Redefining Grief and Loss
When most people think of grief, they assume it involves mourning the loss of a loved one for a finite period. Over the past few decades, however, the way clinicians define grief and loss has evolved, changing how they guide patients through their unique journeys.
What is Grief?
Kaylee Kron, LMSW (she/her/hers), national community partnership manager at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center (ERC Pathlight), follows a broader definition encompassing a range of losses, from divorce to moving to the collective losses we all suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic. She defines grief and loss as “a response to something being taken away from you, with or without your permission.”
Embedded in any loss are unexpected changes that must be acknowledged and grieved. “A divorce may bring about a loss of identity, income and friendships that must be honored through the grieving journey,” says Kron.
To help patients grapple with their loss, several tools are available. Worden’s tasks of mourning provide a framework that includes accepting the loss, processing the pain and embarking on a new life while finding an enduring connection with the loss. These tasks don’t have to be addressed in any order, and they can be revisited at different points in time.1
“I will meet my patients wherever they are in their journey,” says Kron. “This means sitting in the messy middle with each person, ensuring that they are seen, heard and understood."
Addressing Trauma and Grief in Therapy
Meeting patients where they are also means understanding their grief and loss from a sociocultural perspective and acknowledging that many have experienced trauma. Bernasha Anderson, MEd, PhD (she/her/hers), a clinical psychologist in private practice and co-facilitator of group support sessions at The Loveland Foundation in partnership with ERC Pathlight, has a wider perspective on grief and loss from her work with Black women and nonbinary people.
Trauma and grief are intertwined, but they are not the same. “While sexual assault is a trauma, the associated grief could be the loss of the relationship you had or mourning the safety you once shared with your body,” Dr. Anderson explains. “People with marginalized identities may be impacted by multiple levels of trauma and may experience systemic oppression, intergenerational and/or race-based trauma.”
To work through grief and trauma, Dr. Anderson believes that traumatic experiences and losses can be given a name, which validates the pain and encourages healing, further facilitated by support groups.
“By sharing stories,” she explains, “clients affirm and empower each other to honor their grief and loss toward healing.”
Redefining grief and loss can help therapists expand their perspective—and their practice.
Body Grief: One Woman's Journey
Jayne Mattingly (she/her/hers), Say It Brave Collective member at ERC Pathlight, founder of The AND Initiative and soon-to-be author, was on a roll. She had completed her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, recovered from her eating disorder and was finding peace in her body. “Then, bam,” she recalls, “Some new physical problems piled up, leaving me disabled at the age of 28.”
Struggling to adjust to these unexpected changes, Mattingly revisited a term she coined early in her career—body grief, associated with body changes, whether in appearance or functionality, which can come with puberty, eating disorders, physical disability and more.
Naming her feelings as grief was empowering. To cope with difficult moments, Mattingly may have a good cry or take a warm shower. “My aim is to feel 1% to 5% better rather than 100% better,” she says. “That’s a reasonable goal.”
How to Help Someone Dealing with Grief and Loss
To learn more about how you can support your patients through their healing journeys, read ERC Pathlight’s blog “Grief and Mental Health: A Clinician’s Guide to Supporting Patients in Grief."
1. Worden, J.W. (2018). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (fifth ed.). New York: Springer Publishing Company.
ERC Resources on Grief and Loss
- Listen to the podcast: Healing Through Grief and Loss
- Read the blog: Grieving the Loss of Your Eating Disorder
Read Pathlight Resources on Grief and Loss
This article first appeared in Luminary, A Magazine for Mental Health Professionals. Find more articles for additional tips, resources and insights from leading experts in the field.