What comes to mind when contemplating the words “grief” and “loss”? Maybe the ritual of sitting shiva, or a funeral? Let’s consider for a few minutes expanding our perception of loss. While some may not have encountered the death of a loved one, thank God, every individual inevitably faces loss in some way. In my journey as a hospital chaplain, I met people grappling with a diverse range of losses—the loss of health, youth, or the unmet expectations of others showing up and caring for them in a particular way. It dawned on me that we all navigate losses, thus prompting a deeper acknowledgment of my own, allowing space for grief.
As a grief counselor, I realize the significance of reframing personal loss, guiding both my patients and myself to wholeheartedly integrate these experiences into our lives. Interestingly, some losses emerge from blessings, such as transitioning from singlehood to marriage or adapting to the responsibilities of parenthood. These losses may be complicated, triggering feelings of shame. I recall counseling a woman juggling her career goals and parenting two young children. We spent time addressing her feelings of “loss of freedom” without judgment, while acknowledging the blessing she found in motherhood.
Emotions, as I discovered, are not mutually exclusive, but rather symbiotic: We can hold many simultaneously—loss and love, fear and strength, clarity and confusion. This realization liberated me, and I invite you to internalize this truth for your own journey. Loss can profoundly affect our identity during significant life changes, like moving, divorce, career shifts or retirement. Mothers may feel a shift in identity when children leave the nest; individuals may be grieving splintered relationships with family or a friend; and changes in health can lead to mourning a former self. Retirement, too, may bring about a struggle in defining oneself beyond professional roles.
One of the most heartbreaking cases I encountered in the hospital involved a woman in her mid-50s contending with early-onset dementia. Her husband, a lifelong companion since high school, found himself mourning the very essence of his beautiful wife, despite her physical presence right next to us—a stark contrast to the vibrant woman he once knew. Together we cried as he shared photos and stories of their joyful life together. The paradox of grieving someone who is physically present but significantly transformed is nuanced and profound.
Loss is interwoven into life’s fabric, a blessing of having that exposes us to the vulnerability of losing. Since October 7 a profound sense of loss has enveloped many within our community—a grief stemming not only from the loss of many of our brothers and sisters but the erosion of our collective sense of security, and the unsettling presence of antisemitism. In the span of these several months, grief has emerged as a prevailing and pervasive emotion, touching each of us in unique ways. The weight of the current state of Israel has cast a somber shadow on our daily lives.
No loss compares to the death of a loved one. The grief experienced can be harsh and require considerable time and grace to navigate. In our bereavement groups we often discuss grief as an expression of love—a way to honor the love for someone lost. Jamie Anderson’s quote beautifully captures grief: “Grief I’ve learned is just love you want to give but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
In my one-on-one work with clients, we delve into the layers of loss, including both the primary loss of the person and secondary losses of the life they once shared. I recall working with a client mourning the recent loss of her husband, expressing the loneliness of attending events alone—a secondary loss of being part of a couple. Whether a loss occurred recently or decades ago, its impact can be equally acute, demanding tenderness and time for healing.
Death is a topic often avoided, evoking discomfort and fear. However, my experience in working with death and loss has allowed me to meet exceptionally resilient individuals. They have imparted valuable lessons on making life more meaningful, emphasizing the importance of relationships, and granting me permission to live my life authentically. My hope is that sharing these insights expands your perspective on loss. I believe when we offer ourselves and others the space to grieve, we open the door to greater meaning and profound connections in our lives.
Tamar Stein is a clinical chaplain and certified grief and bereavement counselor. She currently works in hospice and in private practice. She can be contacted by email at [email protected].