What is Thanatology?

Karen Omand, BASoc, BAThan, Copyright 2020

My Own Experience With Grief

Many years ago, my mother died suddenly, traumatically, and I was thrown into a world of grief. I had no idea what was going on in my mind or in my body. The pain I felt was overwhelming, and I felt terribly alone. No one could help me understand what I was feeling, thinking and how I was behaving (which was not always rational to be frank).

Even though I was married with two small children, I had no one who could validate my pain and let me experience and release the devastation I was feeling. After months, I was still feeling numb and beside myself. My attachment to my mother was very strong. Our close relationship was one you see from time to time on the streets: mother and daughter shopping, eating out and supporting each other with ease. The loss was huge, and I knew I needed something or someone to help me cope. Although I searched high and low, there was nobody that specialized in grief.

When Seeing A Psychologist Doesn’t Help

I knew I needed to talk to someone, but there were limited resources out there. I finally made an appointment to see a psychologist. The session was not about the pain of losing my mother but of my life story, and we barely touched on my mother’s death. I was left thinking to myself, “I just want to talk about my mom and how much pain I am in”. It was a very confusing time.

This path of pain brought me to consider a career as a grief counsellor, a direction that would never have entered my mind in my youth. The losses I have experienced, both death and non-death, have been numerous, and I have found there is not a lot of support out there, specifically for grief. If all my emotional problems were laid out on a table probably half of these would be losses but most counsellors would not see or address them as I do. Today if one looks for someone who advertises themselves as a grief counsellor, one might end up talking to a psychologist or a social worker; both could have limited education in grief and loss. The Psychologist’s approach to the grief and loss would be with the tools of psychology and could therefore see it as a condition rather than as a loss. While the social worker, who may have studied grief in one or two short courses will only have a very basic and often simplistic toolset to address grief and loss. As an example, the Psychologist I saw after my Mom’s death was quick to bring up closure and from what I have heard from others this is still quite common today. Rarely can one find a specialist in grief and loss, someone whose education has centred specifically on grief and loss.

How Thanatology is Different

As a degreed Thanatologist, the entirety of  my studies have been bereavement, losses and death. The field of grief is quite new and has quickly evolved over the past twenty years. Thanatologists do not try to fix or take away the pain that is associated with death or non-death losses. Grief is a natural emotion we feel when we are confronted with a loss of someone or something that we have a strong attachment to. We bear witness to the pain with true empathy, building a safe and trusting relationship, validating, educating and helping the person learn to integrate their grief into their lives and to find meaning again. These are the goals and methods of the Thanatologist. This approach is not a quick fix; it is individual, and it depends on each person and what the client needs. It is society’s and our own expectations that the grief should subside quickly. In reality, it can take much more time than some realize, and that is where a grief counsellor can help. Many people can be tired of hearing about your losses and you may have become ‘stuck’ in your grief or you may need to find a safe place to explore your grief with unconditional support. It’s also possible that you may have not been able to express the true depth or your pain to others and this is where a Thanatologist can help.

My mother’s death taught me that there is a need for someone who specializes in grief and losses. The losses associated with her death were numerous and I needed more than what was available at the time.

How a loss impacts us is an individual question—there is no standard approach of how we treat our clients as everyone’s grief is unique. When, after a loss, we do not know how to carry on, it can be very important to talk to someone, and it is best if that person is knowledgeable in the subtle ways of grief.

Grief During A Pandemic: Understanding Non-Death Losses

Karen Omand, BASoc, BAThan, Copyright 2020

In my last semester at the University of Western I was being taught by Dr. Harris, a pioneer and educator in the Thanatology field of non-death losses. Little did I know how truly relevant this course would become when Covid took over our lives. This world had become something that we had never experienced before. Thanatologists and grief specialists could foresee this grief tsunami of non-death losses was on it’s way and that these losses were going to be felt by everyone. We also knew that this pandemic would remind us that we are all mere mortals.

Normally, society deems grief as connected with the death of a loved one and there is no denying that. However, non-death losses, such as: losing a job, infertility, a relationship break up, failing at school, chronic illness, financial trouble...can be devastating and extremely difficult to deal with in one’s life. These losses were not thought of as truly needing to be grieved like a death, as they are often disenfranchised by society characterizing non-death losses as being more subjective. Some people may think it’s ok to grieve a job loss, while others may say there’s lots of jobs out there; just get another one. This ‘easy fix’ solution is often inferred regarding many non-death losses. 

As 2020 unfolded, the pandemic grew closer and we were all shocked and in disbelief. We experienced sudden losses to a varying degree including: loss of our freedom, disruption of our comfortable routines, loss of certainty in our lives, the feelings of deep isolation, job insecurity, health care uncertainty, the stresses of schooling and working from home, the feeling of loneliness experienced especially by singles and seniors, conflicts in relationships caused by different ideologies and being with the same people 24/7, loss of social gatherings and traditions... and the very common loss of not being able to connect physically with others. The list is long and our world has changed for all of us.

Covid is invisible; this virus lingers around us causing some of us great anxiety and fear. We cannot see the virus but we know it can be anywhere. This has shaken our assumptive world; simply put, our world is no longer as predictable as it once was. We feel that we have lost control over our lives. We felt safe and secure but now some of us don’t. However, the question remains, how much control did we ever have when a tiny, microscopic virus can virtually take over the entire planet. This has shattered our assumptive world and for many of us it could take years to feel safe and secure again. This pandemic has forced us to view our finances, our relationships and our health a little less securely and this has had a profound effect on how we view our world.

