Grief and Its Potential Lessons

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Grief can come in many forms. One can feel it in different ways. It may feel like chest weight or like the crippling weight of the whole body, as tiredness one cannot get rid of. It can feel like the sense of emptiness, of the hole inside one’s belly or chest, a sense of all-encompassing lack. It may feel like the heart that throbs for no reason. It can feel like utter disorientation.

I once read that someone described it as a thousand bats sitting on someone’s chest. This felt like a great description of the experience of profound grief.

Within the current mental health paradigm, profound grief is often shoved into the universal category of depression and treated as a malfunction according to the biomedical model. This may be partly due to the simplification of things in an attempt to manage them.

This paradigm does not to a sufficient degree understand the value of grief, nor the lessons it may provide. It is important, however, that we do not lose sight of these lessons, precisely because of the wisdom they may give us.

Profound grief usually includes losing something we value. It does not have to be an objective loss in the sense of the loss of a friend or a loved one, though it can be and often is triggered by that kind of loss. It can, however, also be an experience of loss of some value we hold dear—for example, dignity or freedom. It can be the loss of the social environment or a job we have cherished, or the way of living we were used to.

Profound grief can often surface after years of felt cumulative injustice. Like other emotions, it can be located within the imbalance in the power relations of the system someone has been living in for years and/or their inability to resolve the tension within that system.  The structures we live in might be so imbalanced concerning power that it might be hard for us to change those relations. This kind of social context might also result in grief.

Once grief arises in this grave form, it is however often treated according to the biomedical model. The reasons for this are multifaceted. Sometimes the grief is so big and the person’s suffering so strong that medicines are seen as the only resort that can help quickly put out the pain.

Due to systemic conditions, the current biomedical paradigm puts a focus on this kind of approach and on balancing the chemistry in the brain. In doing so, it gives insufficient attention to the mutual influence of the biological and the social aspects of human existence. It also ignores that orientedness towards something that might be lost when someone loses something they find valuable and that is necessary to feel meaning in everyday functioning.

There are simultaneously other alternatives and ways of handling emotions that are not explored to a sufficient extent. For example, grief can be explored and interpreted as a process of transformation. One can explore how old values are lost and where they can be found again or replaced with new ones.

This is not to minimize the intensity of the experience of grief, nor to minimize the pain felt from it. Depending on the circumstances, it can be hard to experience. This is, however, to say that there are other possibilities and more constructive approaches to understanding grief and dealing with it, rather than the ones that reduce it to a sole malfunction.

There are approaches to grief that are recovery-based and ones that take into account the lessons inherent in the processes of grief.  There is a possibility of dismantling the profoundness of grief into smaller, more manageable parts. These kinds of approaches can make the hardness of the emotion of profound grief more bearable.

Another thing to take into account is the culture of technological rationality within which we have lived since the age of industrialism. This culture, oriented around productivity, which has also brought us a lot of progress, does not deal with emotions. It deals solely with principles of calculability and instrumentality, meaning that it only understands what it can measure or that which can be used to make something else, as in the production line of a profit-oriented economic system.

Grief cannot be measured and cannot be used for something else, so it is not seen as something useful.  Furthermore, people experiencing profound grief often seem like they require a standstill. This is not seen as productive in the current system.

Within such a narrative, there is a lack of sufficient understanding that grief can be meaning-making, which is understood by more symbolic approaches such as, for example, existentialism. Grief can be related to the loss of something that someone subjectively finds valuable in one’s life. It can make one pause and stop. It can force the person feeling it to reassess the situation.

It can offer the necessary slowing down of an organism when it can no longer exist in the circumstances in which it finds itself. It might be seen as giving time to the human being for processing, regrouping, and reassessment of the situation.

Grief can warn us of the injustices that happen around us that we chose to ignore. It can point us to the areas within ourselves which hurt and require attention or to the areas where something is needed to mourn. There is value in this process that is not entirely understood by the currently prevailing paradigm. Although the experience of grief can be hard, passing through it can offer invaluable lessons, which suppressing, denying, and numbing grief often do not provide.

