Have you ever thrown a pebble into a pond and watched the ripples form? It is a powerful image that reminds us what occurs after a significant loss has taken place. Ripples of grief go out in ever increasing circles affecting people at a variety of levels.

As we approach the season of remembrance, we are going to look during November at the subject of loss from various aspects. Loss and grief is something we all experience in life:

Infants grieve at the loss of a breast or a bottle of milk.

Children grieve when they can’t find their favourite toy.

Teenagers grieve at the break-up of their first love relationship.

Couples grieve when they get the divorce papers, even if its what they wanted. Adults grieve when unemployed. Families grieve when relocated.

Individuals grieve when they experience the loss of health.

Grief is hard-wired into us and it goes right back to our early childhood relationships and attachments.

We come into the world as strangers when we are newborn as we leave the security of the womb. We are not like baby lambs that emerge from the womb with four legs that work and grass ready to eat. Others must welcome us or else we will perish within hours. We depend utterly upon our main caregiver; this is usually a parent who meets our most elementary needs of food, water, clothing, shelter, comfort, warmth, touch, attention, affection and love. We know how to cry for these things, but we don’t know self-consciously that we need them. We have no self-awareness to ground self-understanding, as we lack the ability to distinguish between ourselves and the world around us. As we look at our caregiver, we see ourselves, this is who we are.

It is from this position we begin the journey of finding out who we are. We extend our knowing in small incremental steps through infancy. At first we are confined to the arms around us but gradually we establish a foothold on the world. With the attention to our basic needs, we begin to feel safe, secure, and at home in the world. Our caregivers attract our attention and fascinate us. We cling to them and grow attached to them.

The first attachment is focused on survival, but gradually the child forms other affectionate bonds with the wider family, then at the first school with teachers and peer groups. This then continues throughout his or her life. As we form secure attachments, we are then able to feel secure and relaxed enough to learn and pursue new developments. It is in these bonds of attachment that we can answer the big questions of ‘am I lovable, am I competent, is the world safe, is life worth living?’ We form all kinds of bonds in life.

We have contractual bonds such as marriage based on equal commitment. Sacred bonds that seem impossible to break such as a parent-child link. Once a parent, always a parent. Identity bonds where we gain confidence from association with someone or some organization. Crescive bonds where we become entwined together over time such as a long term relationship.

All of these bonds make us secure enabling us to get on with the business of life. I often see these bonds like elastic bands of attachment that stretch, some stronger than others. But what happens when a bond snaps and breaks? It may be a death, an end of a relationship, a change of location or a change in one's health. The elastic band snaps! The bond has been severed with painful and long-lasting consequences. This is what bereavement is all about; it’s when the elastic band, this affectionate bond, snaps. There are many theories of grief, but they universally all include key three things:

Firstly, we try to escape the pain. This includes becoming numb and almost deaf to the situation. This shock is a defensive system that protects us from doing something silly. Secondly, we try to mend the bond. This involves trying to get what is lost back. We constantly think about the loss, ruminating over and over, churning up all kinds of emotions. Thirdly, we try to make sense of it all. This is like imagining a jigsaw, of how the world works, going up in the air and now we are trying to put the pieces back together, knowing there is a piece missing. Someone put it this way, ‘grief tears a hole in the fabric of life, and we spend the rest of our days trying to mend the tear’.

To help us on this journey, over the next three weeks we will look at some theories of grief, understanding child loss and how to overcome particular problems in grief and loss.

Bill Merrington is a therapist, bereavement specialist and book writer on loss issues (www.yorkbereavement.com).