Managing Loss

By Richard Reilly, PhD, Core Faculty in the Counseling Psychology Department October 05, 2015

Mental Health Tips from William James College Faculty: Managing Loss

The experience of loss, and its frequent companion, grief, have perhaps always been captured most poignantly by poets and lyricists, yet mental health care providers are often left with the daunting task of trying to help those who have suffered a loss comprehend it, work through it and eventually come to an acceptance of it – particularly when they have had difficulty doing so on their own.

Loss encompasses a wide variety of interpersonal experiences – prominent among them are death, divorce (or termination of any highly significant relationship), and estrangement or isolation from one’s community. Additionally, it can result from more intra-personal experiences, such as confrontation with the inevitabilities of aging, sickness and our own mortality, or facing major disappointments or setbacks in valued pursuits. Loss can also include diminution of faith in the world as a safe, predictable and meaningful place, often in reaction to trauma or disaster. 

Once a loss has occurred, a wide range of emotional reactions can follow- sadness, of course, but also a profound sense of loneliness, disappointment, self-blame, powerlessness, shame, guilt, emotional numbing and disbelief, to name but a few. Anger can also be prominent. 

Many things can interfere with grieving such as: messages from others to “get over it;” a high degree of dependency on the lost person or highly valued set of circumstances; or, a belief that the loss means an end to a singular and vital personal resource. In addition, one might experience ambivalence about the loss, or a significant degree of difficulty in accepting its reality. These interferences, if protracted, can have significant social, developmental, educational and occupational consequences. Left unaddressed, they can result in a myriad of physical and/or psychological symptoms. 

Tips for Helping People Cope with Loss:

  • Assist them in recognizing, naming and exploring their experience. 
  • Provide information about the customary course of, or response to their type of loss, while also validating their unique, individual experience. 
  • Re-grieving, sometimes with the use of such items photos, films, journals, visits, can be used as tools in giving meaning to and gaining mastery in response to the loss. 
  • Work toward helping people accept the loss, including all the attendant emotions. 
  • Encourage the involvement of others who can provide support – family and/or close friends, as well as referral to a support group. 
  • Be present and available and listen.