Grief & Loss: Special Circumstances
Loss of a meaningful and intimate relationship through divorce or separation is a common occurrence in today's world. Despite its statistical prevalence, however, relationship loss constitutes a period of significant emotional hardship, resulting in depression, anxiety and grief.
Committing oneself to a relationship entails creating and accepting a shared vision of the future, a new set of roles and relationships, a new economic unit, and a new social identity. Dissolution of the relationship, therefore, entails multiple losses for both parties. Dreams are shattered, personal and social roles are transformed, economic security is threa tened or even destroyed, life styles are radically altered, mutual friends and even family are lost, and self-image is damaged. Generally speaking, the longer the duration of the relationship, the more complex its dissolution and the more significant the losses.
Associated with such losses are many complex emotions typical of grief reactions anger, sadness, guilt, remorse, inadequacy, depression. Complicating such emotions are the peculiarities of the divorce or separation process itself. If the couple has minor children or has acquired property, an extended or adversarial legal process may intensify and prolong painful emotions. Additionally, unlike most other losses, in divorce and separation, most frequently the lost loved one does not disappear. Rather, former partners must struggle to form new relationships that ensure ongoing contact with and responsibility for children as well as provide financial support for children and former partners. Forging and maintaining such relationships with former loved ones who have been the cause of an ger, disappointment, and pain can prolong and heighten the grief process.
In relationship losses which involve children, a parent may experience grief not only for his or her own losses, but also for the emotional and practical losses experienced by others. Believing that they could or should have behaved differently, and thereby preserved the relationship, partners may blame themselves for the sadness and losses experienced by children and close extended family. Such feelings and beliefs may be exacerbated and become even more difficult to manage when children and family, experiencing their own grief, direct their anger and denial at one or both of the separating partners.
Because the family relationship has such extensive meaning in an individual's life, disruption of that relationship is almost certain to have ramifications for the workplace. Typically, when individuals are involved in relationship dissolution, supervisors and colleagues are faced with having to deal with symptoms of anxiety, depression, displaced anger, and loss of focus - in short, their grief.
Suicide is the eighth-ranking cause of death in the United States. Although this suggests that death by suicide is not an infrequent occurrence, the particular circumstances and dynamics of suicide pose special challenges to understanding loss and experiencing grief.
Typically people experience immense shock and disbelief when learning of a suicide. This may lead them to ask over long periods of time "why" this happened, if it could have been prevented, and what they might have done to make things different (more attention, more caring, less life stress). Such questions are often accompanied by feelings of guilt as family and friends tell themselves they should have recognized the signs, taken warnings more seriously, or otherwise altered their behavior. Feelings of inadequacy may also trouble those close to a suicide victim. Believing that they somehow let down the individual, or interpreting the suicide as a deliberate rejection, friends and family often feel that had they been more aware, caring and capable, the suicide would not have occurred.
Feelings of guilt and inadequacy will be heightened in some circumstances. Frequently, relationships between the deceased and others have been troubled for a considerable time before the suicide occurs. The more troubled the relationship, the greater may be the feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Additionally, it is not uncommon for individuals not close to the victim to seek to explain the death by "blaming" someone close to the victim, usually the family. Accepting, or even anticipating such beliefs further exacerbates feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Often, because the death frequently occurs at home, family members find the body. In such cases, they might repeatedly relive that experience in their thoughts during the day, or through nightmares. Such experiences may result in increased distraction, anxiety, fears of one's sanity, and physical and emotional exhaustion.
Anger is another common reaction for those close to the suicide victim. Feeling themselves to have been emotionally rejected, made the objects of blame or speculation, or left to handle the emotional and practical difficulties of a sudden and difficult-to-explain death, those close to the victim might experience more anger than would be expected with any other sort of death.
Social beliefs about suicide also increase the difficulties in resolving grief. Because suicide, for the most part, is considered a societal taboo, family and friends frequently wonder who and what they should tell about the cause of death. Feeling shamed or wanting to keep things private, they might be untruthful or vague in describing the cause of death. Feeling that the experience is not acceptable to talk about, they suffer alone, and grief is prolonged.
Death and illness are not the only circumstances that can result in feelings of loss. Many times, significant life or work changes contain elements of loss that can be very powerful as well. Specific to the workplace, events such as downsizing, reduction-in-force, mergers and even promotions can result in some grief-like symptoms.
Those who survive and those who fall victim to such organizational events will enter into a process wherein certain aspects of their lives will be altered. There are obvious interpersonal, social, and financial adjustments for individuals who will be removed from the organization. For those who remain, changes in supervision and reporting lines, loss of co-workers, additional or redesigned work, and uncertainty of their role and value are not uncommon and can all accentuate the sense of loss. Individuals in either group have experienced changes that will push them into transitions. In most cases, at least at the outset, individuals will feel that the change "happened to them," that it was in no way their choosing or under their control. Reactions will be subjective and particular to each individual. They may respond based on previous work or personal experiences and their own history of other losses. One common ground is that most people's reactions to the workplace event will be more about the losses associated with it than about the change itself.
Though each person brings his or her own personal history and each will focus on their subjective sense of the personal impact of the event, individuals are likely to find themselves having similar feelings about their losses, including: sadness, betrayal, anxiety, fear, mistrust, guilt, anger, depression, and loss of confidence. Some may develop physical symptoms such as headaches, sleep loss, fatigue, appetite changes, restlessness, or poor concentration. Interests and activities previously enjoyed may wane. Significant others, spouses, partners, family, or colleagues may find the individual withdrawn, irritable, and seemingly "not him/herself." Any one of these might be manageable for most people, but a cluster of loss symptoms can be more difficult to address. An added dilemma is that at the very time the individual is compelled to be sharp, focused and self-motivated in order to reassess and direct their work life, they may be the least capable.