty.

All in all, each person's grief is personal and unique.

However, according to an article by Healthline, there are some commonalities in the stages experienced while grieving.

The five stages of grief.

Waller said that the five stages of grief were originally observed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Swiss-American psychiatrist and author of "On Death and Dying."

According to the Healthline article, her theory, popularly known as the Kübler-Ross model, was initially devised for individuals who were terminally ill. It has since been adapted for use across other experiences of grief from loss.

Waller said that loss is not a vacuum. Not everyone will experience all five stages and not everyone will experience them in a specific order. Someone may remain in one of the five stages for months, while skipping another stage entirely. Again, grief is different for every person, and there are several other models depicting the stages of grief that exist.

Waller also said a new loss may trigger an old loss and that one loss may result in a domino effect of losses.

"A failed marriage might bring with it a loss of friends, social networks and self-confidence, while bereavement can mean a loss of identity and supports and abandonment by friends and acquaintances who, not knowing what to say or do, slowly drift away," she said.

Stage one: Denial

Loss is an intense and sudden thing. It's common to respond by pretending it's not happening. Denying gives you more time to absorb and process the news — it's a common defense mechanism that Healthline said helps numb the severity of the situation.

Stage two: Anger

Where denial can be considered a coping mechanism, anger can be considered a masking effect.

Anger hides the emotions and pain you may be carrying and redirects them. This may result in accidental hostile behavior toward other people or even inanimate objects.

Stage three: Bargaining

It's not uncommon to look for ways to regain control and have power over future outcomes. For religious individuals, you may find yourself trying to make a deal or promise to a higher power you believe in, in return for healing or relief.

This stage is full of a lot of "what if" and "if only" statements.

Stage four: Depression

While anger and bargaining are active, depression is quiet.

Depression isn't easy or well defined. As a diagnosable mental illness, according to statistics from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 322 million people worldwide struggle with its realities on a daily basis.

Depression is different from surface-level sadness. Depression, in the case of an intense event like loss, can be perceived as despondency and dejection. If you feel stuck in this stage, it's in your best interest to reach out to a mental health expert.

Stage five: Acceptance

This is not necessarily a happy or uplifting stage. This doesn't necessarily mean you've moved past the grief or loss.

However, it does mean that you've come to terms with the situation and what it means in your life now. Acceptance can be used as a way to see that there are both good and bad days.

Because there is no guarantee you will ever understand why you went through a certain loss, Waller said that this stage may come without closure.

What to do when experiencing grief.

While there are certainly ways that family members, friends and even a therapist can help ease the pain, they cannot stop it completely — that's on you.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to rebuilding your mental health. However, Waller recommended a framework by Harvard psychology professor Dr. William Worden called the "four tasks of grief."

Task one: Accepting the reality

By taking time to recognize that grieving is wholly natural and a worthy reflection of how much we appreciated the person or aspects of life that have been lost, you could avoid or limit your time in denial.

However, this is both a simple and complex task, and you have to be careful not to downplay the significance and impact of the loss.

Acceptance does not necessarily mean agreement or approval because you may not agree with the fairness or reasoning behind the situation. Rather, acceptance marks the moment in which someone is ready to begin the journey of healing.

Task two: Working through the pain

Grief brings up many emotions. The danger here lies in disavowing or avoiding those emotions.

Waller said it's important to acknowledge, talk about, express and understand what we are feeling, rather than run from the painful yearning for the past.

Task three: Adjusting to the new environment

Life is continuing and, although change is scary, it's necessary for survival.

Readjustment doesn't happen overnight and may require you to delve into several different depths, whether internal, external or spiritual, to reach fulfillment.

Task four: Finding a connection with the lost while moving forward in life

In an article by A Lust For Life, writer Declan Gernon said that according to Worden, failing to accomplish this task is to not live.

We must allow space for thoughts and memories of what was lost while engaging in activities that are meaningful to us at the same time. We must maintain emotional connection with the past, ground ourselves in the present and keep an eye on the future.

Coping with grief is demanding. In order to properly be there for someone experiencing grief, Waller said that you need to appreciate that there are no shortcuts and listen without trying to provide a fix — authentic kindness is vital and compassion is like balm for their wounds.

Mental recovery, same as physical recovery, cannot be hurried or ignored.

For more mental health resources and support, you can reach out to CAPS at caps.msu.edu.

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