There are many skills from our childhoods we need to unlearn. Upbraiding a child for crying over a dropped ice cream is one of them.
There are many events which lead to grief. But we have a shared language for very few of them. We can speak of death, and this year, we’ve had to. We can speak of traumatic, sudden disaster. And this year, we’ve had to. But our language can fail us even in these circumstances, let alone the many thousands of other catalysts for grief we’ve all experienced this year.
As the year turns toward 2021, perhaps, like me, you are looking forward and hoping for better. But also considering how to cope with and recover from all that 2020 was. I believe an important part of that is the naming of things. I feel such a relief when I find the words to express what I’m feeling, for words are the primary way I communicate with the world outside my head. I cannot paint. Or dance. Or compose. I can only speak and write. So words are most precious to me as the means of contact and connection with the world.
A few years ago when I did an Introduction to Chaplaincy course, I read an excellent paper called The Nature of Loss from “All Our Losses, All Our Griefs – Resources for Pastoral Care” by Kenneth R. Mitchell and Hebert Anderson. In the paper, they outline six types of loss which catalyse grief, and in doing so, give us all many words to more deeply understand ourselves and others.
In brief, the six types are:
- Material Loss. Yes, this is the child with the ice cream to which they had immediately become attached because can you think of a more joyful thing as a child? To have that dashed immediately is a deep loss! But think of how often you’ve told yourself to get over any grief you feel after you mother’s precious vase broke or your much loved car has finally breathed its last. We are physical beings in a material world with material attachments. It’s not morally reprehensible if the loss of a material object causes us grief.
2. Relationship Loss. Moving. Divorce. Job change. Changing friendships. Who hasn’t experienced these? Of course, death is a clear example of relationship loss as well, and it’s useful to be able to express that even if we don’t regret the change (for example, maybe we were happy to move on to a new job), we have lost something. We may even be surprised to find ourselves grieving anything less than a death. But relationship loss is real, and often with us.
3. I’m gonna save this for later.
4. Functional Loss. Often associated with age, even though at any time we may begin to “lose” our hearing, sight, flexibility, memory, coordination. Many changes that we experience as loss.
5. Role Loss. Retirement is the classic example here. You’ve been a person-who-works and now you’re not. What will you do with your time? How will you define yourself to yourself now? Or maybe you’ve got a promotion at work, so you can no longer hang around with the girls at lunch break because you’ve got to be their boss now. Or you’re used to being in charge at work, and suddenly you’re a patient in a hospital bed. Yes, this is a hopefully temporary loss, but some of the frustration and hopelessness you may feel is grief.
6. Systemic Loss. This will be most familiar to those of us used to thinking in systems already. For example, when the parents take the child to uni for the first time. What’s that feeling in the car as they drive home? Sentimentality? Nostalgia? Or grief? The realisation that their little family system will never be the same. It has “lost” a person, and will need to adapt to being a family-with-at-least-one-child-who-doesn’t-live-at-home. Instead of being a mum-to-a-child-at-home the system has changed. You’re now mum-to-a-child-living-elsewhere.
Neither I nor the writers of the paper are trying to assert all these losses are of equal weight and different losses cause different weights of grief at different times. But sometimes, if I’m experiencing emotions I “can’t put a finger on”, I think of this list and can finally feel the release of naming.
But in 2020, it’s the loss I skipped that I think is most important. It’s called Intrapsychic Loss, and it’s something we’ve all felt, even if we couldn’t name it.
It’s the single person who’s always wanted to be married but isn’t but finds it difficult to talk about that particular sadness because it’s only in their head.
It’s the couple who had to cancel all their wedding plans because of COVID but because it was something that hadn’t happened yet, we can talk about “disappointment” but there’s a deeper sadness there for many.
It’s the teenager who’s been training for years to be an elite swimmer but performs badly at Nationals and doesn’t make the team. Their dream of being an Olympian? It’s over. But as it was a future thing – it’s all in their head.
THIS is what Intrapsychic Loss means! It’s a loss of what might’ve been. The loss of a possibility. The dying of a dream.
So many of us have had to cancel plans, quash hopes and give up on things this year because of COVID or because of normal life happening. We’ve found out we’re infertile. Or that the person we hoped to marry no longer wants to marry us. We’ve had to cancel that long looked forward to and treasured dream trip that we saved and planned for. We’ve suddenly and dramatically confronted that we might be more fragile than we thought of ourselves and we’re struggling to deal with that.
Some of that struggle is grief, which feels like a big word for a #fwp – in a year when bushfires and then a pandemic have raised so many “more legitimate” causes of grief. But grief it is, and trying to tell ourselves “don’t be upset, it was just an ice cream” won’t work.
In the same course we talked through a list called The Four Tasks of Mourning by J William Worden. The tasks we need to do to move through grief. To begin to live in the present again. The tasks are non-linear, there are no seven stages, and they double back on themselves. But they are each necessary for “moving on”.
- Accept the reality of the loss. (This is why naming and words are so important. They enable you to name the reality, which will help to accept it).
- Experience the pain of grief. (This is why it can be so unhelpful to rush people through being upset. Or to suppress our own tears. We can’t skip this part and yet still expect to be able to “move on”.
- Adjust to the environment in which the loss has happened. (If it was a material loss, the vase is never coming back. If your workplace has irrevocably changed because a global pandemic swept through and now you mostly work from home in a tiny apartment that feels full of children… Well… It’s happened now. It won’t un-happen.)
- Emotionally relocate the lost thing and move on. (the way your workplace was in January? You miss it, you grieve it, you’ve lost it. But now it’s in the past. Your present is different. The trip you couldn’t take? The wedding you couldn’t have? They are sad things. But they’re also now in the past).
You can see why these tasks are non-linear. We bump into number 2 and number 4 again and again. And then maybe 1 and 3 and then back to 2. Especially for a major loss.
But these tasks are important, especially including being able to name the realities. Accept them. Say out loud, or write down, or express “I lost this……. And it makes me sad.”
Make a list. Find a close friend and tell them about it and why it’s sad. Choose someone who won’t tell you to get over it. If it was a communal loss, talk about it together and mark the moment. It’s ok if your Christmas party this year isn’t three hours of full on enforced joy! It’s ok if you need some time to do your grieving before you can feel content about your new circumstances. It’s ok if the thing that caused your grief is “positive” (like, people literally held a party for you) or a #fwp – because it’s meaningful to you. And often grief is mixed with happiness!
There are many things I have to grieve this year. I did not expect to not be an English teacher now. I did not expect to leave my church, my friends, my city “family” and move hundreds of kilometres away. I did not expect to be living with people again. I did not expect my sister’s marriage to be ripped apart. On the Intrapsychic list, I did not expect to be back in a place where my (IMHO) already fairly small pool of marriage candidates would be even smaller. I didn’t expect to lose the opportunity to preach in the places I love in the future, or to finish the year as a Receptionist with a Master’s degree in theology.
It’s been an upheaval. And while there are many good things about it (living with my sister and two nephews for eg!), there are many things to grieve. And holding both as true at the same time means spending some time on the grief as well as trying to feel the contentment. And in fact, time on the grief will help the contentment to come naturally.
So, there it is. Perhaps as you reflect on your year, thinking about the Intrapsychic Losses, naming them, and grieving them, might help you “move on” too.
Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”