The Purpose and Resolution of Grief
Why have grief?
If we operate on the assumption that our brain is trying to help us and not hurt us, then of what possible benefit is there in feeling grief? We logically know that corporeal things die or disappear – it is the nature of Things to have a finite existence. So why should our brains cause us to feel the pain of grief?
I believe that grief, like our other emotions, is a tool that our unconscious uses to alert us to something we need to consciously deal with. As with other emotions, grief tells us what to focus on, what we need to consciously verify as real, and what to do about it if the situation is in fact real.
We feel grief automatically when our unconscious recognizes what appears to be the following pattern: someone or something is no longer part of our existence, whatever is missing is important to us, and there is a risk that what is missing will cause other important things for us to also be lost even though they do not necessarily need to be (i.e. we need to make a conscious choice whether to let these other important things go or not).
Again, the purpose of feeling grief consciously is that our unconscious has determined that we need to consciously assess if the pattern it has detected is actually true, and/or to consciously make choices on what to do about it.
In addition, the emotion of anger provides us with energy to tackle these tasks.
Let’s look at this more closely.
The component parts of the pattern are: 1) someone or something is no longer part of our existence, 2) whatever is missing is important to us, 3) the loss leaves us with a worse outcome than we were in before it happened,and 3) there is a risk that what is missing will cause other important things to also be lost.
The first condition is important for obvious reasons. Things sometimes go away temporarily, not permanently, and our choices are different depending on which of these is the current condition. If this is determined to be a temporary loss, grief changes to a more passive emotion such as sorrow or hope. It may also motivate us to consciously act to regain what we have lost.
The second condition alerts us to the fact (or confirms the fact) that what was missing was indeed important to us. Sometimes we are surprised in this regard – for example, family photos lost in a fire may cause more grief than the loss of the home itself. Grief helps make us aware of what is really important to us, which allows us to make conscious changes to alter our behavior, lifestyle, or other choices based on this knowledge. Alternately when feeling grief we may discover that what we thought was important actually wasn’t as important as we believed – and so our grief goes away.
The third condition is fairly self-evident: we don’t grieve the end of important things if we benefit from the loss. If our slavery ends, it doesn’t result in grief. If our bad relationship ends, we feel relief, not grief. That said, most often this condition is not so straightforward as those two examples: typically losses involve both improvements and set-backs: some things get better while others get worse. Consciously assessing the positives and negatives is spurred on by grief; sorting these out is important to our future choices.
The fourth condition is perhaps the most complicated. Everything in our lives has associations with other things. Some people and things, such as loved ones or careers, have a long history of complex associations with all kinds of unconscious patterns in our lives. The more associations there are, the stronger the potential grief reaction , because the absence of this element in the pattern forces many of these patterns to have to be reconfigured or revisited. This can take years.
Additionally, the loss may cause some patterns to no longer be viable unless we consciously do something to make them work despite the loss. Some of these may be obvious, such as retirement causing a need to find new ways to maintain friendships with people normally seen only at the former workplace. Do I want these relationships to continue, or will I allow them to go away with the loss of the job? Other associations are less obvious. Not infrequently, when a child dies the parents may create a scholarship, foundation, or donation to “keep the essential spirit” or nature of the child alive. In essence this says that “I valued my child’s characteristic of X or interest in Y and I want that to continue and not die with them.” Again, this is a conscious choice about what stays and what goes when we encounter a loss, and is a valuable and helpful (perhaps even a necessary) response to the loss.
And we get focused on this and motivated to act on it through experiencing grief.
Grief is an “active” emotion , meaning that it requires action to be taken soon. Prolonging grief typically leads to unhelpful side effects or results, such as bitterness, apathy, dissociation from normal life, or unwarranted pessimism. When grief is appropriately addressed, as discussed above, it usually transforms into a passive emotion such as sorrow, remorse, or transitory moments of sadness. However, it isn’t limited to these: addressing grief can lead to a feeling of peace and acceptance, to relief, to feeling proud, even at times to joy and happiness.
Grief is for our benefit, not our torture. Our lives would be less effective, less aware, if all our losses came without grief.
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