Grief can occur at any time in life and over any experience that involves the loss of a person, animal, an item held in high regard, or even a life transition (changing jobs, empty nest syndrome, leaving school etc.) It can also occur as anticipatory grief when a loved one is terminally ill or when we have received a terminal diagnosis. Depending on the type of loss, varying emotions synonymous with grief will be felt. It’s important to be aware that grief isn’t only linked to death. Extreme grief can also occur in the face of divorce or a major life transition.
Grief is a unique and personal experience for everyone. The way I grieve may look completely different to the way you grieve. It’s important not to judge others in their process or to compare the severity of one person’s loss to another.
What is Grief?
In its simplest form, grief is the natural way the heart copes with loss. The feelings we experience may include some or all of the following:
- Anger, rage and hostility
- Relief (sometimes occurs after the death of a loved one when that person was terminally ill and in a lot of pain)
All of these emotions are normal and manifest in daily life in some of the following ways:
- A lack of desire to engage in life.
- Frequent episodes of crying.
- A sense of being unable to “face the outside world.”
- The belief that you can’t go on.
- Loss of appetite.
- Insomnia or sleeping excessively.
- Upset stomach and nausea.
- Feeling disconnected from your experience as though in a daze or fog.
- Self attacking thoughts, especially if you believe that if you had done something differently the loss wouldn’t have occurred.
- Extreme anger, especially in cases where there has been a betrayal. This may manifest as anger outbursts or ‘snapping’ at people.
All of these reactions to loss are also normal.
Stages of Grief
Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross, whose life work centered around grief and dying, identified five stages to grief. For an individual doing the work of grief, it may be that all of the stages are experienced or only some of the stages are experienced. It is also common for people to go through one stage and then return to it at a later date, or to become stuck at one particular stage for a while. All of these processes are normal experiences of grief.
Denial is most often the first stage of grief, and with it usually comes feelings of shock and numbness. Many people describe the first few days after a loss as a time where they felt very little and were quite productive in planning details related to the loss, such as a funeral. This is the body’s natural way of protecting itself from the overwhelming emotions that come with the sudden change presented by a loss and helps us to gradually integrate and experience the accompanying pain.
Anger is a very natural part of grieving, although some people feel uncomfortable with it, especially if there seems to be no apparent reason for the anger. Our society tends to frown upon anger and so we are used to suppressing it, but the best thing we can do is to accept that the anger is there and to release it in the healthiest way possible. Anger often emerges as a coping emotion to conceal the pain and hurt that is hiding underneath. In many ways anger can be an anchor to hold on to because it is an emotion of fire that give us strength, rather than the emptiness that often comes with grief. Sooner or later though, we need to address the anger and discover what lies beneath it.
Bargaining statements tend to begin with prefixes such as, “If only..” or “What if…?”
“If only I had done __ differently, he would still be here.”
“What if I had reached out for help sooner?”
These statements are all about trying to change the circumstances and relieve the pain of the loss, but often they only serve to turn the pain inwards in the form of self-blame. If we had somehow done things differently, or not been in a certain place at a certain time, could we have prevented this from happening? When we bargain, we are fighting against what is, and refusing to accept what has happened. Consequently this stage can also be considered the denial stage.
Depression should not be confused with sadness. Intense sadness over a loss is inevitable, however, depression is more of an empty, hopeless feeling in which the grieving person may feel like there is no point in going on and life no longer has meaning. Not all people experience depression as a part of grief work; for some it may be more of a deep sadness that they are fully able to feel and it isn’t accompanied by the hopelessness that is characteristic of depression. It is also common to cycle through the emotions of both sadness and depression.
