By Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet, MSW, RSW
My Nan, who was 82, passed away last week from complications with some health problems. She was elderly, and we knew this was coming for a while. The problem is that I can’t stop crying and I am having trouble even functioning. I’m a grown woman in my 30s, I shouldn’t be so upset. I’m wondering if you think there is something wrong.
Dear Always crying,
My heart goes out to you. I am truly sorry for your loss and that you are experiencing such grief. It doesn’t matter your Nan’s age or whether her death was anticipated, what matters is the meaning of her loss for you, and by the sounds of your emotional reaction, there is much meaning here.
I’m going to get a little technical here, because I think it might help you be more understanding about your emotional struggle, and hopefully begin to approach yourself with love and tenderness.
As counterintuitive as this may sound, the pain that is so present in your life right now, is a good thing. It is your psyche attempting to mourn, and as such, to heal.
Grief itself is an expression of mental energy that comes from a rupture in a significant attachment relationship. An attachment relationship is a deep psychological bond that humans have with significant loved ones. It is biologically based, born out of our basic needs for survival when we are infants, and the attachments we form with our significant caregivers in order to survive.
Throughout our life cycle, attachments continue to form or grow with significant others. For some people, strong attachment bonds are maintained with parents or parental figures, for others, they shift to romantic partners, close friends, children, or even pets. Because a strong attachment relationship can mimic the sense of closeness and intimacy with our initial caregivers, a rupture can feel a threat to our very sense of security and survival.
The experience of grief is born out of the tension in our desire to maintain assumptions about the world prior to the loss, adjusting to the new reality, and incorporating this new reality into a new vision of the world.
The problem is, that the more we hide from or chastise ourselves for our emotional expression, the less likely we are to make sense of the loss, process it, and move beyond it. All of our hurt and pain must be expressed and allowed in order to take it’s place in the cognitive order and structure we have to make our own meaning of the world around us. If we deny our emotional expression the pain stays raw, unprocessed and unintegrated and can create lasting suffering.
When people ask what we do in grief counselling, my answer is simply that we provide a space for people to allow their grief, to mourn, and thus, to heal. There are four main tasks associated with this process, and they are not always linear and have no “normal” timeline. These tasks are:
- To accept the reality of the loss
- To process the pain of grief
- To adjust to a world without the deceased
- To establish an enduring connection with the deceased while establishing a new existence without their physical presence.
It is likely that your grandmother’s death has activated the sense of loss of security or safety that comes from the loss of a significant attachment. If so, you need all the love and kindness and support from yourself, and those close to you to express your feelings and even to eventually create your own rituals to honour her memory and say goodbye.
Try your best to ask for what you need and to be gentle and kind to yourself as well.
If your relationship was complex and her loss is bringing up feelings of grief, hurt, anxiety, or anger, there may be some underlying issues that are causing more pain, and seeking professional support from a therapist may be very helpful.
Regardless of the source of the pain, do your best to seek support and support yourself, and remember that seeking support from a qualified therapist will likely help you with your mourning process.
I maintain a regular mental health blog on the darouwellness.com site, so check back in for more on coping with anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional difficulties, trauma and general coping and mental wellness.
Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet is a Mental Health Therapist, Supervisor and Instructor.