Episode 56: Grief and the Family

In this episode of The Family Couch, we talk with Dr. Ajita Robinson about grief and how to support families while they’re going through the grief process.

We first discuss what the term “symbolic loss” means.  Robinson uses changing jobs as an example of symbolic loss, where you’re going from the known to unknown.  We can also grieve the loss of a relationship that never happened. Someone may grieve the loss of a relationship with a parent that they never had.  A big one seen in Robinson’s practice is divorce. It’s the loss of a relationship or an ideal we held for ourselves. Robinson explains that people are often feeling like something is “off” but they can’t quite figure out what it is.  Part of the process for a grief therapist is educating the client about symbolic loss and making them aware of it. This process is difficult because people may feel a sense of shame or guilt for feeling the way they do about a symbolic loss.  There is no real space for people to acknowledge these feelings, like a support group. The guilt and shame disrupts the grieving process.

We change gears and talk about symbolic loss with children.  Robinson explains that often times we miss that kids are grieving as it doesn’t always look like adult grief.  Kids may ask a question about the thing or person they lost and then go back and play. As adults, we may mistake that as them being fine, but kids handle things in spurts and play is their language.  We view things from our perspective as adults but with kids it is about connection. If they lose something that has a special meaning to them, it can feel like a loss of safety. It is very important to remember to validate what the child may be feeling, whether we agree with what is triggering their response or not.

We discuss how Robinson helps parents deal with their grief when they still have to go back to work and take care of their children.   She advises to invite children on the journey and reminds us that it is an opportunity to be authentic and show children that it is okay to be upset.  You can say, “I miss grandpa, too.” This is a good time to spend time together as a family and maybe do an activity that reminds you of that which you lost.  We often don’t do this for ourselves because we feel like we don’t have time, many times because of the kids, but we can bring them on the journey. Robinson explains that when she asks adults about their method of dealing with loss, they often don’t know how to do it.  This is often a result of being conditioned to hide it and deal with it alone.

Robinson discusses that the language to discuss grief-related issues just isn’t there.  She gives an example of an employer that had an employee-related loss who called her and didn’t know how to tell the rest of the team.  There is power in using narrative therapy and telling a story during the grieving process. There are also symbolic ways to honor someone, like setting a plate for the person at the holiday table or leaving an empty chair at a wedding.  This is a way to celebrate and still acknowledge someone who is no longer there. Robinson provides that families almost never talk about these things before the grieving process begins but this would be ideal. People may feel guilty about talking about what would happen when grandma dies while she is actually still alive.  This can feel disrespectful or like you’re speaking it into existence, but it would be a good time to do it with a clear head.

We next discuss the way that Robinson helps others walk through their grief.  She says that we need to talk about tasks. She mentions William Worden’s tasks and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief and that the process of going through grief is not linear but more cyclical.  Robinson helps her clients to find meaning post loss and to be present in the now and focus on the future. She wants clients to understand that they may cycle through the grief stages more than one time.  You may find yourself ten years post-loss where you hit another milestone in your life and the person is not there to experience it with you. This may re-trigger the grief process, but there is not guilt or shame in that.

People often say, “It just takes time,” which can cause people to wait awhile before getting any kind of help or therapy. Robinson provides that people come back and struggle after a year wondering why they aren’t better. They haven’t done the work toward grieving or have been too busy to grieve.  Our society focuses on getting back to work and business, giving limited time off to grieve. Grief is a journey and does not have a finite end. We often just want it to get better, and Robinson says that it will when we are able to find meaning in the loss.  The “meaning” and the “why” are different. Meaning is about keeping the connection and honoring the person in our life without their physical being. The “why” and the “how” are not always known and this can complicate the grief journey, but these are not necessary to grieve.  People often think that if they are moving through grief too quickly they are somehow dishonoring the person that is gone. Sometimes the way a person’s family may grieve doesn’t work for them, and they need to give themselves permission to grieve a different way.

We next talk about how to develop a language around grief.  Robinson recommends asking yourself questions about what you believe happens when someone dies or what it means for you personally if you lose a relationship.  Clarifying your beliefs about the process helps develop the language. When talking with children, you have to determine what is age and developmentally appropriate.  Parents need to know that they will not harm their children further by having the conversation. When talking to kids, you may be afraid that they’ll have follow-up questions to which you do not have the answers; however, it is okay not to know.  Many people just won’t have the conversation because of the fear of how it will go.

Robinson feels that the language is the easiest part because we know what we would want to know based on previous loss experiences.  We just don’t know how to say it. The language is really about practice and articulating the beliefs. We may have uncertainty about what we’re saying or what people will think about what we say.  People may feel like they’ll let other people down or lose support if they tell others they really aren’t okay. If we can get to a place where we feel safe enough to be authentic in our grief, the language is there.  People know what they’re feeling and experiencing but not always how to communicate it to others.

With symbolic grief, Robinson mentions that one of the big things she sees is people who are graduating after being in school for a long time and losing their identity as a student.  Individuals will come in telling the story of how they’re feeling, and Robinson’s job is helping them name it. The language is in their story but they just don’t quite know what it is.  This is part of why Robinson made a group of African-American females with doctorate degrees because it is a unique group. Symbolic loss requires that we create community, and groups are an excellent way to do this.

We finally discuss the loss of identity that occurs with different life changes.  Robinson says that she always tells her clients, “You can’t hear what you won’t name.”  It starts with acknowledging that you are experiencing a loss. This comes up a lot with parents because we are often juxtaposed with people who cannot have children.  Infertility does not invalidate the loss that people who are parents feel when becoming a parent where they lose their individual identity. Many people ask for, embrace, and enjoy being parents but there is still a sense of loss around the life and freedom you had before.  Part of the process is just acknowledging this, but our society often does not give space for that. Robinson shares that she experienced this with her youngest son. She had six months of maternity leave from the university but felt guilty because she was ready to go back to work. She came back to her private practice because it is such a part of her identity that she did not want to give up.  Part of this grieving process is acknowledging that it is a loss and that it is a natural and normal thing to grieve. It is also important for parents to reclaim their individuality while they also have their parenthood. This is honoring who we are as a whole being.



Dr. Ajita Robinson is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Bethesda, MD.  She owns a group mental health practice that specializes in grief, loss, trauma and transition.



WEBSITE: http://ajitarobinson.com/

FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/drajita/

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