The Losses Lesser Known
Why grief is not just about death
By Hvovi Bhagwagar
Some years ago, I was invited to present at a Clinical Psychology conference in Spain. My chosen topic was a case study of recovery from traumatic grief and loss. A month before the conference, my 73-year-old father passed away, suddenly, with no warning. As I was grappling with the loss, it was disturbing to continue to read about grief to shape the paper further. And it took some internal push to complete the paper and then present it. While reflecting on this experience, I realized perhaps all the reading helped in some way to attain closure. However, in the past year as the devastation of the pandemic hit, and therapy sessions were filled with story after story of traumatic deaths, I revisited my father’s death and the grief all over again. Alongside emerged feelings of guilt “That was in the past. Agreed it was painful, and of course you had the courage to still present that paper.
"But your loss is nothing compared to the stories you are hearing”, I told myself.
Echoing my thoughts, a young adult in therapy confessed “I’m grieving for my lost graduation ceremony. All the 4 years of my degree programme, I dreamed of the graduation ceremony- the dress I would wear, the joy of holding my degree, celebrating with family and friends.” Instead, she had to make do with attending the convocation virtually, followed by a celebration on Zoom with some friends. “It feels like grief, like I lost something precious. But I feel guilty. Isn’t my loss small compared to what’s happening in the world?”
How often do we hear people during the pandemic saying “I know I shouldn’t complain, at least I have a job” or “Everyone in my home is safe, why should I feel sad”
or “What’s a postponed wedding compared to the lives lost”. How many times have we stopped giving ourselves permission to grieve for losses lesser known?
Why are such losses also “grief”?
A common belief we hold is that grief is related to mourning the death of a loved one. Perhaps that is why both my client and I felt guilty about our feelings, dwarfed as they were by the magnitude of traumatic losses this pandemic has seen.
However, grief is a feeling, an internal reaction that we experience in relation not just to death, but to any loss.
As a culture, we find it easier to validate the grieving around deaths that are guided by social customs and bereavement rituals. And we fail to look around to see the many silent mourners among us. Kenneth J Doka, Professor and Author, coined the term 'Disenfranchised Grief' to denote losses that cannot be “socially sanctioned, openly acknowledged or publicly mourned”. Those who have lost a loved one to COVID, when their relationship was not socially acknowledged. Those who lost a chatroom friend or someone they never met in person. Or those who have lost the chance to celebrate, lost jobs, lost chances at pregnancy, or suffered financial losses. Such disenfranchised grief usually remains unrecognized and undervalued.
Humanizing collective grieving
Research finds that social support is a huge source of help in the process of healing from grief and loss.
However, the absence of social support in disenfranchised grief can lead to feelings of isolation, depression and passive anger. The person might feel “stuck”, as if they haven’t had a chance for closure.
As a society, we can help each other by accepting that no loss should be trivialized. David Kessler the author of “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” quotes in a TED Talk “We can’t compare our grief. Each loss is personal, and there is enough room in the world for all our losses”.
Among the lessons we’ve learnt from the pandemic perhaps the most important one has been to tolerate the many heterogeneous experiences of people. Learning to validate one another, make space for emotions, and lending that listening ear will help us heal collectively.
Equally important, is that we do not devalue our own grief through self-disenfranchisement, and instead acknowledge our feelings of individual loss as legitimate grief.
As we embark on an uncertain future, with the no foreseeable end to the pandemic, our collective effort to help one another might be our best chance of surviving this human crisis and emerging healthier and wiser.
Hvovi Bhagwagar is a Psychologist and Psychotherapist, with over 22 years of experience. She currently works as a private practitioner in her independent venture ‘Manashni’ at Powai, Mumbai. She is an International Affiliate with the APA (American Psychological Association), Member of the IACP (Indian Assn of Clinical Psychologists), and on the Membership Committee of the ISSTD (Intl Society for Study of Trauma & Dissociation).
She has a trauma-informed approach in her therapeutic practice, and works with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and adult survivors of abuse and neglect. She has undergone training and supervision for working with complex traumatization, and also presented at various national and international conferences, as well as trained mental health professionals on Trauma-Informed Therapy. Mental health literacy has been an area of passion and she writes educative articles about mental health on her blog, and in the popular media. She has been invited as a speaker at various mental health events organized by Times of India, Arpan, Godrej, NHRD, Schizophrenia Awareness Association, Tata, PatientsEngage, NIIT, BARC, Fortis Hospital among others and has received two awards from the Young Environmentalists Foundation and Times Healthcare.
She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in the field of Secondary Traumatic Stress from TISS, Mumbai.