Vol 5. Issue 32 / October 24, 2005

Lunch & Learn Tackles Topics of Grieving and Loss

By Mika Ono

Have you ever experienced a painful loss? Have you been unsure what to say to someone who has?

"Loss is an inevitable part of life," said psychologist Jeff Jones of The Scripps Research Institute's Counseling and Postdoctoral Services Department, leading a recent Lunch & Learn seminar on loss and grief for Scripps Research employees. "It's how you cope that makes the difference."

What constitutes loss? According to Jones, death of a loved one is the most obvious example, but loss also occurs with job changes, divorce, illness, injury, moving, and aging. And these losses can lead to secondary losses—of home, identity, dreams, friends, colleagues, community, and/or a sense of control.

Jones recounted a personal experience to illustrate this sometimes unexpected domino effect. "When I was younger, I played a lot of rugby. My focus was getting to the nationals. Then one day I blew out my knee. I found myself mourning not only the loss of my physical abilities, but also my goals, my social life that centered around teammates, and my identity as an athlete."

In this case, something good came out of the experience—Jones went back to graduate school and studied psychology, which eventually led to a private practice in La Jolla and his current position with Scripps Research, where he and colleague Jan Hill offer free, confidential counseling and referral services to employees and their families.

Jones noted that loss is a frequent theme among people he counsels, and that their losses are rarely simple. "Divorce is a big one," he added. "As a stressor, it's up there with death of a loved one because it means not only losing a primary relationship, but also your identity, financial security, friends, family, home, and/or time with children."

In the seminar, Jones emphasized that there is no one way to grieve and that each loss is unique. Some losses are sudden; others give you time to prepare and reach some sort of closure. Some, such as an injury, may be obvious to everyone; other losses remain secret. Some losses, especially those from suicides and accidents, tend to induce guilt; others offer unexpected relief.

"It's dangerous to make comparisons," he said. "You can share your personal experiences with a person who is grieving, but you can't assume you know what the person is going through or what he or she needs to do to cope."

For those facing a loss, Jones offered the following suggestions:

  • Give it time. "Grieving is going to be hard work," noted Jones. "It's probably better to accept the process rather than trying to fight it."
  • Don't expect too much of yourself. Delegate more. Take a break from the car pool. Postpone that trip.
  • Decide you will survive strong emotions. "Grieving will be an emotional roller coaster," said Jones. "I can't think of an emotion that isn't part of the grieving process."
  • Take care of yourself—rest, reach out to others, and be alone when you need to be. "Find at least one good listener," advised Jones. Pay special attention to your needs during holidays and anniversaries, as these often bring new waves of grief.
  • Expect a range of reactions from others. Your situation may bring losses to the surface for other people.
  • Do your best to find something positive from the experience—for example, appreciating what a loved one taught you, cherishing good memories, or using the change to take your life in a new direction.

For people supporting others facing loss, Jones suggested:

  • Acknowledge the situation. Don't wait until you have the perfect thing to say. Jones noted that simple words such as "I'm sorry for your loss. Is there anything I can do?" can go a long way.
  • Listen. Being there for someone who needs to talk is a critical part of offering support.
  • Pay attention to your own reactions. It's OK to take care of yourself if you start to feel overwhelmed, for example saying, "I can listen for a couple more minutes, then I have to take a break."
  • Offer specific help. Bringing a meal, running errands, or helping with child care can be deeply appreciated.
  • Expect tears. Tears and other emotional reactions are a normal part of grieving, as are physical symptoms such as loss of appetite, mental changes such as trouble concentrating, social shifts such as an increased desire to be alone, and existential challenges such as questioning the meaning of life.
  • Expect the best from the grieving person, but accept less for a while.

Counseling and Postdoctoral Services can be reached at x4-9740. Additional resources and information, including a list of DVDs of past Lunch & Learn seminars available for employees to check out, are posted on department's web site at http://www.scripps.edu/services/counseling/.



Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu