Grief: the Universal Human Experience

What Is Grief?  

We are all likely to experience grief at some point in our lives. Grief is a universal human experience and is the most natural emotional and physical response to any significant loss. It is often characterized by emotional pain, including complex feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, relief, and anger.  In addition to the emotional components of grief, other common symptoms include, changes in appetite, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbance, social disengagement, and loss of interest in work or activities.

Here at CTWPS we are aware of the multitude of negative consequences that can occur in the wake of a loss. In treatment, we honor the experience of our patient’s grief while simultaneously helping her navigate the grief process in as adaptive a way as is possible.  We help our patients challenge misconceptions about grief and identify “cognitive distortions” that may be contributing to a dysfunctional grief process.

Typical Grief vs. Depression  

While there are many shared features between grief and depression, such as feelings of extreme sadness and disengagement from the world, there are key differences. Grief tends to decrease over time and to occur in waves which are triggered by thoughts, reminders, anniversaries, or memories of a loss. When a woman is grieving, she may periodically experience pleasure in some situations, such as when surrounded by family or friends. In contrast, when a woman is depressed, even brief periods of pleasure are generally missing from her life. Depression tends to be more persistent and pervasive and is often marked by a grim outlook on the future and a negative self-view. Some patients have described it as though they have fallen into a black hole with no hope of ever getting out.

Common Myths and Misconceptions About Grief

In addition to the pain we naturally feel in the wake of a loss, many people accept myths and misconceptions about the grief process and the ways in which they are “supposed” to grieve. Such misconceptions often exacerbate pain and confusion by causing us to question whether there is something wrong with us if we aren’t doing grief “right”.  

Here at CTWPS we help our patients identify distorted thought patterns (cognitive distortions) about how they “should” be functioning and handling the grief process. Such distortions are likely to impede their ability to adaptively adjust to the loss and may result in feelings such as inappropriate guilt and shame. Let’s begin challenging some of those misconceptions and cognitive distortions together:

Myth/Distortion #1: Grief is a linear and predictable process.

Reality: Grief comes in waves and is often not a linear, predictable process. Rather, when we are in the process of grieving, our thoughts and emotions tend to vacillate throughout the hours, weeks, days, and months after a loss. Grief is a highly individualized process and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. While experiencing grief, we encourage our clients to refrain from comparing themselves to how others grieve, even when they have experienced the same type of loss. We try to dispel the myth that there is a definitive timeline for the grief process.

Myth/Distortion#2: Grief only happens when someone dies.

Reality: Grief takes many different forms and can be a natural response to many different types of losses other than death. Such losses might include a breakup, divorce, estrangement from a family member, death of a pet, or a miscarriage. Here are CTWPS we help our clients name and process these losses and aid them in understanding how to navigate their loss as they move into an unexpected reality.

Myth/Distortion #3: I should have done more or prevented this loss.

Some women experiencing grief may find themselves engaging in “should statements,” which are cognitive distortions based on the erroneous assumption that we or others are obligated to behave in a certain way.  When a patient has the thought “I should have done more” “or I should have prevented my mother from dying,” she is likely to experience intense feelings of guilt as a result. We might help our patient reframe her perception of the loss with more realistic alternative thoughts based on her specific situation, such as “I am not in control of life and death.  I am so sad without my mother, and I did what was in my power to help her.”

Myth/Distortion #4: I should be back to normal by now.

Other common “should statements” that may arise during the grief process are related to unrealistic expectations about the grief process. We frequently hear women say things like “It’s been 6 months, I thought I would be normal by now.” Grief is a unique process and there is no set time-limit or “cure.” Such “should statements” are likely to put undue pressure on a woman and provoke feelings of anxiety about when and how she will ever return to her old self. Such thoughts may also provoke feelings of guilt or shame about the fact that she is not meeting her own or other’s expectations about the “normal” timeline of the grief process.

Most women have experienced or will experience grief at some point in their lives. While it is normal to feel sadness and other negative emotions in response to grief, dysfunctional thought patterns can result in complicated grief and depression. Here at CTWPS we utilize CBT to help women cope with losses in a healthy manner by making space for the grieving process while at the same time working towards adapting to a “new normal”. If you’ve experienced a loss and you’d like support in navigating this process, please reach out to us.