What is Transformative Bereavement?

The study of loss has been approached in much the same way as has the study of illness. Most mental health professionals focus on the symptoms of loss as the problems--which is analogous to saying the bleeding is the problem, not the wound. Anxiety, depression, anger, substance abuse, delinquency or ADHD in children, spiritual visions, suicidal ideation, disorientation to reality, and PTSD are symptoms of grief that are treated as discrete pathologies. When researchers focus on depression, for example, they focus on the nature of the symptom rather than its source. Profound sadness along with thoughts about death may be part of depression, but they are also symptoms of grief and loss. And while depression is treated as a disorder, grief and loss are normal indicators of living. Without knowing someone’s loss history, we cannot tell whether the problem is clinical depression or normal grief.

Most experts on grief--those who have given us the theories that have become culturally accepted frameworks--have come from a medical background. Classical theories of grief have told us that we need to experience our feelings, accept the loss, adjust to our new reality, give up our lost relationship, and transfer our feelings to new relationships. They tell us that recovery is the absence of pain, or that it is “reinvesting in life.” They tell us that if we do not--or cannot--renounce our connection to our lost loved one, we will suffer and be perceived as pathological. But how many of us give up the most meaningful relationships of our lives? In fact, studies have shown that most people do not renounce their relationships with their lost loved ones, and it does them no harm. This is a clear example of the disconnect between medically based theory and the actual experience of grievers.

Are you beginning to see why we are so unprepared to deal with grief? Most of us still think of the grief process as described by the traditional models: Most of us expect that when we suffer a loss, we will experience it in this way: internal rather than relational, recuperative rather than transformative, comprised of hierarchical and sequential stages from which any deviation is pathological, requiring a disengagement from what has been lost, and ending within a limited time frame after which we will resume living happily and form new relationships.  The result is that most of us are unprepared for the reality of grief and view it from a perspective that often inhibits healing instead of facilitating it.

Increasingly, however, those who study adult lifespan development have come to view a crisis--such as a profound loss--less as a disruption with the attendant goal of getting back to "normal," and more as an opportunity for development and a catalyst for growth. This perspective sees crisis as transformative, freeing us from old ways of organizing and perceiving the world; and allowing a redifferentiation, and the creation of new ways of relating to both self and others while integrating the past into the present.

The transformative perspective is a paradigm shift. It posits that grief is not an isolated event, a medical condition, or an illness that is responsive to a standardized treatment of its symptoms. Grief is the universal process of change, and our task is to make sense out of the experience, ourselves, others, and life within our changed context. The more recent theories of bereavement recognize that when a griever experiences confusion, anxiety, and profound sadness, those responses are not abnormal. They are the appropriate responses of someone who is striving to deal with a changed reality and relationships, and who is doing so not only internally but also within a social and cultural context on multidimensional levels.

Those who study bereavement are also becoming aware that when we change as an outcome of a loss, we often perceive it as a positive change. Among the types of benefits most frequently reported by grievers are: a clearer sense of identity, a greater awareness of their own strength, self-esteem, self-confidence, assertiveness, enhanced relationships with family and friends, a heightened desire to connect with others, empathy with the suffering of others, priorities that reflect a deeper appreciation of life and less focus on material things, increased faith, a decreased tendency to be judgmental and an increased valuing of diversity, patience, a loss of the fear of death, and a loss of the fear of speaking their own truth.

One way of thinking about the transformative process is in terms of 2 intersecting circles. Circle #1 represents the previous reality, part of which is now missing; Circle #2 represents a future reality, part of which is unknown. The area where the circles intersect represents that which persists. Rather than a straight line or a “staircase to heaven,” the transformative process is the gradual spiraling movement from living in Circle #1 to accepting and learning to live in Circle #2. Meaning making can help us glimpse the contours of Circle #2, thus making the future seem less anxiety-provoking, more accessible, and more hopeful.

The transformative grief process is essentially a spiritual learning process because it deals with the journey from the known toward the unknown, toward change, and toward a new reality that contains the deceased loved one spiritually, but not physically.

It is not time that heals all wounds, but choosing to live in a way that promotes healing.