Loss as Apprenticeship

Loss as apprenticeship

 Dare we, as counselling psychologists supporting clients whose primary goal is to come to terms with loss in their lives, dare we tease out the opportunity this loss provides for practise in preparation for death – that ultimate letting go which is both our legacy and our birthright?

 Existential Psychologists such as Ernest Becker and Irvin Yalom believe that our primary repression is not sexual wishes -, as Freud believed – but our awareness that we are going to die.

“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it so we must shrink from being fully alive”

E.Becker (1973)

So, is there a way in which the successful grieving of our losses in life can lead us towards emotional fulfillment; can we reverse this ‘shrinking’ and embrace and expand into life?

Loss and grieving are terms most generally associated with bereavement – where the loss is of a loved one, a friend, lover, family member or close colleague. I want to examine these terms, however, in a more general way.  It is axiomatic that there is loss associated with any change in a person’s life; at the very least there is the loss of the way things were before the change occurred. Looking at change in a developmental context, it is clear that there are recognisable periods in every person’s life when a whole cluster of ‘predictable’ changes are taking place at the same time. The first psychologist to view the life cycle by stages was Else Frenkel-Brunswick. From extensive biographical research she concluded that every person passes through five sharply demarcated phases. The phases she described foreshadowed the eight stages – (3 for adults) of Erikson. It was Erik Erikson who began to make the concept of ‘life cycle’ clear in his first book ‘Childhood and Society’ (1950). He claimed that psychosocial development proceeds by critical steps. Each stage is marked by a crisis; a crucial point of increased vulnerability and heightened potential. What makes these steps critical is those moments of decision between progress and regression. At these points achievements are either won, or failures occur. The future is left to some degree better or worse but in any case, restructured. Erikson focussed very much on infancy to adolescence; using only a few paragraphs to describe the three adult stages which he called: intimacy, generativity and integrity. Levinson (1978) and Sheey (1976) further developed the stage model. Levinson’s research suggested that adults, too, develop by periodic stages, each period engaging them in specific tasks. Many changes can take place within each period but a person only moves from one period to the next as she begins to work on a new ‘set‘ of developmental tasks – within a new ‘structure‘ for life. And Levinson reckons that no such structure can last for more than 7-8 years. Thus does science ratify the folk-lore wisdom of the 7 year itch!  But, to quote Sheey (1976)

“The work of adult life is not easy as in childhood, Each step presents not only new tasks of development but requires a letting go of the techniques which worked before. With each Passage some magic must be given up, some cherished illusion of safety and comfortably familiar sense of self must be cast off, to allow for the greater expansion of our own distinctiveness”

I like Sheey’s use of the term ‘Passage’ rather than transition or crisis. It is richer, more metaphorical – I picture a narrow winding path between a mountain range which divides two broad open plains: the one left behind is familiar territory with definite landmarks; the passage long and torturous, dark at times and unfamiliar, high sided with no perspective or landmarks. The plain ahead is…. well, we’re not even certain of its existence!

So, in sharp contradistinction to the Freudian assertion that the shaping of the major elements of personality was a ‘fait accompli’ by the age of 5 – or at the most, that adults did not develop beyond the age of 20, we have here a series of selves; the smooth adoption of the next being facilitated by a readiness to let go of the last. But this is only mid-way along an axis of possible ways of viewing the tangibility and persistence of ‘self’ The 19’th century philosopher/historian Hegel insisted that:

“The real business of living, and of philosophy, is that middle corridor where the individual is in a constant state of transition, in process, in a pattern of self-transformation.”     (as quoted in Pathfinder- Sheey 1981)

This is close to the definition of ‘self as process’ in the contemporary Rational Emotive Therapy. (Ellis – 1987) And perhaps the most radical, and potentially most transformative position of all is the ‘no-position’ explained in the Abidhamma, the Buddhist Psychology, which argues that the illusion of  (and subsequent clinging to) the self is the fundamental cause of our human suffering. I have the greatest respect for this ‘no-position’ and will return to this perspective again; but given that I, too, am dazzled by the glamour of this illusion, I will bracket off the Buddhist perspective to state that it seems that my own illusion is in accord with the construct of a series of selves shed and taken on like the skin of a snake.

