Updated: Aug 25, 2020
When we think of loss, many of us think only in terms of death. The grief process that follows a bereavement is often regarded as the only loss worthy of significant attention. However, there are many losses which can profoundly affect us. How we respond to other losses in our lives can influence our response to a loss through death. Every loss is worthy of consideration. We can experience material losses, e.g. loss of a property, loss of money etc., We may experience a relational loss through a break up, divorce or the end of a friendship. There are functional losses through changes in our bodies. Ageing is the most obvious functional loss – the loss of youth and for the disabled and elderly, often loss of mobility and independence. We may also experience loss of a role e.g. loss of being a partner if we become newly single, loss of everyday parental role when our children leave home. Throughout our lives, we experience the reality of loss.
Grief is a ‘normal’ response to a significant loss. We often struggle to accept what is difficult to accept and believe what is hard to believe. Many emotions associated with grief include – shock, numbness, disbelief, confusion, anxiety, anger, fatigue, guilt and depression. When no-one talks about our loss or validates our grieving process, we can begin to think we are not ‘normal’. Grief is a ‘normal’ response to one of the inescapable realities of life. Throughout our lives we make attachments for safety and security. We all make attachments to people and things which eventually leads to separation and loss, hence we will all, at some time, know grief.
Whilst grief is a universal experience, it is also unique and personal. You may experience many of the emotions listed above but to a lesser or greater degree. How you experience grief will be different to anyone else and related to who you are, your background and your character.
There is no right or wrong way to experience grief. All our emotional responses will be different. Your response if unique and will not be exactly the same as anyone else’s. This is why the five words “ I know how you feel” to a bereaved person is often unhelpful. All we can know is our personal story and how grief impacted on our life.
Emotional responses can occur several months after the loss. Falling apart months after people think you are doing o.k. is ‘normal’. Events and special days can be extremely difficult. You’ve experienced a loss – expect to have an emotional reaction.
To experience grief is to acknowledge that you have loved someone and now that they are no longer here, you are feeling the loss. You are missing a relationship that was special. That’s a ‘normal’ grief process.
MANIFESTATIONS OF NORMAL GRIEF – EMOTIONAL FEELINGS.
SADNESS – Is the most common feeling in the bereaved. Not allowing sadness to be felt, with or without tears, can lead to complicated bereavement.
DENIAL – Involves the bereaved person feeling shock, confusion, fear, disbelief, numbness, struggling to find meaning and often avoiding thinking or talking about the deceased. Denial serves as a self protection mechanism shielding the bereaved from the stages to come.
ANGER – is often experienced after a loss and can be one of the most confusing feelings. I often hear “ How can I be angry ?- he/she didn’t want to die!!, however, you can feel angry at the person for leaving you, angry out of frustration that there was nothing you could do to prevent the death and maybe angry due to feelings of injustice, frustration, irritation or anxiety.
GUILT – is a common experience for the bereaved. Guilt over not being kind ‘enough’, guilt over not taking the person to the hospital sooner etc. Most often the guilt is irrational.
ANXIETY – can come from the survivor fearing they will not be able to cope on their own and to a heightened sense of personal death awareness. Taken to extremes, this anxiety can develop into a full blown phobia.
DEPRESSION – feeling overwhelmed, helpless and hostile. The depression in grief is a natural response in the process of grieving. It is a response to us allowing reality to re-enter our lives. Losing someone is depressing and most people will experience this stage.
LONLINESS – is a feeling frequently expressed by survivors, particularly by those who have lost someone whom they were used to having a close day to day relationship with.
ACCEPTANCE – This is not a point in the process where everything feels okay. Most people never feel okay with the loss of a loved one. They can, however, eventually come to accept that the person (or animal) they love, has gone and will not return. In doing so, we can start to rebuild our lives. This may include taking on new roles, hobbies and having new experiences.
It is very important to remember that whilst the stages of grief are presented as a process, we should not assume they are linear and will necessarily present in this order, or even at all. Our individual experiences of grief may involve jumping from one stage to another and to experiencing more than one stage at the same time. The stages are intended to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive, however, there is a general tendency that they unfold in this way.