Whilst all of the stages of grief may be felt several times or not at all, and not in any particular order, acceptance is the one stage that occurs as you are beginning to integrate the loss into daily life. Reaching the acceptance stage doesn’t mean you won’t feel sad or angry anymore, or that you are “over it.” What it does mean is that you have accepted that the loss has occurred and is your new reality. As you do this, you acquire the skills needed to move on without the person or circumstance in your life anymore. And with time, you begin to see that joy and hope are possible
If you are currently grieving you will know that each of these stages come and go in cycles. One minute you may feel intense anger; the next you may collapse under a wave of sadness. Grief comes and goes in waves. Sometimes the wave is 30ft high, especially in the beginning; other times it may only be 10ft high. After a while, you will experience more of the small waves than the tidal waves that knock you off your feet.
There may be times when you wonder why you are feeling your grief so deeply when it has been weeks or months since you last felt so bad. Consider whether something may have triggered these feelings. Perhaps you saw someone who reminded you of your loved one, or you drove by the hospital where they passed away. A huge trigger is anniversaries and holidays, and the best way to approach them is to be kind to yourself and prepare for the fact that you will likely feel sad. Don’t try to ignore these days; make a plan to do something with a friend or loved one, or create a new tradition that you can enjoy in a different way. Expression rather suppression is key here.
Complicated grief is the term we use when the pain of grief doesn’t subside and two or more years have passed. It is also sometimes referred to as unresolved grief, chronic grief, or exaggerated grief. Whilst we can’t put a time limit on grief, if a person remains in an acute place of grief where the loss continues to be unbearable, they may be suffering from complicated grief. Sufferers may perceive that they are stuck in the past with their loved one and cannot move on from the loss—living in the memory is the only place where they find comfort. But the comfort is short lived as the pain of the loss is continually remembered.
Complicated grief is more likely to occur when the circumstances surrounding the loss are unusual or extremely traumatic. Here are a few examples:
- When a person is missing and the circumstances remain unknown
- When a loved one was murdered
- In the event of multiple losses
- When a loss occurs as a result of suicide
For those who experience their grief as debilitating several years on from the loss and (or) are unable to reconcile the circumstances, it is important to seek the help of a mental health professional.
The way out of grief is through grief. This is hard to hear when in the depths of grief—the last thing we want to do is wade through it—but grief that is suppressed, ignored or fought against will eventually surface. It’s a little like trying to hold all the balloons underwater and prevent them from popping up; you can only keep them all down for so long.
Grief counselling is about helping you access the emotions associated with grief and walking with you through your grief. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross once said that the one thing we all need on our journey is a witness to our pain. Your counsellor can be that witness.
What typically happens after a loss is that friends and family will be there to support you for the first three or so months—making meals, helping with daily shores and commitments, checking in on you—but after that the help begins to wane as people return to the realities of life. However, after three months your pain may be just as acute as it was at three weeks, and you need your support network as much as you did before.
After a while the grieving individual also begins to feel guilty about accepting support from their community and family. They may fear that people will grow tired of hearing about their sadness and so may begin to isolate themselves. This is when a trained professional, someone who knows what to say and how to help, can be the empathic witness you need. A grief counsellor will help you with the following:
- Accepting that the loss has occurred.
- Identifying and experiencing the feelings associated with the loss.
- Acquiring coping skills to assist in adapting to your new life.
- Finding meaning in the loss. This involves grappling with the question, “why did this happen to me?” and, “how am I different because of this loss?”
- Affirming what is normal through the grief journey.
- Maintaining a connection with your loved one whilst moving on with your life.
www.modernloss.com Candid conversations about all types of grief.
www.opentohope.com A site dedicated to helping people find hope after the death of a family member.
www.compassionatefriends.org Support for families after a child dies.
www.grieving.com A forum resource for people to connect with others and share stories of loss and healing.
www.whatsyourgrief.com Grief education, exploration, and expression via forums, articles and workshops.
On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss –
It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand – Megan Devine
Grieving: A Beginners Guide – Jerusha Hull McCormack
I’m Grieving as Fast as I Can – Linda Feinberg
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy – Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
The Year of Magical Thinking- Joan Didion
Resilient Grieving: Finding Strength and Embracing Life After a Loss That Changes Everything – Lucy Hone