Loss, Grief and Suffering in America
By Anthony R. Quintiliani, Ph.D., LADC
Other than our nation’s suffering during The Civil War, The Great Depression, and World War II this past year has been one of the most stress-filled, fear-filled times in our history. Here is a list of the reasons behind it all: the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, legal reactivity, massive unemployment, loss of housing, quarantines, closed schools and colleges, powerful political demonstrations, and a “president” who betrayed his trust and incited riotous violence against the Capital of the United States. Also a “president” who has been impeached not once but twice by The U.S. House of Representatives. What a year!
Types of Loss, Grief and Suffering
Along with the above, we have witnessed increased anxiety, depression, fear, anger and traumatic stress. Although death (loss of a loved one) is by far one of the most severe stressors, we also suffer from the virus, separation/divorce, developmental stress, incarceration, and the loss of the way of life in pre-COVID-19. Americans are suffering from various bio-psycho-social-spiritual dimensions of stress, loss and grief. Perhaps the correct words to use are “complicated grief.” Our current experiences with loss and grief go far beyond the stage-based versions of E. Kubler Ross; our current complex grief does not follow neat linear progressions, and includes more serious symptoms. For those who also experienced childhood trauma of various forms or developmental regressions the current experience is more exasperating and dangerous. When loss is catastrophic reactions may include nightmares, shame, guilt, regret, hopelessness and suicide. Cultural differences also play roles in loss and grief as well as its treatment. Therapists must also be aware of the influence of race, gender, sexual orientation, and age.
Treatments for Loss and Complex Grief
Treatments for loss and complex grief are many, but with varying levels of success. Matching treatments to client characteristics, and developing a powerful clinical alliance are important for therapeutic success. Below, I list (only) various treatments, most supported by empirical research and practice. I will leave it you the reader to look more deeply into treatments or interventions they may prefer. Here is the list: Trauma-Informed Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness-Based therapies/practices (breath work, meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi-gong and MBSR or ACT), Continued Bonds Theory – the changed internal relationship with the lost person, and Attachment-Informed Grief Therapy – utilizing attachment styles of secure, insecure, anxious or avoidant.
Many therapeutic interventions may be helpful: social-emotional support, recovery journaling, music, exercise, imagery, play therapy, and sand tray work. Generally especially strong empathy is required. Self-care of the therapist is a must. Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may be helpful. Other active interventions include empty-chair work (sitting in the “worry chair” or the lost person chair), self-talk or out-loud talk using stimulus words like relax, breathe, not me, etc. Social networking with new people in groups is often helpful. Improving client self-care and participating in activities associated with joy or satisfaction moves the mind to other things.
In the end, if so many various interventions fail to meet needs, people should consider joining a formal, therapeutic bereavement group. Loss is emotionally tough, and recovery requires complete emotional activation.
For more information refer to: comments of A. Bodner, Ph.D. in The New England Psychologist, p. 2 (Winter, 2021). Hanlon, P. (2021). The Many Faces of Complicated Grief. The New England Psychologist, pp. 1 & 4 (Winter, 2021). Cormier, S. The Transformative Power of Loss. Psychotherapy Networker, pp. 17-18 (January-February, 2021). Cacciatore, J. (2020). Grieving is Loving: Compassionate Words for Bearing the Unbearable. Boston, Wisdom Publications, pp. 1-8.
Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
From the Eleanor R. Liebman Center for Secular Meditation in Monkton, Vermont
Author of Mindful Happiness