To return, now, to the pioneer, Erikson, to look at what he called the ‘crisis of the oral stage’ – during the second part of the first year – we can consider what appears to be the first major tangible loss the infant must experience: weaning.

“…. clinical work indicates that this point in the individual’s early history provides him with some sense of basic loss, leaving the general impression that once upon a time one’s unity with a maternal matrix was destroyed. Weaning, therefore, should not mean a sudden loss of the breast and loss of the mother’s reassuring presence too…(our clinical work suggests)…. A drastic loss of accustomed mother love without proper substitution at this time can lead to acute infantile depression or to a mild but chronic state of mourning which may give a depressive undertone to the whole of the rest of life.”

Here then we can imagine that a grieving process, natural to the infant in these circumstances, has been interrupted by the coincident withdrawal of the mother’s reassuring presence – the inability to properly grieve this loss has devastating and long term emotional consequences. Stanislav Grof goes even further back than this with his work on the effect of difficulties in utero and during the birth process. From his research he developed a theory around the concept of ‘Birth Perinatal Matrices’ – suggesting that difficulties with specific transitions/passages during birth correlate with a cluster of events/symptoms in child and adult life which indicate that problems with these very early traumatic passages leave the infant with propensities towards an emotionally arduous developmental path. Without us delving into the concept of past lives, (Woolger, 1990), the earliest loss available to the first glimmering of conscious awareness is the loss of and separation from the womb. Grieving to this depth is the province of Primal Integration (Janov, 1977) and it is doing work at the level of what Michael Balint (1968) called ‘the basic fault’

All losses – from the earliest through the myriad which follow have a precursor –  – attachment!

“Before one can fully comprehend the impact of a loss and the human behaviour associated with it, one must have some understanding of the meaning of attachment”

This is how William Worden begins chapter one of “Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy” He discusses the work of John Bowlby before moving on to outline his own formulation of the ‘Four Tasks of Mourning’ – (see below). Bowlby’s thesis, from data derived from ethology, control theory, cognitive psychology, neurophysiology and developmental biology, is that these attachments (to a few specific individuals) come from a need for security and safety. Forming attachments with others is considered normal behaviour for both infant and adult. Observing parallels with human behaviour in the animal world Bowlby suggests that there are good biological reasons for every separation to be responded to in an automatic, instinctive way with aggressive behaviour. He also suggests that in the course of evolution instinctual equipment developed around the likelihood that losses are retrievable – that irretrievable loss is not taken into account. This ‘biological theory of grief’ indicates what primitive biological processes are at work in humans. ‘However, there are features of grieving specific only to human beings’ says Worden, and outlines Four Tasks of Mourning:

1) To accept the reality of the loss,

2) To work through the pain of grief,

3) To adjust to an Environment in which the deceased is missing and

4) To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life.

I am interested in a more generalised case for these tasks of mourning where the word – ‘ the deceased’ can be used interchangeably with the phrase ‘previous self.’

David Loy (1992) presents another attachment theory and it concerns our attachment to our ‘sense of self.’ Applying a Buddhist psychological perspective to the existentialist position, he makes a subtle yet significant distinction between  ‘fear of death’ and ‘dread of the void’

“Our worst problem is not death – a fear which still keeps the feared thing at a distance by projecting it into the future – but the more immediate and terrifying (because quite valid) suspicion that each of us has that “I” am not real right now.” Loy (1992)

It is a sophisticated argument; hampered by the subject/object dualism embedded in our very language, which serves to reinforce the construct of ‘self’. As such it is beyond the scope of this essay but one more quote will be useful:

“The death-repression emphasised by existential psychology transforms the Oedipal complex into what Norman Brown (1961) calls an Oedipal project: the attempt to become father of oneself, i.e., one’s own origin. The child wants to conquer death by becoming the creator and sustainer of his/her own life. Buddhism agrees with this but shifts the emphasis: The Oedipal project is more the attempt of the developing sense-of-self to attain autonomy, Like Descartes’ supposedly self-sufficient consciousness, it is the quest to deny one’s groundlessness by becoming one’s own ground: the ground (socially conditioned and maintained but nonetheless illusory) we know as being an independent person”

