Loss and grief can occur at all stages of life. But, it’s not just about death or dying.
It also happens with infertility, physical illness, pregnancy losses, the dissolution of marriages and other relational break-ups.
For 18 years, Lara Krawchuck, a 1995 alumna of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice, has helped people to work through grief after losses of all kinds. In her private practice, she conducts individual and family counseling. In addition, she has taught for 10 years in Social Policy & Practice as an adjunct faculty member and has facilitated cancer support groups at local hospitals.
Traumatic losses are particularly hard to make sense of, she says.
“Every loss is experienced differently, and therefore every person’s grief is unique. The way we grieve has a lot to do with the relationship we had with the person, place or thing that was lost and how that loss occurred,” Krawchuck explains. “There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Healing requires time to process what the loss means for you.”
And, while many people will try to tell someone who has recently experienced a loss what “normal” grief looks like, everyone has to form his or her own meaning in a great loss and life beyond that loss, she says.
Krawchuck says that, while the Kubler-Ross model, an explanation of the grief in five stages, has made its way into the popular culture, grief can’t be easily divided up in such a simple set of organized containers.
She says the idea of “stages” of grief can be limiting and may cause vulnerable people to feel there is a right and wrong way to grieve.
For someone experiencing a sense of loss, the emotions they go through can feel a lot like a roller coaster.
“Again, this is unique to each person. Some common emotions include sorrow, anger, guilt, relief, confusion, fear and regret.
“Healing from a great loss comes a little bit at a time. It can look like a movement from shock or numbness to anguish to eventually being able to experience small moments of joy –- and eventually more joy than sorrow,” Krawchuck explains.
As such, Krawchuck says researchers have moved beyond that five-step model.
“Sadly, people still subscribe to it. This could be because we desperately want to believe that grief is neat and that the end of that process, acceptance, comes quickly,” she explains. “So many people think that they’re doing it ‘wrong’ because they have not reached [the final stage of] ‘acceptance’ and they blame themselves for this, but in reality, the theory is flawed.”
She says people who are suffering through grief should not try to totally avoid or drown their grief because it only serves as a temporary short-term solution.
“Great loss needs to be processed and though this can be a daunting process, the pain does not usually go away if you ignore it,” Krawchuck says.
Successful grievers find a way to honor their pain, according to Krawchuck. They figure out some kind of meaning on why this happened and what it means for them, while maintaining a sense of connection to the person or thing that was lost. This is essential in the death of a loved one.
She also recommends resisting the urge to minimize children’s grief or assume that they are “okay.”
Children are very adept at hiding their pain if they think the topic is taboo and might “clam up” if they feel as though it is not okay to share their painful feelings, she explains. But, Krawchuck warns this can cause lots of pain later on during their lives.
She says honesty is the best policy and recommends using words that clearly explain the loss in an age-appropriate way.
“The most important thing a parent can do is clearly communicate that talking about their grief is okay,” assuring the child that the parent is there to answer questions and be a support in times of pain or confusion.”
Krawchuck has shared her top-5 tips for people who are going through the grief process:
• Take time to grieve.
• Find people who are willing to really listen to your loss story as many times as you need to tell it.
• You know your grief best. No one gets to tell you the “right” way to do it.
• Honor your pain.
• Seek moments of joy along the journey.
Krawchuck was one of the seven presenters at “Loss Across the Lifespan: Creative Strategies for Healing,” one of the Penn events highlighting National Social Work Month. She discussed “Finding Meaning in Ambiguous Losses” and “When Illness Strikes Young: Facing Loss in Early Adulthood.”