Grief: The Elephant in the Room

By: Beth Hutchason, ARNP

Can we take a moment to talk about something difficult? If you would rather not, that is fine too. From my experience, many people have been unable to talk about emotionally-charged subjects such as grief. I would like to give those people the space to do so here.

Any major holidays are naturally stressful for people who are grieving. However, in my clinical work, I found that facing the year ahead — at any point on the calendar – can be daunting. It just feels like too great a hurdle to overcome.

There are at least 16 different types of grief. When the topic of grief comes up, normal or common grief is what first comes to mind. These are the normal feelings we experience when we lose someone or something important. This includes a wide range of physical, emotional, behavioral and social reactions that wax and wane. The process and the pathway through grief are different for each individual.

Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic is creating an overlay of collective grief. We are experiencing losses in our community on many levels, and the restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus intensify our distress. Gatherings are limited. Funerals are put on hold. Families are unable to travel to be together. Jobs have been lost and businesses closed. Careers have been sidetracked. Lives have been forever altered. There is much to grieve here, and we have not even assessed the size of this iceberg.

One less-recognized type of grief is anticipatory grief. This refers to feelings of loss before the loss actually occurs. I saw this every day when I was working with patients approaching the ends of their lives. When someone receives any serious diagnosis, there is grief because there is loss — the future they had planned, their role in society and their family, finances and what they envisioned their life to look like. Many years ago, a coworker’s husband was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer. She described the deep pain of having her husband physically appear completely normal, but his personality — the man she married — was already gone. The other side of this grief is that it starts preparing you. It also provides you with the opportunity to say the things that need to be said, forgive and express your deepest feelings. This allows healing to start.

So, what do we do to manage these feelings of loss? Start by thinking about how difficult times have been managed in the past. 

Each of us has survived varying levels of difficulty in our past, and we are still standing to tell about it. What action did we take to move through that difficulty — not a destructive action, but a positive step forward? This can help charter a path to move through this grief: one step, then just one more and then another. 

This is how we move through the process of grieving a loss or losses. It is not a straight path; it may actually be circular at times, and we may take some side paths now and again. Denial, anger, guilt, sadness and acceptance are along this path, in no particular order and repeatedly.

Many great resources are available, so do not hesitate to reach out for help. The Alzheimer’s Association is a wonderful, trustworthy resource for information. This webpage is an excellent place to start: Grief and Loss as Alzheimer’s Progresses. Talk to your friends and family. Talk to a counselor. Join a support group. Meet with a spiritual leader. Take a walk; now take another one. Be gentle with yourself.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of those depths.”  – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Beth has been a registered nurse for 33 years and a nurse practitioner for 25 of those years. She has spent the past 14 years doing palliative care, a branch of medicine focused on improvement in quality of life and relief of suffering. During these years, she has had the opportunity to interact with many hundreds of patients with dementia and their families. They have taught her a great deal, which she hopes to share. She lives with her husband David, rescue dog Katya, and about 60,000 largely unnamed bees in Poulsbo, WA.

Caring for someone with memory loss, Alzheimer’s or dementia? Do you need information and support? The Alzheimer’s Association hosts free caregiver support groups across the Pacific Northwest. We also offer a bereavement group for people who have lost a loved one to dementia. Learn more about our support groups here.

Alzheimer’s Association. Grief and Loss as Alzheimer’s Progresses. Alzheimer’s Association. Accessed February 3, 2022.

Kelly L. 16 Types of Grief People Experience. Talkspace. Updated September 23, 2021. Accessed January 10, 2022.

WPSU Penn State. Speaking Grief: Types of Grief. Penn State University. Accessed February 3, 2022.

Leave a Reply