WHAT DOES MEANING LOOK LIKE?
It can take many forms, such as, finding gratitude for the time you had with your loved one, or finding ways to honour them, or making a major shift or change in their memory. Those who are able to find meaning in their lives tend to ultimately have an easier time grieving – they’re less likely to remain stuck in on one the stages outlined. Remaining stuck in loss can result in the loss of any sense of purpose and direction. It can also manifest in drug or alcohol addiction or other forms of self harming, weight gain or loss, unresolved anger or anxiety and insomnia.
PHYSICAL SENSATIONS – ASSOCIATED WITH GRIEF REACTION
1 – Tightness in chest, 2 – tightness in throat, 3 – Hollowness in the stomach, 4 – Oversensitivity to noise, 5 – Breathlessness, 6 – Lack of energy, 7 – Weakness in the muscles, 8 – Fatigue, 9 – Dry mouth, 10 – trembling.
COGNITIONS – there are many different thought patterns that mark the experience of grief. Certain thoughts are common in the early stages of grief, but sometimes unhelpful and disturbing thoughts persist and trigger feelings that can lead to depression and/or anxiety.
BEHAVIOURS – there are many specific behaviours frequently associated with normal grief reactions, such as sleep and appetite disturbances to absentmindedness, social withdrawal, dreams of the deceased, restless over activity and crying.
Losses from suicide, sudden death, miscarriage and stillbirth and abortion can all create distinct pain and problems for the survivor. People grieving may experience all of the above, but often the severity of the process is deeper and more prolonged. Grief therapy can help in the long term.
This refers to grieving that occurs prior to the actual loss. It is distinguished from ‘normal survivor grief’. Many deaths occur with fore warning, such as when a loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. It is during this period of anticipation that the potential survivor begins the task of mourning and begins to experience the various responses of grief.
Dr. Lois Tonkins model of grief challenges the idea that ‘time heals’ or that grief disappears with time. This model suggests that we do not move on from grief, but that we grow around it. In her ‘fried egg’ model of grief she explains that if we imagine our grief to be the yolk of the egg and the white of the egg to be the rest of our life, most of us would expect the yolk part to decrease over time – not so – what changes is not the yolk (grief) but the white (rest of life). At first, following the loss of a loved one, the yolk (grief) is prominent but as our life expands (i.e. eventually doing old things and learning new ones, meeting different people, hobbies, work etc.) there is more white, and so, whilst the grief has not diminished, it is, proportionately, a smaller part of the total of what we are experiencing and focusing on. Our grief remains but our life expands around it.
WHAT CAN HELP WHEN GRIEVING?
SUPPORT – There is no one formula for grieving well, because everyone is different and everyone finds different things meaningful or helpful.
Death often affects more that one person and family dynamics are complex. Everyone has different needs, expectations and desires from the beloved and from others affected by the grief, and this can cause conflict and confusion. It is normally impossible to manage all of this or help everyone at the same time, or in the same way. Try to be realistic about what you and others can do.
The single, most positive factor in encouraging a healthy grieving journey is being able to talk and/or cry, unconditionally, without judgement about the loss with someone who listens.
Reaching to those grieving, even if you don’t know what to say, can be enough - just listening and not giving advice. Doing this, with empathy is important.
- Try to reach where they are coming from
- no judgement – your opinion is not needed right now.
- recognising emotion – try to see what they are feeling e.g. anxiety, fear, regret, guilt – it may be more than just sadness.
- communicating that you recognise it – letting them know you’re understanding a little of what’s happening for them (without saying “ I know how you feel” – you don’t as everyone’s grief experience is unique).
- be reflective and walk alongside them in their journey without projecting your own perspective.
RITUALS – rituals, traditions, or symbolic gestures after a death can help. Some different rituals include:
Playing certain music, sending cards, writing letters (to the deceased or self), journaling, planting trees, letting balloons off, making memory boxes and lighting candles.