Little wonder, then, that so much anxiety is associated with those ‘skin-shedding’ life-cycle transitions. The question underlying ‘Who am I?’ becomes an even more perturbing ‘Am I, at all?’ Also, if, as in the above quote, our  ‘ground  – an independent person’ is   ‘socially conditioned and maintained but nonetheless illusory’, then the loss of a significant other, a bereavement, a broken love relationship, will also present a challenge to the maintenance of the familiar ‘self’ illusion.

So how can ‘learning from our losses’ lead, with proper grieving, to emotional fulfillment? We’ve looked at loss from the point of view of attachment; the concept of grieving ‘tasks’ has been discussed, what about emotional fulfilment?   Gail Sheey  – from a three-year research project involving analysis of some 60.000 questionnaires – offers ten statements, which, she suggests, best characterise a person of high well-being:


1) My life has meaning and direction

2) I have experienced one or more important transitions in my adult years, and I have handled these transitions in an unusual, personal, or creative way.

3) I rarely feel cheated or disappointed by life

4) I have already attained several long-term goals, which are important to me.

5) I am pleased with my personal growth and development

6) I am in love; my partner and I love mutually.

7) I have many friends

8) I am a cheerful person

9) I am not thin-skinned or sensitive to criticism

10) I have no major fears


In her second book, ‘Pathfinders’- the sequel to  ‘Passages’, Sheey, (1981) sets out to identify the  ‘pathfinders’ – people who best weather their passages, or life transitions and reach optimal emotional fulfilment – wellbeing. In her research, as she began to get to know her subjects and assess them as likely/unlikely candidates for sustained well-being she developed three major criteria:


1) The person must have confronted a crossroads, chosen a path, and emerged from a completed passage with a renewed strength and expanded potential.

2) He or she will have done a minimum of human damage and not left behind a trail of injured family members, friends or colleagues.

3) The person should not be exclusively involved in ‘doing my own thing’ or solely in ‘caring for others’ but should be seeking a balance between individual growth and a purpose outside of him/herself.

These criteria, as well as the self-reports above, helped her to identify people who achieved the most fruitful of passages to emerge as ‘pathfinders’. Her extensive observations indicate that the process consists of four important phases:

The anticipation phase involves preparing to meet a transition; planning and shaping one’s future, collecting the skills and maintaining confidence and an open mind. The second stage is theseparation & incubation phase – separating from the restrictions of the former self, from the old rules and restrictions, which served us well throughout the last period of consolidation but are now restrictive.  Incubation refers to “…the untidy but exhilarating process of reassembling our identity” (Sheey, 1981)

The expansion phase involves taking charge from within the newly forged identity; bringing the new potentialities to bear on previously constricting situations. And the natural resolution of a fully realised passage, says Sheey, is incorporation – a resting time during which we can absorb what has changed and reintegrate it into our way of thinking about ourselves.

Sheey also distinguishes between the predictable crises of life – those which initiate a new stage in the life cycle – and another kind of transition which she calls a life accident. Here she calls upon the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1970) who, through her work with the terminally ill, has identified 5 different phases of the mourning process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Extending her concept of ‘pathfinder’ to people who are forged by a life accident, (rather than the predictable transition), into a pathfinder she says that success in this is dependent upon the mourning process being fully completed. Adapting Kubler-Ross she proposes three tasks: Making sound detachments: in the midst of acutely painful feelings, making determined efforts to separate from the lost person or situation with thoughts for the future. Intervention: Consciously changing our inner image of what we will be like after the accident. Plunging into constructive activity during recovery period. And Transcendence: Linking the end of the mourning process with a new beginning – a commitment to new work, love, idea, purpose etc. These tasks are similar to those proposed by Worden – particularly the latter; which is also resonant with the expansion phase of the life transition.

