“Overwhelmed” and “devastated” are the words most commonly used to describe the experience of losing a loved one. The fact of the death makes no sense and can leave the survivor swimming in a sea of confusion and pain with uncontrollable emotional outbursts as the truth of the reality sinks in. Feeling inconsolable and that “I will never recover from this”, the survivor’s social networks may also be insufficient at this time – with friends and family also mourning, or being uncomfortable with the bereaved and offering meaningless platitudes which, though well-intentioned, can make the survivor feel worse.
Loss work can be viewed as the counterpart to attachment, and part of the broader life cycle of attaching and losing. Loss brings us face to face with the reality of impermanence, with our own mortality and can be isolating.
Mourning may be understood as the display of grief through the sharing and expression of a part’s thoughts, behaviours and feelings related to the loss. Mourning guides people to undo their connection with what they have lost. Mourners and those who seek to assist them often fail to recognize that there are many parts connected to a significant loss, including those parts that experience a loss of potential that goes along with an actual loss; potential for what might have been, hopes, dreams and possibilities.
Mourning as public expression allows for the therapist to bear witness to the experience and facilitates the moving toward resolution of grief. While the experience of grief can feel totally overwhelming, there a certain tasks, outlined below, that form the basis of grief work. It is the job of the therapist to help guide you and your parts through these tasks, respecting that this journey occurs according to your own time frame. Myths that grief should be over in a certain amount of time deny the individuality of the response to devastating loss, and, like other ‘shoulds’, provide a way for some parts to berate others simply for how they are feeling. It takes time for the parts to fully recognise what the loss and its irreversibility mean.
Tasks of Mourning (adapted from William Worden)
- To Accept Reality of the Loss The mourner must talk about the death, body, and funeral. Parts are encouraged to share their responses to the loss. Some may be sad, others relieved, guilty etc.
- To Experience the Pain of Grief It is impossible to lose someone you are attached to without feeling some pain. The survivor will have to deal with the pain at the time of the loss, or will confront it many years later; but s/he will have to deal with it! Emotional acceptance occurs when the survivor no longer needs to avoid reminders of the loss for fear of experiencing intense pain or remorse that activates the parts. Present losses will activate parts that have experienced loss and who have not had the opportunity to grieve. It is not uncommon to be at a friend’s funeral and remembering a death from childhood as a young part strives to get the attention of the Self.
- To Adjust to an Environment in Which the Deceased is Missing Survivors are not usually aware of all the roles played by the deceased until well after the loss occurs. This is the task where ‘secondary losses’ need to be identified and mourned. A secondary loss may be defined as “a physical or psychosocial loss that coincides with or develops as a consequence of the initial loss.” Examples would include the role of the ‘cook’ in a relationship, which may have belonged to the deceased; or the identity of a mother once a child has died. Each of these secondary losses can activate parts that have their own grief and mourning reactions.
- To Withdraw Emotional Energy and Reinvest in Another Relationship Mourners sometimes have parts that believe they are dishonouring the dead if they withdraw emotional attachment. These parts may fear another loss if they reinvest. When all the feelings, thoughts, memories, and expectations that bound the mourner’s parts to the deceased are gradually worked through by being revived, reviewed, felt, and unburdened when required this task may be considered complete.
To complete the tasks it is necessary to: Recognise and validate all parts, invite them to share their feelings with Self, to talk about the relationship and feelings of loss they experience and help parts to unburden any guilt they may be carrying.