The significance of loss in people’s lives

When we use terms like loss or grief, most people think of death and bereavement, and understandably so. This is because the loss through death of someone who is very important to us can have a devastating effect on our lives. However, what we also need to recognise is that loss and grief are much broader issues than death and dying. In fact, it can be argued that loss and grief are everyday matters to us in the sense that we are regularly experiencing some sort of loss in our lives. Grief is our psychological response to any significant loss. If someone or something is important to us, then it can be said that we make an ’emotional investment’ in that person or thing. Therefore, when we experience a loss, we also lose our investment – we have a psychological equivalent of a Wall Street crash, often with very profound results. Therefore, the loss of anyone or anything that is important to us can lead to a grief reaction. This can be felt:

• physically – for example, in terms of loss of appetite, stomach ache, headache and so on;

• emotionally – as feelings of sadness and/or anger;

• mentally – resulting in poor concentration and memory lapses; and

• behaviourally – leading us to behave in ways that are out of character (parallel with what happens when we are under stress – in fact, grief can be seen as a form of stress).

It is important to recognise that grief does not work in standard ways for everybody. It is a psychological matter and therefore varies with the individual. For example, if you are not an animal lover, then you may find it hard to accept that somebody is quite badly affected by the death of a pet but, for the person who has put a significant emotional investment into the animal concerned, its death can be a very significant blow, leading to very real feelings of grief. We should be careful not to belittle other people’s feelings as this can be seen as the equivalent of kicking somebody when they are down. It can also be dangerous – for example, if we underestimate how significant a loss is to a particular individual, then we may not realise how much an effect that loss has had on their ability to perform their duties. We may assume that someone is coping at their normal levels when in reality they are far below that level, possibly at a dangerous level. If we are not aware of the importance and, indeed, prevalence of loss and grief in the workplace, then there is a danger that: a) we will miss significant issues; and b) we will misattribute such problems to other causes. For example, we may assume that someone is underperforming because they lack commitment when, in fact, it is as a result of grieving that they are temporarily not able to achieve their usual standards of work. Also, grief issues which are not recognised and dealt with can get worse over time, leading to a situation known as ‘cumulative grief’. That is, the negative effects of one loss can be added to the negative effects of further losses over time, resulting in much stronger negative impact on the individual and his or her contribution to the workplace. Grief can also be a collective experience. For example, it is often not appreciated that a reorganisation or other major change in a workplace may lead to large numbers of people feeling that they have lost things that are important to them and, while those losses go unacknowledged and are not dealt with, their impact can steadily grow and have a very insidious effect. This can have a very detrimental effect on the organisational culture and can undermine teamwork. It is easy to make the mistake of falling into the trap of assuming that loss and grief are issues that arise only very occasionally in people’s lives. If we are not sensitive to the fact that they play a much more important and much more common role in people’s lives, then we are likely to be working on the basis of a dangerously oversimplified view of the psychology of work and the workplace.

Dr Neil Thompson                        

Neil’s website and blog are at

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