1. The nature of loss
Kenneth R. Mitchell and Hebert Anderson (All Our Losses, All Our Griefs) point out that although it tends to receive the most focussed attention, death is not the only time people experience loss: ‘Loss, other than the most brutal separation from those we love, is not worth worrying about, society seems to say’. But those losses to which we pay less attention often reverberate longer and more profoundly in our lives.
Thus Mitchell and Anderson outline six major types of loss:
- Material loss
- Relationship loss
- Intrapsychic loss
- Functional loss
- Role loss
- Systemic lossIn their discussing of material loss
I particularly appreciated the distinction between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ value they introduced. Some people scoff at taking the loss of physical objects (or environments) too seriously, as though it’s too materialistic or romantic (which it could be — the idolatrous temptation to value created things more than the Creator should not to be underestimated). However, when the extrinsic value of material things is taken into account, it’s easier to understand the grief experienced when they’re lost. Thesignificance of a gift from a loved one, for example, is what makes its loss so painful.
This also goes some way towards explaining the urge to replace a lost object — even if only with a copy. It’s not the object itself that but what it means that matters.
Mitchell and Anderson also acknowledge the complexity of many experiences of loss — one type of loss often gives rise to others.
Hence the importance of reckoning with intrapsychic loss, which often accompanies other kinds of loss — especially material, relationship and functional loss. Such losses can deprive us of the possibility of realising our hopes and dreams about ‘what might have been’. This is intrapsychic loss. Because these hopes and dreams are usually private, quite a lot of gentle prodding (within a context of trust and relational safety) may be required to help someone articulate the complexity of this — ie. grieving can involve confronting the absence not just of what was and what it meant but also of what it seemed to promise.
Likewise, functional loss — particularly common in therapeutic settings — often contributes to role and systemic loss. Not only does the loss of, e.g., muscular or neurological function threaten the patient’s sense of autonomy (giving rise to the impulse to deny its reality or impact), but it can also entail the surrendering of meaningful roles — at work or in the home. More, it can require the relinquishment of an established place in systems like the family, thus affecting many people. It’s not just the relationship with the patient that changes, but the whole system: the family’s life can feel like it will never be the same.
Mitchell and Anderson’s closing comments about some major variables that ‘add to the unpredictability of grief and underscore just how many ways loss is experienced’ drive home the (often unacknowledged) pervasiveness of loss. While it may take different forms and display different intensities — depending on whether it’s avoidable or unavoidable, temporary or permanent, anticipated or unanticipated, etc — loss is something we’ll often need to deal with, not just when someone dies catastrophically.