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Adjusting to Loss: Lessons from 'Downton Abbey'

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Warnings: Contains spoilers!

One of the most common reasons that people seek therapy is in order to adjust to a loss or a traumatic event. This week's episode of Downton Abbey explores this painful and difficult process with keen insights and tremendous depth. Whether it is 1922 or 2014, coping with grief is a complex and deeply personal process. The show's study of the impact of the deaths of two of the show's central characters, Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley, demonstrates some basic principles about getting through a tragic loss that are as true today as they were in generations past.

Grief is not a linear process:
In the season's opening episode, Lady Sybil's husband, Tom, has thrown himself into his work in an attempt to get through the loss of his beloved wife. He is determined to help his grieving sister-in-law, Lady Mary, do the same. While obviously sad, he seems motivated, directed and able to function.

Mary, on the other hand, can barely speak, and rarely makes eye contact. It has been six months since her husband's tragic death in a car accident, and Mary seems as shocked and disoriented as if it happened yesterday. In the very next episode, Mary starts to take some of her family and loved one's advice and is pulling herself out of her haze. Tom, on the other hand, feels inadequate socializing with the upper class guests who have paid a weekend visit. His social awkwardness reminds him of his complicated position, having migrated from downstairs to upstairs. Suddenly, this reminder of his complex social position sends him back into an intense state of grief.

People in therapy often describe a similar, trajectory. A client in his 20s who recently lost his father explained:

In my family, I'm the doer. I planned Dad's funeral, gave his eulogy, and was the only one who could hold a coherent conversation with our extended family and circle of friends. I kept the house stocked with food and made sure mom was eating and sleeping. I was back in the office two weeks later and honestly thought I was okay. Almost a year later, on Father's Day, it hit me. I actually forgot he was gone and I started searching online for an ecard. When I realized what I was doing I completely lost it. I could barely get out of bed for a week.

Fear of forgetting is incredibly common:
One of the most important parts of grief is giving yourself the chance to reflect and remember everything you love about the person you lost. One of the greatest fears people tend to express is that some of these beautiful memories will fade with time.

A client once told me that one of the hardest moments of the aftermath of her mother's death was realizing that she could not remember the way her mother smelled: "The night she died I took her robe from the bathroom and started sleeping with it so that I could smell her. The scent has faded and I know it sounds strange, but forgetting her smell is the hardest part."

Similarly, Isobel Crawley eloquently sums up her fear of forgetting her beloved son: "I have this feeling that when I laugh or read a book or hum a tune, it means that I have forgotten him, just for a moment. And it's that I cannot bear."

There's a difference between getting over a loss and getting through it:
When coping with a loss that feels traumatic and tragic, it may not be realistic to expect yourself to "get over" the loss. Whether adjusting to a divorce, a disease, a traumatic injury or a death, some losses are not ones from which you can every fully recover. Trauma has the potential to change the way you experience yourself and the way you experience the world. Many times, people push themselves too hard to "get over" a loss when it may be more realistic and more productive to try to "get through" it. A young client grieving her sister's death described the pressure to get over her loss as she cried:

It's been a month and now I am back at the office. No more sympathy cards, no more days to myself and my sadness. Everyone around me is doing the same things they always did. The office is the same, the job is the same, my clothing is the same but I feel so different. It is as if the world is saying my time to feel sad is up, but I'm not ready.

Lady Cora Grantham described her daughter Mary's grief in similar terms: "I don't think she'll ever get over it, but she'll get past it one day and I want to help her try."

As the characters struggle to get through difficult losses and adjust to their new lives, Downton Abbey brutally demonstrates that new traumas can be just around the corner. The line between life and death can feel incredibly thin. And Anna's brutal rape as the episode closes reminds us that even the happiest of lives can change on a dime.