The current COVID-19 pandemic can be an invitation to explore grief, among other emotions. In its imposing of social isolation and the threat of the contagion of a potentially fatal disease, it forces us to encounter the limitedness of our human existence—something existentialists have called existential givens. Some of the existential givens we encounter within this pandemic are our bodily existence, our aloneness, the potentiality of our bodily existence to succumb to an illness, and the inevitability of death. Within these encounters, there can be a sense of accompanying grief.

The extent to which we are forced to deal with grief within the COVID-19 pandemic might come as a shock. We are collectively not accustomed to the presence of profound emotions being so central to our experience. The functioning of a society built on measurements and calculability does not provide too many ways of dealing with the emotions that accompany the current pandemic.

We might take this moment to assess this kind of social functioning. Do we want to continue to live in this kind of society that focuses solely on production and profit? This kind of social functioning can be paralyzed when feelings of this magnitude storm back to the centrality of our experience on the collective level.

This is often left to the individuals to handle themselves. This might be seen as an area of social functioning which calls for our attention during this pandemic. It offers a unique opportunity for reassessment of these principles.

On the individual level, we can use this encounter with grief to try and find meaning.

We can use this crisis to face the inevitability of existential givens. It can come as a shock. But it can also help us reflect on what matters to us. Facing our human existential situation can help us reassess the ways we live and want to live, both individually and collectively. It can help us reconsider what is valuable to us and help us to align ourselves more with this.

Facing grief in all its depth is never easy. It can be a hard to process experience. It might require a process of transformation, of shedding of old familiar beliefs, values, and ways. It often requires mourning of those things, which is also a process.

It might require that we build ourselves and our relation to the world anew. This is so on the individual level, but also on the collective, social level, especially now within the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

7 COMMENTS

  1. First important observation: Grief is occasioned by loss.
    Second important observation: A grief response is triggered. (That means the greater loss is prior.)
    Third important observation: The analytical analog to grief is injustice. Injustice is a powerful motivating idea in the universe! One who feels unjustly treated can be transformed from a happy group member to a destructive rioter.

    After these points are made, her discussion diverges from what I think is most useful.

    Here is what I know that might contribute to this discussion:
    Grief events tend to pile up on a case. The average person brings a lot of stored grief into this lifetime from the past. Incidents of profound loss can be traced all the way back to the “initial separation.”
    Handling stored grief can make a huge difference to a person, as in practical terms it acts as a suppressor on the person’s entire life.
    The various technical ways to do this add up to locating past moments of profound loss and “crying them out” (for lack of a more concise description). More recent incidents tend to mask earlier ones, so it is necessary to work backwards for the most recent loss.
    Another approach to handling grief is to attempt to remove (distract attention away from?) the triggering condition. If that condition is chronic, then the individual will be constantly pushed back into grief as he/she goes about living. Removing such chronic “restimulators” can do wonders for a person. The lowest gradient is to have the person just go outside and walk around and look at things.

    Given the above comments, I will relate my recent personal experience.

    Growing up, I would run into grief every now and then. It would come and go as losses hit me. It seldom hung around for long. I would get busy again, and my attention would come off of it. There were a few times that it hit harder than usual and I would cry for an hour or more.

    When the closures hit, my life suddenly changed from busy to very slow. My regular in-person social contacts went from many to none. At first it was just annoying. But as things dragged on, it started to affect me much more. There was a particular new friend I had grown fond of that I began to miss. My only contact with her was through her work, and she had lost her job. I almost panicked as I tried to reestablish communication with her. I finally did, but my grief was now in full restimulation and I was crying a lot every single day.

    Even though I restored contact with this new friend, it was not enough to turn off the grief. It continues to the present, as I struggle to combat the loneliness of a lockdown that separates me from what was my primary source of human contact. I have written extensively about this on my blog. But writing doesn’t help that much. Going out for a walk is only temporary relief. Going out on a major shopping trip works better, but I can’t afford to do that every day. And it doesn’t solve the isolation. I have resorted to getting onto dating websites – which I have never used before! – just in the hopes that I can find someone to visit with on a regular basis.

    The lockdowns, along with unhandled past incidents of great loss, have pushed me in the direction of becoming an emotional cripple, compared to how I operated before. It has been an instructive experience! But not one I would wish on others, even my enemies. I imagine millions are having similar experiences right at this moment. This is not good for me, for them, or for this world. Grief is a crippling emotion. To get stuck in it is not good for a person.

