Ask the Expert: Symbolic Loss

“Every human being must find his own way to cope with severe loss. The only job of a true friend is to facilitate whatever method he chooses.” - Caleb Carr

Being diagnosed with a brain tumour can be a shocking and devastating experience. A diagnosis brings many different emotions, and for some, overwhelming life changes. Initially, a patient’s goal may simply be survival. They hope to successfully negotiate all of the medical treatment and cope with the day-to-day difficulties that come with it. Patients are often focused on getting rid of the tumour and doing what it takes to recover.

After patients have recovered and left the acute phase of their illness, many survivors say they feel a profound sense of loss in many ways. As a society, we tend to view loss as meaning death, and often it does. However, there are different types of loss that can arise after a brain tumour diagnosis that are unrelated to death. These are known as symbolic losses.

Symbolic Loss refers to a loss of something significant in a person’s life and is often related to the psychological aspects of their social life. Some of the more common symbolic losses include those of relationships, employment, independence, identity, control or self. Many of these losses go unacknowledged by others due to their invisible nature and the fact that the grieving person may be reluctant to admit their feelings of loss to those around them (Walsh, 2006). This can result in the grieving survivor not receiving the kind of care and support they truly need.

Symbolic losses can generate strong feelings in a brain tumour survivor. An individual can feel anger, frustration, denial, shock, sadness, vulnerability, disillusionment and helplessness, just as they would if they had experienced a death. Symbolic loss is experienced in many ways including physically, emotionally, spiritually, cognitively and behaviourally. Since these losses have a major impact on the lives of those that experience them, it is easy to see how people feel grief and sadness. It is important to learn that all loss equals some form of grief. Grief is our human way of responding  to the deprivation or absence of something we value.

So how can we support the survivor who is struggling through the grief of symbolic losses associated with their brain tumour? There are many strategies that can help:

  • Validate their feelings - Telling a loved one that it is okay to feel sad, scared or vulnerable can go a long way.  Most people simply want someone to listen and not judge them for their feelings or to try and give advice.
  • Suggest talking to a skilled listener - Sometimes individuals can benefit from a person who has experience dealing with grief and loss.  It could be a counselor, a family doctor or a spiritual advisor.
  • Suggest a support group - Very often it is helpful for a grieving person to have a sense of belonging in a group and to have a safe place where they can express themselves to others who may also be experiencing similar feelings.
  • Patience - After experiencing a loss, individuals need time to adjust to the loss, process it and begin to integrate their loss and move forward.  Eventually, the intensity of the grief of most individuals will diminish and the person will make the adjustments to their “new normal”.  It is important that loved ones remain patient, understanding and sensitive during this time of transition.

Loss is never easy for anyone. It is human nature to desire to hold on to that which we value. Yet loss can be a transformational event for many people and an opportunity for personal growth. It is helpful to know that most individuals will reconstruct their lives after loss and find new meaning. It is important to recognize the various losses individuals can experience and reach out to help where possible. 

You can also download this Information Sheet (PDF)

Lois Ostolosky, RSW, MSW, is a registered clinical social worker with a Master’s degree in social work.

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