One of the main reasons people come for therapy is when someone or something significant has been lost and we feel all kinds of being at sea. It can be hard to recognise ourselves or the world around us when there are big holes and tears in our lives. We can feel legless, wobbly, grief-stricken, angry and confused when the map we had for our lives is taken away. We may begin to wonder who we actually are. This is a well-recognised phenomenon in bereavement and there are all sorts of cultural, religious and medical practices to guide us when someone has died.

It is, however, a much more opaque thing when there hasn’t been a death per se but when something we thought we would have is taken away from us. This is the death of an imagined reality and an imagined self and needs to be taken very seriously. This could be anything from a breakdown of a relationship we thought might last for our whole lives, to the news that our bodies have somehow let us down with an illness or disability, or perhaps we have been made redundant. It might simply be the devastation of the discovery of our ordinariness say, for example, when we enter the working world for the first time and we’re just another employee and not the stellar student destined for greatness. It might be something completely different.

headless man map

These psychological injuries are often discredited by the sufferer who is flummoxed as to why they are so devastated. People often feel that their grief is somehow illegitimate and needs to be disappeared. It’s not like someone has died, they might say. Well actually, something has.

From when we are children, we broker an imaginary contract with life, of which we might be totally unaware. Usually, the contract promises good health and a certain progression to the order of things. Maybe that we will have a home with two attentive, loving parents, or that we will one day finish school and go to university, be gifted with excellent health, fertility, a partner by a certain age, a certain sexuality, a good career, a long life. Who knows. The clauses only become apparent when one of them hits a roadblock and reality won’t budge.

We might meet this with incredulity. How can I not have this thing, or be this person? Or anger: how dare I not have this thing? Or despair: how can I survive without this thing? Maybe it’s a mixture of these. What is for sure though is that these symbolic losses are profound and require attention. They matter. The prevailing culture does not really afford us much space to mourn these things. It has very rigid ideas about what is legitimate loss and how to bury it and even more rigid ideas about appearing to manage well.

I think these ideas are particularly unhelpful for they work to discredit our experiences. In the kind of predicament this fosters, we bear the cost of self-criticism and of having to try and abracadabra our feelings away. This never works for any great length of time. The one thing that is known about loss is that the only way out is through, and that grieving plays an essential role in this process. There seems to be a kind of mass panic in the culture about strong feelings – as if they might somehow cause us and others to disintegrate. We have become unhelpfully wedded to ideas of having to be happy, productive and balanced all the time. This is not only totally impossible but also a constraint to being alive.

I think we need to make clearings for grief. We need to make spaces in life for times when we’re mourning imagined futures. Mourning is the psyche’s way of putting something to rest and clearing space for something new. Nobody has ever died from strong feelings. Rather the expression of feeling and the being in what is allow these feelings and states of mind to move. Therapy can help in this regard, for it is a space in which many of the rules of the outside world are questioned or paused. It is a space in which we can feel, and can think about what we are feeling. It is also a space where we might deconstruct some of the more oppressive ideas that we hold about what a ‘good’ life involves.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t really need all the things we thought we did to be ok. They have become tied up with the only kind of life we can imagine. The falling away of these ideas is also an opportunity to rebuild the system: to keep some things and chuck others out. For example, the young person who has always lived up to others’ expectations may also experience a sort of relief in the aftermath of flunking an exam. Phew. The bonds of expectation also flunk out and perhaps that person might be able to experiment more with what they actually do and don’t care about.

This opportunity is not always immediately apparent: usually only once we have exhausted ourselves trying to change reality, or when we’re bored with the Groundhog Day of helpless rumination. Mourning allows us to get to this point and ultimately to accept reality, redraw the contract and perhaps to free ourselves from some of the ironclad clauses and mandates that we have unknowingly clung to. We might even give ourselves permission to consider what it is that we actually enjoy.