    I would NEVER take a drug for this condition, but I can understand why someone would be tempted to. Getting stuck in grief is the opposite of fun!

  2. Iva thanks for the article.
    Psychiatry and the mental health/health industry caused my grief. And I
    had not given them any.
    Profound grief. Definitely a huge loss. But their loss also. I suffered a lot of
    unexplained grief until I had understanding into what transpired.

  3. My psychologist and psychiatrists, I eventually learned, believed that distress/grief caused by 9/11/2001, right after that event – an event that caused distress/grief to people across the entire world – was distress caused by a “chemical imbalance” in my brain alone. Which they believed required never ending neurotoxic poisonings and defamation of my character with scientifically “invalid” disorders, to my family.

    Obviously, once I learned that my psychologist and psychiatrists were nothing more than pathological liars, and child abuse cover uppers, since my child’s medical records had been handed over. I had to leave them.

    But it’s rather amazing that almost all “mental health” workers went off believing that all distress/grief is caused by “chemical imbalances” in people’s brains. And what a sick shame that covering up child abuse is the number one actual societal function of our “mental health” industries.

    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo
    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/

    And all this child abuse covering up is by DSM design.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1

    And what a shame we all now live in a “pedophile empire,” due in part to the “mental health” industry’s systemic aiding, abetting, and empowering of pedophiles.

    https://www.amazon.com/Pedophilia-Empire-Americas-Shameful-Scandals/dp/B08SB7BD23
    https://community.healthimpactnews.com/topic/4576/america-1-in-child-sex-trafficking-and-pedophilia-cps-and-foster-care-are-the-pipelines

    How insane, and criminal, can the psychological, psychiatric, social worker, and the other DSM “bible” thumping industries get? And what a shame my childhood religion partnered with these systemic child abuse cover uppers, thus my childhood religion’s bishops and pastors have turned themselves into a bunch of systemic child abuse cover uppers, also.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=xI01AlxH1uAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Distress, legitimate concern, and grief are caused by distressing events. And I will say, I do believe COVID-19 is just another distressing event, from which the “mental health” industry will try to profiteer. And a way to get a child groping politician into office.

    We need to get the pedophiles, and those being blackmailed with pedophilia, out of the US government. And get rid of the systemic, child abuse covering up, scientific fraud based, so called, “mental health professions.”

    Since the “mental health” system has systemically betrayed too many of those they’ve “first and foremost” promised to “do no harm,” and it was all done, by their DSM “bible’s” design.

  4. Simply, thank you. Every article that lifts back the veil brings us closer to embracing the miracle of death and the doorway of grief and another chance to embrace and honor the meaning of life. Grief as noted by Martin Prechtel in his book The Smell Of Rain On Dust, “Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.” Thank you, Iva for opening Pandora’s Box wherein lies our weeping hearts.

  5. This is a wonderful article and should be required reading for students of psychology/psychiatry. The author is spot on in pointing out that “The current biomedical paradigm puts a focus on…balancing the chemistry in the brain. In doing so, it gives insufficient attention to the mutual influence of the biological and the social aspects of human existence.” How can anyone believe that profound grief requires “balancing the chemistry in the brain”? When I lost my younger son, I experienced profound grief and was treated for depression with strong medications. (You can read about it in my book “Broken: How the broken mental health care system leads to broken lives and broken hearts.) Is it remotely possible to medicate away the grief of losing a child? Should anyone even attempt to “cure” grief? Is it not necessary to experience it, to walk through it, so that we can “build ourselves and our relation to the world anew”? Better to read poets than take a pill.

    • @Linda Comac:

      Beautiful comment Linda! Now I have to go back & read the article! : O

      There are many semi ex-pats to MIA (although, if I keep commenting, I’m not sure
      what I’m going to call myself)–that scroll through the survivor comments because we
      love our survivor family. Then we have to go back & read the articles : )

      People I’ve never met &, many times, never even seen their
      picture. But I love them. I really, really do love them. Isn’t it bizarre how the human
      spirit finds a way through lockdowns & then, laterally, through an impersonal Hi Tech forum?

      I have my bad days about the human natural. But I have also been fortunate to come across the
      most sterling examples of human beings it is possible to meet on The Stone (Earth).

      Hope you are doing well!
      ~snowy.

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