If we accept that a ‘pathfinder’ is one who has properly grieved (her former self or the loss sustained in a life accident), then how does this lead her to a readier acceptance of her own mortality? Therapy can help at every step of the way with coming to accept these transitional or accidental losses in life, but what of the ultimate loss – of life itself?  Speaking of the role of therapy, John Rowan, (1993) says

“…As we reject false self after false self in the search for the true self, we discover that there is no end to this process. When we realise that, there is nowhere for unhappiness or suffering to belong to or connect with…….the constant thing in unhappiness and distress is that it is ‘I’ who am unhappy, and all therapy is based on the premise that it is the ‘I’ which needs to change, to be worked on. But from our new point of view(i.e. transpersonal) we can now see this differently.”

Ken Wilber(1981) quotes Zen master Wu Wei:

Why are you unhappy?

Because 99.9 per cent

Of everything you think and do

Is for yourself – And there isn’t one. 

Sogyal Rinpoche (1992) offers this fragment of an enlightenment song from the historical Tibetan sage, Milarepa:

“In horror of death, I took to the mountains –

Again and again I meditated on the uncertainty of the hour of death,

Capturing the fortress of the deathless unending nature of mind.

Now all fear of death is over and done.”

Commenting on the above, Rinpoche says:

 “What a beautiful and healing mystery it is that from contemplating, continually and fearlessly, the truth of change and impermanence, we come slowly to find ourselves face to face, in gratitude and joy, with the truth of the changeless, with the truth of the deathless, unending nature of mind!”

Elsewhere he explains:

 “The still revolutionary insight of Buddhism is that life and death are in the mind, and nowhere else. Mind is revealed as the universal basis of experience”

All spiritual traditions have their own formulations and/or belief frameworks within which to attempt to ‘contain’ this final (earthly) Passage. Sheey notes a resurgence of interest in religious matters in the passages beyond middle age. Traditional Hindu societies recognise the age 50 as a watershed at which point a man gives up his life as a ‘householder’ and becomes a ‘sadhu’- a wanderer with few possessions devoting his time to religious observance and contemplation. To uses Sheey’s terminology, this is the preparation phase for the ultimate passage.

If, as Bowlby suggests, there are primitive instinctual processes underlying the emotional distress we experience when confronted with separation and loss, there is also the human propensity to learn to over-ride these mechanistic reactions. Daniel Goleman(1995), in ‘Emotional Intelligence’ quotes the neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux – who discovered the amygdala’s hair trigger role in emotional outbursts:

“What therapy does is teach you to control it – it teaches your neocortex how to inhibit your amygdala. The propensity to act is suppressed while your basic emotion about it  (a traumatic incident) remains in subdued form.”

And  life-experience, it appears can do the same. As we weather one crisis to the next, endure loss after loss, we can learn – it seems – to accept our inevitable impermanence. Sheey discovered that well-being is a phenomenon correlated  with age; yet the aged are acceleratingly confronted with the mortality of their peer group as  funeral invitations become more frequent than weddings or christenings. This ‘confrontation’ reminds me of the ‘charnel ground’ meditations (formal contemplation of dead and decaying bodies in a cemetery) prescribed by a young monk’s teacher in traditional Buddhist societies. Perhaps it is such forced familiarisation with death which enabled the equanimity shown in this traditional Zen teaching story:

A monk was in walking meditation when he became aware that a lion was stalking him. He broke into a run and was chased to the edge of a precipice. He just made it to a tree at the edge of the cliff and climbed out of reach. The lion began to climb so he edged further out on a limb, The branch broke and he fell to the ground. He slithered, grabbing at the edge of the precipice but the ground crumbled. He snatched at a root as he fell and clung, swinging over the dizzying drop. A mouse appeared from a hole in the cliff face and began to gnaw at the root. He saw a wild strawberry and reached out, plucked and ate it. Uhm, it tasted good!

The story leaves us all hanging on in suspense, but the monk was able to let go of his catalogue of life accidents/transitions sufficiently to find fulfillment in that very moment. That’s all we all need to do.  Can we weave this insight into our relationship with the grieving client?



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