Understanding Grief

Grief is an unavoidable part of being human. Being human is synonymous with attachment to people, places, and things, which on the other hand, makes grief and loss an inevitable part of our experience. We typically think of grief in relation to losing someone to death, however, grief and loss encompass a wide range of situations. These include relationship changes, loss of our own health or capacities to function, loss of things we own by theft or accident, loss of place or belonging through relocating homes, losing a team or a job, and losing pets. Losses and transitions such as these can be an extremely painful and confusing experience, and as such, the purpose of today’s blog is to unravel some of what we know about grief through the lens of Internal Family Systems (IFS).

First, recovering from loss is more of a process of ‘integration’ rather than any sort of healing or forgetting. In this, people find new meaning in their loss and understand what their ‘new normal’ looks like. This doesn’t mean that there is any less emotion or attachment to the loss, but that people are less distressed and more accommodating of the loss into their life. 

According to leaders in IFS, grief occurs as a cluster of parts that may oscillate over time. Within the grieving cluster, there are those parts of us who hold the distress of the loss. These parts may consist of sad parts who are protesting, missing, searching, longing, regretting, and feeling guilty. When someone is blended with these parts (i.e., they fully feel the emotions and views of these parts) they may feel intense and overwhelming emotion, as well as a loss of vitality which can feel a lot like depression. On the other hand, there are also parts called the restoration cluster, and these are the parts that focus ahead and urge action. Just as the name suggests, the restoration cluster are those parts that are the catalysts for integration of loss and can include parts that jump into action (e.g., to plan a funeral) or feel relief or even excitement (e.g., for possibilities in a new community or job). As we walk through grief, our parts oscillate between the grieving parts and restoration parts, with the restoration parts providing the system with some respite from the intense moments of grieving. In this, someone may have intense feelings of sadness and grief, which may be briefly replaced by a moment of strength and future-focused planning. Over time, and when grieving parts have had enough time to express themselves, the restoration parts tend to become more dominant. This is when the intense periods of grieving parts get shorter and fewer, and subsequently, the loss is integrated and accommodated into one’s life.

The process described above is that of simple grief; however, about 15% of mourners experience complicated grief. Complicated grief typically occurs when someone has had a previous history of significant loss in early life that remains unresolved, and/or if they have a tumultuous relationship with the deceased, as well as other factors such as a lack of social support. People who experience complicated grief have strong protective parts that shield them from fully witnessing and experiencing their painful grieving parts, and so are unable to fully integrate the loss into their lives. These protective parts include downplaying a loss by minimising its significance (e.g., “she was just a dog”), converting feelings into physical symptoms, avoiding feelings by trying to replace the loss (e.g., buying a new dog), displacing their anger or sadness onto other people or things, denial of grieving parts and over-emphasis on restoration parts (e.g., “we need to get on with our lives”) and/or postponing the grieving process through strategies such as distraction. These protective parts are important for preventing overwhelm, but on the other hand, one may be insulated from grieving parts which may subsequently stunt the natural process of healthy recovery from loss. In this case, IFS therapy can enable the grieving process by addressing the concerns of these protective parts and making them feel safe enough to allow the grieving parts to be witnessed and heard without being overwhelmed, so as to facilitate a healthy grieving process.

In all, grieving is an unavoidable occurrence in human experience; however, our minds have natural and inbuilt mechanisms to find the way through these painful and confusing elements of our lives. Welcoming all parts and appreciating them for their role in your journey will be a helpful shift for integrating your losses and transitions.

Author: Dr Sarah Sorensen, (BSc, MSc, PhD)
Mind/Body Practitioner, Dr Kathleen & Team Global Consulting
Trained in Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy through the Internal Family Systems Counselling Association (IFSCA). For more information on IFS and IFSCA please see https://ifsca.ca/

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