Loss and grief are universal human experiences. Everybody knows this. Strange, then, that death and disaster always seem to catch us by surprise. We don’t see them coming because we don’t want to look. And we don’t want to look because we know it’s going to hurt. What we fail to realize is that the pain will only get worse further down the road if we don’t take the time to stare it in the face right now.
Odd as it may sound, you can get a head start on suicide-proofing your kids by helping them confront the inevitability of loss from the very beginning. Naturally, we’re not talking here about tossing them into the deep end of the swimming pool before they’re ready for it. Instead, we’re referring to a slow, gradual, age-appropriate process that leaves kids with a basic understanding of a fundamental truth: while the world can rob us of many beautiful and meaningful things, it can never take away the dignity and purpose we possess as children of God.
Concrete versus Existential Losses
It’s easy to associate the idea of grief almost exclusively with the death of a loved one. That’s huge, of course, yet it isn’t the whole story. Deep loss can touch the human psyche at almost every level and in almost every area of life. There are, in fact, two basic categories of loss: the concrete and the existential. Let’s take a closer look and see how they compare.
Concrete losses involve separation from real people and real things in the external, concrete, physical, visible world. Here are a few examples:
- Death of a parent, sibling, extended family member, or close friend
- Rejection by friends (including bullying)
- A major life transition: a move to a new town, new school, new community
- Financial hardship due to a parent’s loss of employment
- Loss of home due to foreclosure or inability to pay rent
- Breakup with boyfriend or girlfriend
- Disappointment or failure in sports or academics
- Death of a pet
- Parents’ divorce
- Injury or serious illness
- Church split or moral failure on the part of spiritual leaders
An existential loss is a loss that the individual feels and experiences on the inside, whether or not there is any corresponding loss in the external, physical world. There’s a great deal of overlap between the two categories; most if not all concrete losses will also have an existential dimension. For this reason, existential loss could also be defined as the emotional or psychological impact of a concrete loss. A listing of such losses could be extended almost indefinitely, but it would certainly include the following:
- Loss of self-respect
- Loss of hopes and dreams
- Loss of meaning, significance, or purpose
- Loss of identity during adolescence (due to physical and hormonal changes, peer rejection, and any number of related issues)
- Loss of the freedom to be oneself after puberty (especially for girls, due to pressure to adopt a more sexualized persona)
- Loss of individuality (due to pressure to conform)
- Loss of choices or control (often leading to eating disorders or cutting)
- Loss of security (due to loss of parent, home, or finances)
- Loss of faith and trust; whether in parents, adults, society, the church, or God
- Loss of social group or support system (due to transition or peer rejection)
- Loss of parents, mentors, and role models
- Loss of peace, routine, and a sense of balance
- Loss of childhood innocence
- Loss of imagination and creativity
- Loss of independence
Expected versus Unexpected Losses
Some losses are more shocking than others because they seem to come out of the blue. The death of an eighty-five-year-old grandmother who had cancer may leave you hurting and grieving, but since it was expected, it’s not as shocking as the sudden and untimely loss of a sibling or child.
Unexpected losses are like emotional blind spots. They catch us off guard because they simply aren’t on our radar screen. If you or your child has been hit by one of these bombshells, you need to remember that it’s okay to cry and grieve. The healing process will be quicker if you meet the pain head-on.
Unhealthy Reactions to Grief
People experience loss and express grief in their own unique ways. Personal reactions are all over the map. As the late Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross put it, “Our grief is as individual as our lives.” Some reactions are helpful and productive, but others can drive a person further toward the brink of despair. A key principle to remember is that unprocessed pain gets internalized and eventually comes out in some less constructive form. Here’s a list of some of undesirable consequences of significant loss:
- Self-medication (with drugs, alcohol, pornography, or some other addictive behavior)
- Self-blame, shame, and guilt
- Difficulty sleeping
- Questioning God and one’s faith
- Increased worry and fear
- Fatigue and nausea
- Weight loss or gain
- Lowered immunity
- Chest pains
These unhealthy reactions can be exacerbated even further by complicated grief, a type of grief people experience when they suffer two or more significant losses within a very short time frame. Experiencing the death of a loved one followed soon after by job loss or a devastating fire in the home, for example, is complicated grief. This type of grief is often associated with complicated situations such as death by a violent act, car accident, murder, or suicide. It’s what happens when a person isn’t able to work his way through the implications of one disaster before getting hit with another. This can produce a sense of utter hopelessness and a loss of the will to live.
Complicated grief can also refer to grief that isn’t appropriately processed within a reasonable amount of time—two to three years in most cases. For reasons of their own, some people simply refuse to let go of their pain. This tendency can become a recipe for despair and disaster if allowed to go unchecked.
- Elizabeth KÜbler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 7.