What is grief?
GRIEF is defined as a natural reaction to loss. It will happen to all of us. It’s not mental illness but it affects our mental well-being and health. The experiences of loss may be due to death, end of a relationship, job or a certain way of life.
This article focusses on grief related to the death of a loved one. The more intense the love or connection, the deeper the experience of loss and grief. Children grieve too and the way they do so may be affected by their level of understanding of the loss and the attachment they had to the departed individual.
Grief is an individual experience, there is no right or wrong way of grieving. Whichever way one expresses their grief is unique, meaningful and personal to them. It takes as long as it takes and is not always a neat linear process of stages and phases. With time, people adapt and find healthy ways of processing it. Grief is a normal process of healing.
What are normal grief reactions?
Grief can affect all aspects of our being and invoke different responses in our mind, body, emotions and spirit as follows:
Mental and Emotional reactions
Crying and sadness, worry or regret, anger, anxiety, despair, guilt, fear, intense longing, shock, numbness, forgetfulness, wanting to be alone or around people, denial. Frequent thoughts and memories of the loved one.
Initially in the first few days of a loss the emotions are so intense that some people are numb, in denial and function on auto pilot as they process the reality of what just happened; more so if the loss was sudden or unexpected.
Cultural and other social factors affect mental and emotional reactions to grief. Others experience relief or hope especially if the loved one was in pain or after a prolonged illness. They may also experience grief over the loss of their caring role.
If someone committed suicide, there may be anger towards that person. Also self-blame as those left behind question if they could have done something. They may feel bad and question “how could l have missed the signs?”
Low energy, tightness in the chest, non-cardiac chest pain, changes in appetite or sleep. There may be low energy, upset stomach, nausea and vomiting, body aches and pains and difficulties concentrating. Reduced immunity which may lead to opportunistic conditions such as colds and flu.
Might include finding strength in one’s faith or questioning of previously held faith beliefs. People have described “wrestling with their faith” as they try to find the purpose and meaning of their loss, and life without the loved one. Others discover new spiritual meaning and connections.
What about the five stages of grief?
Although the (Kubler-Ross) stages where first meant to describe a series of emotions experienced by terminally ill patients prior to death, they have been generally mistaken to describe grieving as if it were a linear process. Grief can be messy and it can come in waves. However, some people identify with some of the stages in their own grief and this helps them normalise what they are experiencing.
The 5 stages are:
Denial - may be experienced in the early stages and can be accompanied by numbness and disbelief. There is shock and a sense of meaninglessness. People may continue to function “as if on autopilot” as they inform others, do funeral preparations and everything that comes with death. The numbness and denial has been described as nature’s way of coping with the initial shock and impact and can be crucial for survival itself. It’s been heard of others who collapse and die upon hearing death of a loved one.
Anger - which can take various forms including anger over the unfairness of it all, anger with the medical system, anger with God, anger directed at self and others.
Bargaining- can begin before the death itself. For example, bargaining with God that you promise to do things differently if only your loved one would be given a second chance in life. After death it may take the form of bargaining to survive the situation and somehow find a way of adapting to life without the loved one.
Depression – which is a natural reaction to the loss upon when the reality fully settles in. It’s not a sign of mental illness but is a normal response accompanied by great sadness at life without the loved one.
Acceptance - does not mean one is ok with the death or loss. It simply means learning to live without the person and accepting the permanence of the loss from our lives. It doesn’t mean forgetting either but it means finding healthier ways of honouring and living with the memories of the loved one.
Grief has no set pattern
It’s important to understand that people weave in and out of a range of emotions, stages and feelings during the grieving process. People find individual ways of processing their grief. Some want to be alone yet others find great comfort in company. Others cry a lot while some don’t.
How one expresses their emotions is not necessarily a measure of the intensity of their grief. In funeral gatherings, you see the various forms of expressions and they are all normal. There may be open weeping, wailing and screaming yet others may sob, look sad or distant.
There is no way of telling who is feeling the greatest pain by just looking at someone; neither should there be. In other cultures they smile, shake hands, tell stories about the loved ones and laugh. That doesn’t mean they are not in pain. They are expressing their grief in a way that is meaningful and natural to them.
Does grief have a time frame?
Grief takes as long as it takes. It’s different for each individual. People may grieve for weeks, months or years depending on their unique personal, cultural and social circumstances. Grief is normal, it’s healthy to fully experience it and allow the accompanying range of reactions to manifest. It cannot be hurried or fast tracked with the hope of resuming “normal life” or avoiding pain. By so doing you only mask the pain and postpone the inevitable.
However, it’s also crucial to have a trusted social network of family, friends and others to support and help you during the process. It’s important to find a healthy balance between being alone to process your grief feelings and being around others for additional support. There are cultural and spiritual rituals others engage in and observe that help with the grieving process and coping with the loss.
Looking after yourself after loss
If there has ever been a time to self-care more diligently, and as a matter of priority, it’s during the grieving process. Not surprising the process of working through the range of reactions has been referred to as “grief work” in professional circles. It is hard work and can be unpredictable. Your life as you know it has been turned upside down and your body has been bombarded with an avalanche of emotions.
The following suggestions may be helpful in the grief journey
Give yourself permission to grieve in your own unique way. No one should tell you how or what to feel and how to express your emotions. Look after your physical health. Eat healthy, exercise and sleep even though you may not feel like. Consult with your physian as needed.
Ease your to do list a little. If people ask “if there is anything at all l can do, please let me know” take them up on their offer and ask them to help you with getting some things done as you recover.
Prepare and be mindful of triggers such as anniversaries, birthdays, holidays and other important dates that can be a painful reminder of the loss.
Express how you feel to others that you trust, those that share your pain or understand what you are going through. Avoid internalising everything you are going through.
Seek grief counselling if you feel stuck or overwhelmed. Grief counsellors help you put your loss and accompanying emotions into perspective so that you are better equipped to deal with your grief and life without the loved one.
Seek comfort and meaning from your faith. Talking to your pastor or faith leader may help you process spiritual issues and prepare you for the future.
Avoid making life changing decisions during early stages of grief. Your emotions, thinking and view of the world may be clouded by your grief. Allow some time to heal and gain a clearer judgement on issues.
Support children with their grief. They have suffered a loss and are hurting too. Be sensitive to what they are going through and help them with their emotions and confusion. For their wellbeing, it’s important to acknowledge their pain and loss so that they are not silent grievers.
If the feelings of sadness are getting deeper and affecting your daily functioning, or if you feel persistently hopeless or even suicidal and worry that you might be depressed, please consult with your medical provider as you might require mental health support from a professional.