• Thanatology Today

5 Key Factors That Influence Our Adjustment to Loss

Updated: Mar 4

What Makes a Difference in Grief and Bereavement?


We cannot live life without encountering death, loss, and grief. These phenomena are universal, but our individual experiences are unique. While grief is a normal, healthy, and appropriate reaction to loss, mourning is the essential process by which we cope with loss and grief. Several factors influence the way in which we mourn and adjust to loss.


1. Relationship to the Lost Person


Depending upon the nature and quality of our attachment, we may grieve for the person who is gone and for ourselves for having been left behind. Sometimes, we don’t fully appreciate the importance of a relationship until it has ended. Nearly all relationships are multi-dimensional, often requiring us to mourn each aspect of the lost connection in addition to any secondary losses that the absence brings. Typically, to the extent to which we are able to maintain a healthy, ongoing, and dynamic connection to the person who is gone, we can learn to live with the physical loss.


Whereas we sorely miss the many characteristics that made the person special, we also keenly feel the loss of the significant role the person filled within our family or in our lives. The death of one’s child is generally perceived as the cruelest of losses to bear, followed by the death of a spouse or partner, then parent, sibling, and friend. This, of course, is determined by the level of attachment and various other factors. For ambivalent, dysfunctional, abusive, or otherwise problematic relationships, mourning may be especially difficult and recovery slower because of possible unfinished business or unresolved issues.


elderly couple embracing on a bench
“Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.” ~ Robert Woodruff Anderson Source: Wix Media

2. Circumstances Surrounding the Loss


The way we mourn and adjust to loss are also affected by several factors surrounding the loss itself, including:


Timeliness

Sudden, Unexpected Loss

Multiple Losses

Ambiguous Losses

Tragic, Traumatic Losses


Our mourning is commonly influenced by our perception of the timeliness of a loss. For example, we may feel differently about losing our 96-year-old grandmother who had lived a full, meaningful life compared to losing our 37-year-old brother, newly married and expecting his first child.


A sudden, unexpected loss is usually more harrowing to grieve than one that is expected and can be prepared for. Even so, death and loss can be a shock whenever it happens.


Experiencing multiple losses simultaneously or in rapid succession can make it very difficult to adequately process our grief and mourn effectively for one loss before another one occurs. This can lead to bereavement overload.


An ambiguous loss refers to one of two kinds of loss. The first type of ambiguous loss occurs when our loved one is physically missing but may not have died. This person is still very much a presence in our mind and hearts. War soldiers missing in action, victims of kidnapping, and those otherwise missing due to genocide, acts of terrorism, and natural disasters. More common examples of such ambiguous losses include adoption, estrangement, and immigration.


The second type of ambiguous loss occurs when our loved one is physically present, but cognitively impaired or absent as in the case of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, traumatic brain injury, addictions, and other mental illnesses. These psychological losses can also include those ones that never make sense as in the case of some suicides or infant deaths. Ambiguous losses can be among the most painful and punishing.


Tragic, traumatic losses present the mourner with agonizing challenges. These losses are almost always untimely and unexpected, and they can be multiple and/or ambiguous losses. Often, the experience of grief is exceptionally pronounced with tragic, traumatic losses, as we may be racked with guilt if, for example, a loved one completes suicide. Similarly, we may be overwhelmed with shock, fear, and anger if we lose someone to homicide. Particularly if we believe that we played a role in bringing about the death of another or were unable to prevent it, our grief may become complicated.


Robert, the owner of a big construction company, pillar of the community, and devoted family man also believed himself to be the reason his happy life was gone in an instant. It wasn’t until after he parked the dump truck, that he saw her…his wife! He had fatally struck her. He was haunted by the gruesome image of her just laying there – flattened, as he described, and her head resembling a deflated basketball. He sought counseling primarily to cope with the relentless guilt he felt for being responsible for such a horrific accident.


3. Characteristics of the Bereaved


Our individual circumstances and personal characteristics can dramatically shape the way we deal with and adapt to loss.


Age and Experience

Gender Role

Health

Beliefs and Values

Personality Variables

Cognitive Style

Ego Strength

Coping style

Attachment Style


Age and Experience with loss are important factors in determining our ability to effectively mourn and adapt to loss. Whereas children and adolescents are usually unprepared to deal with death, the elderly may either be socialized to it or be experiencing bereavement overload. Our past experiences with loss and death also greatly predict our ability to cope as does our level of maturity and cognitive and emotional intelligence.


