Grief is often directly associated with a reaction to the death of a loved one. But the process goes far beyond that: grief is a reaction to loss, and loss in some contexts can be obscured by gains made in tandem. Any kind of upheaval in our normal routines and expectations can result in the need for processing grief. That includes events many would not expect to be associated with loss: changing jobs, getting clean/sober, getting out of a bad relationship, becoming a parent, moving to a different area. These are all huge shifts in lifestyle that social conditioning often teaches us to celebrate, period. But it requires bravery and honesty to acknowledge that these types of events are not always going to be something to smile about. After all, no matter how good the new circumstances are as a result of change, change inherently requires loss.

Processing Grief

Familiarity as a Source of Comfort

Humans are creatures of habit. Our brains are hard-wired to find the path of least resistance to establishing routines that get us through life. We discover these paths through a combination of our genetic makeup and social upbringing. The paths are also shaped by a confluence of factors like financial resources, generational traditions, and family environment.

Sometimes these paths to establishing routine are maladaptive. Consider self medication with alcohol use disorder, where drinking as a reaction to feeling negative emotions temporarily numbs those feelings. This approach to handling negative feelings, while effective in the short term, often makes the problem worse. As a result, change from this state of affairs is usually considered a good thing (i.e. an alcoholic getting sober).

But the person themselves may have a different story to tell. With newfound sobriety, the negative consequences of drinking get removed. But the comfort that drinking used to provide is removed as well. Regardless of how unhealthy certain habits are, the human brain still associates some good feelings with them (i.e. safety, security, respite).

Beyond substance use disorder, here are some examples of loss associated with other changes of lifestyle:

  • Changing Jobs/Getting Promoted: This may involve losses in routines, coworker relationships, freedom from higher responsibility, and daily interactions associated with the old job which are easy and familiar.
  • Moving: Moving to a new area often makes people give up old friendships, favorite restaurants, and familiarity with common resources like grocery stores and knowing what street or freeway to take to a new place. The old home and its comforts are also lost.
  • Leaving a Bad Relationship: Relationships with others are always complicated. Even if it was mostly bad, there were reasons that each person tried to make it work anyway. Those things are lost when the relationship ends. Even with extreme examples like survivors leaving abusive relationships, the coping mechanisms that got them through it and sometimes even personal identity are lost.
  • Becoming a Parent: Freedom and independence are lost as the parent becomes a caregiver to a dependent. While this is a beautiful celebration of a new life, parents give up a lot to take on those responsibilities.

Time for Processing Grief

Due to the gains associated with many changes we face, processing grief doesn’t always seem to make sense. Or it may seem like indulging in self pity. There’s also the popular adage, “Pick yourself up by the bootstraps!” as a response to feeling sad. Unfortunately this common approach glosses over a fundamental part of the human experience. While being grateful for the positive gains associated with change is important, it’s equally important to honor saying goodbye to old methods of living.

Acknowledging this loss takes a measure of bravery and honesty. The constant push to move away from the sadness associated with loss may seem like strength or perseverance; however, it can also function as acts of avoidance or denial. It’s okay to not be okay. For those going through a period of significant change, processing grief with a counselor or support group can be hugely beneficial.

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