One of the things Therapy Hive is known for is our high quality, interactive, and free continuing education series. In a few short weeks, Therapy Hive member Bryna Talamantez, LMFT, will be presenting on Grief Across the Lifespan. This topic is incredibly valuable, as grief is a near universal experience, an inevitable part of being human, and being connected within society.
Grief is the process of experiencing a loss, and the reaction that is felt. Commonly thought of as related to loss of life, grief can also occur during life changes, such as divorce, job loss, or a move. Grief is highly individualized, and a person may experience and display different reactions to grief across different types of losses. Bereavement is closely related, described as the period of time after which a loss is experienced, and during which grief is felt.
The American Psychiatric Association released the latest version of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the 5th edition, in 2013. That update included a differentiation between depression symptoms and the experience of grief and bereavement, despite their overlapping symptoms. While grief can look very much like depression, in terms of lack of interest in doing formerly enjoyable things, social withdrawal, experiences of extreme sadness and tearful-ness, sleep and appetite differences, etc, the explanation and context of bereavement and grief was an effort to explain the normalcy and context for this experience.
Grief is felt differently across the lifespan, depending on the age of the person who is experiencing the emotion. Young children may take the loss personally, feeling responsible in some way for the change or the loss of life. They may feel abandoned, and demonstrate their emotions behaviorally, acting out, or retreating from social opportunities. As an adolescent, they may retreat from normal teenage activities including socialization and school activities. This may result in a delay, or in acting out behaviors and anger. The young adult struggles to individualize and express independence during the life change, while middle aged adults may feel guilt, or a jolt to idealogy and philosophy. Older adults face multiple losses and may increase their dependence and reliance upon others.
The important thing to remember when coping with grief is that it is so highly individual, and each person expresses and experiences grief differently. This may be exacerbated by the well-intentioned but ultimately overly simplistic “Five Stages of Grief” While the phases, “Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance” can loosely frame the roller-coaster of emotions that a grieving person feels, it can feel too prescriptive to a person who may be vacillating between all stages on a given day, or may be experiencing more complex emotions that aren’t articulated by these stages. There can sometimes be a cultural backlash if it appears that a person is not grieving “properly” or not demonstrating their sadness satisfactorily. The truth is, our lives and emotions are complex, and all we can do is to try. Grieving individuals need support, and not judgment.
The hard times and difficult experiences are also the flip side of resilience. As Sheryl Sandberg wrote in her memoir authored after her husband passed away suddenly, Option B, “I am more vulnerable than I thought, but much stronger than I ever imagined.”