Historically and culturally, boys and girls have been socialized differently. This gender role socialization may have an influence, but it is our style of grief that better determines the way we approach the mourning process.


It is no surprise that when we exercise self-care and nurture our physical and mental health, we are better equipped to handle loss. This means getting an adequate amount of sleep, proper nutrition, and exercise. It is also best to avoid alcohol and sedatives.


We each have our own beliefs and values. We have assumptions about the benevolence and the meaning of the world. To varying degrees, our losses can challenge our assumptive world, creating within us a spiritual crisis and leading us to seriously question what is good and what is true. The challenge becomes how to incorporate our loss into our world view.


Knowing our temperament and personality structure is crucial to understanding how we respond to and accommodate for our losses.


snowy mountain landscape
“Grief may add meaning and perspective to one’s life just as shadows give depth to a landscape.” ~ Torill Christine Lindstrøm Source: Wix Media

Resiliency is a variable of our temperament. Those individuals with a high degree of resiliency are capable of bouncing back from adversity more easily than those with a lower degree of resiliency. Similarly, our level of adaptability to change is an important determinant in how we adjust to loss.


We each have our own cognitive style. Some of us are optimists, others are realists, and others still are pessimists. Positive thinking is associated with lower levels of the anxiety and depression that can result from traumatic grief. If our cognitive style involves excessive rumination with weakened problem-solving ability, we may prolong our experience with negative emotions and slip into depression.


Some losses challenge our ego strength or self-esteem and self-efficacy making our adjustment to loss more complex. This is especially true if our self-worth is dependent upon the person we have lost or if the loss itself threatens our sense of self, making us feel powerless.


Coping styles differ from person to person. These are problem-solving measures we use to bring about relief and resolution to what ails us. Active emotional coping is the most effective strategy for handling problems and managing stress. It involves reframing and finding something positive in confounding situations. Laughter, venting positive and negative emotions, and accepting social support are examples of the active emotional approach to coping.


Another good predictor of how we confront our losses and progress through mourning is our attachment style. Our inclination as human beings is to form strong, loving bonds with others. It is natural for us to have an equally strong emotional reaction if these bonds are threatened or broken.


People develop secure attachment styles through good parenting and other healthy relationships early in life. Those with this attachment style have a positive self-image and feel worthy of support and affection. After the loss of a loved one, they feel the acute pain of sorrow but can process this pain and move on to develop healthy continuing bonds with the lost loved one.


Troubled childhood experiences and relationships can lead one to develop an insecure attachment style. Less healthy attachments, when broken, can bring about prolonged, complicated grief and depression marked by high levels of distress, anger, guilt, excessive rumination, feelings of helplessness and an inability to manage the stress, social withdrawal, and avoidant behavior.


support group
There is no shame in asking for support. Source: Wix Media

4. Social Recognition of the Loss


When the significance of our loss is not socially recognized or acknowledged by those closest to us, our grief is disenfranchised. We may be forced to suffer in silence, and our mourning can become complicated. Among other examples, disenfranchised grief may result from losses involving an affair partner, miscarriage or abortion, and in some cases, suicide.


5. Support System


Having a strong support system, even if small, facilitates our mourning and adjustment to loss. Our social, cultural, ethnic, and religious or philosophical background generally provides the foundation for our support system. It can also be centered around our educational, occupational, and recreational environment. Sharing stories and memories, participating in rituals, or just being with others who can relate to our losses, helps us move through our grief towards a place of greater accommodation.


Certain inescapable factors – our relationship with the lost person, the circumstances surrounding the loss, our personal characteristics, whether our loss is socially acknowledged, and the strength of our support system – together with their many sub-factors, impact our mourning in intricate ways that are as unique as we are.



Boss, P. (2018). Loss, trauma, and resilience: Therapeutic work with ambiguous loss. W.W. Norton & Company.


Corr, C.A., Corr, D.M., & Doka, K.J. (2018). Death & dying, life & living (8th ed.). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.


Worden, J.W. (2018). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (5th ed.). Springer Publishing Company.

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