How do we heal and cope with these losses? Firstly, we need to acknowledge that these events are losses and then we can begin to address them for what they are. When you are feeling sadness, heaviness or anger during this pandemic you could be experiencing the grief of a non-death loss. It is important to recognize these feelings and validate them. For starters, reduce your media exposure, try to create some structured routine in your daily life, exercise, eat a nutritious diet, walk and forest bathe (see C’est La Vie blog), and maintain social connections. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed and have recently experienced a non-death loss, this may be the time to seek some professional help, support and some selfcare. 

At C’est La Vie Wellness our team is available to help you through this grief in many ways. Visit the services section in the C’est La Vie website to see the many ways that our staff can help you heal.

Harris.D.(2020). ADEC in conversation: Covid-19 and non death losses. https://www.adec.org/page/ADECconvo7

Harris,D,L. (2020) Non-Death Loss and Grief. Routledge https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429446054

Symptoms of Grief 

Karen Omand, BASoc, BAThan, Copyright 2020 

Grieving a death loss is a natural and unconscious response. There are many symptoms that can be felt by someone who is experiencing acute grief. I have heard many talk about these various symptoms but they do not really understand the full spectrum of what grieving really entails. Here are some things to keep in mind when you or others are grieving. 

Emotionally, our emotions can feel like we are on a rollercoaster ride; some are so painful it can be hard to bear. We yearn for the deceased and you can feel very numb; this yearning and numbness is natural. This is called detachment distress and you can feel very frustrated and not in control. Most will feel numb and this is a natural way of protecting you from the reality of death. Eventually over the weeks and months (sometimes up to 4-6 months) the reality sets in and this can lead to a depressed and isolating state. Another emotion that is commonly felt is guilt, which is an universal feeling after a death and a painful companion in our grieving. There are also the feelings of anger, anxiety, irritability, sadness, loneliness, disbelief, apathy (not feeling anything), emptiness, fear, helplessness, and loneliness. Relief or shame is often felt if the death was connected to certain circumstances such as death by suicide, a long term illness, years of caregiving or a drug overdose. 

Cognitively, the way we think, remember and reason is also affected. Many grievers have asked, “Am I going crazy?” The answer is no; it is perfectly normal to be affected cognitively while grieving. Many grievers often forget appointments or where they are going when driving their car. They can also feel zoned out, foggy, distracted and can have hallucinations of their deceased one. This is also normal during the acute grief phase which is experienced in the beginning of the grieving process. Interesting to note, that in the Japanese culture, hallucinations are looked upon as a normal part of bereavement. In that culture, if a bereaved person is hallucinating about their loved one, they do not question his or her sanity where other cultures may. Hallucinations are not often talked about but they can be prevalent among grievers. Similarly, grievers can have a visitation dream where their deceased loved one visits them in a dream that seems so real. This can be quite normal, highly meaningful, and ultimately helpful and the healing process of the griever.

Our biology is definitely affected. Losing a loved one can affect your physical health which is why when someone close to you dies, you are more susceptible to getting sick yourself. When grieving, cortisol, our stress hormone is released. Since grief is long lasting, our body continuously pumps out this stress hormone for a long time; our immune system is affected, we get worn down and cannot fight things off as well. 

We are attached to our loved one physiologically and as a result our grief can affect the following: the quality of our sleep, our immune system can be worn down, our heart rate can change and we could feel tightness in our chest or shortness of breath, some of us eat too much and some do not eat much at all, we can have digestive issues, our stomach can feel tied up in knots and we can feel nauseated or experience diarrhea, you can feel pain in your body such as head, body aches, and joints.

Spiritually we can question everything about what we value i.e. our belief systems, our sense of self and our sense of meaning in the world. Our own faith and beliefs can be tested and we can question our religion and ask many questions. Some people turn to their faith and it becomes stronger, while others can turn against it for a while or for a long time. There are others who leave their faith and turn to other faiths or never go back to a traditional belief system.  

Socially, our identity changes, family roles and dynamics can change and shift, friendships can change as many widows and divorced people can feel very alone when they are among their friends who are still coupled up. We can also lose interest in day-to-day chatter and the little problems of life when we are grieving, so socially we may turn inward. Also remember that the person who died could be the one person who you relied on for much of your support. 

Understanding the symptoms that arise when you are in acute grief helps you better discern that what you are going through is normal. There is no correct way to grieve, no map, and no directions that will help you navigate through this pain. Everyone is different and unique in how they cope with the death of a loved one. I also want to mention that these symptoms can also be associated with a major non-death loss in your life such as divorce, partner breakup, job loss, infertility, loss of a major friendship, family drama, a chronic illness to name a few. 

Having support is essential when you are grieving whether the loss is from a death or non-death loss. If you are feeling alone in your grief and you feel isolated and are not able to talk openly about your grief, you may need extra help from a counselor. If you need someone to listen to you, companion you in a safe, secure, non-judgemental manner in a caring environment with full support and guidance then visit C’est la Vie Wellness. We have an excellent team that can help and support you in a variety of ways and remember support is essential when you are grieving from any form of loss.