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Tangible vs. Intangible Loss

Updated: Nov 26, 2018

I talk with people about loss nearly every day and as such, I think that people are grieving loss continuously. That is, we are always grieving some amount of loss in the course of our daily lives. Most of the time we don’t really notice it and, if we did, we might not call it loss. Some examples might include missing a light while driving, forgetting to bring a grocery bag with you to the store, having something go bad in the refrigerator that you were looking forward to eating, or having bugs completely devour your basil plant (a recent personal experience).

To be sure, these examples may seem trivial and insignificant in and of themselves, but I argue that each one engenders some amount of loss. This loss might be sub-clinical, like a trickling brook. Background noise in our lives. But sometimes these brooks coalesce to become a stream or a river. And sometimes, if it rains enough in a short period of time, what was once a brook can become a raging torrent of water. It seems to me that it’s more likely that we acknowledge loss when the emotions are flowing more swiftly.

I’ve noticed that if we acknowledge loss in our lives at all, people most often pay attention to, what I call, the tangible aspects of loss – that is, somebody or something. And these are most certainly critical aspects of loss which must be attended to. But I think the intangible losses, associated with all loss, are more potent emotionally. I argues that intangible loss is as, or more critical for a person to identify and understand if they are to be able to work through their grief.

These intangible aspects make up the very fabric of ourselves, but they reside at the level of assumption most of the time, meaning that we don’t often think about these aspects of ourselves. These intangible aspects of ourselves include things such as identity, autonomy, freedom, hope, self-esteem, self-efficacy, future, connectedness, and perhaps the biggest one, CONTROL. Parenthetically, I believe that human-beings least favorite emotion is to feel out-of-control, and much of our behavior is intended to allow us to gain, regain or maintain a sense of control.

What’s important in the work that I do with people is, first to identify and understand both the tangible and the intangible aspects of loss a person is experiencing. Second, to work through the losses as they occur on multiple levels. And third, to assist a person to resolve, repair, and in some instances involving catastrophic loss, to rebuild their lives as they are reflected in these tangible and intangible aspects of their lives.

One critical note about the experience of grieving significant loss – it is not a continuous process. It has been my experience that grief is a decidedly discontinuous process. That the grieving process does not follow a linear set of stages, nor is it a smooth curve from incidence to resolution. Rather, grief is an irregular and often tumultuous process characterized by highs and lows occurring in short periods. Think about a wave pattern where the waves are close together.

I’ll speak more about this in a future blog but what is important to understand is that grief is a natural and essential process of healing from both tangible and intangible loss. And it is so important for people grieving loss to be gentle and kind with themselves and to seek support, preferably with those who can truly understand and can sit with the strong, and often uncomfortable emotions associated with significant loss for as long as needed. I happen to be one of those people – by personal and professional experience, and perhaps by constitution. If you would like to talk with me about loss in your life, I would love to speak with you. Remember, change begins with a conversation. Let’s start one today.

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