The way people respond to loss is very individual and personal. Grieving is a natural, normal and essential process of coming to terms with loss. The feelings can be intense, devastating even but they are a part of the healing process. How long these feelings last varies from a few days or weeks to a few years depending on the loss and how the person is reacting to it.
The sudden death of a loved one, whether due to an accident or illness or suicide, is inevitability difficult and painful for those left behind but the circumstances such as age, manner of death, whether it was anticipated etc, can have a significant effect on the nature of the grief experienced. Most people cope with bereavement but some get ‘stuck’ and find themselves unable to move on with their lives. Some may feel overwhelmed, end up depressed or even suicidal. Maybe there are unresolved issues or the grief will activate other underlying and unresolved emotional issues.
WHAT IS ‘NORMAL’ GRIEF?
Whilst there is really no such thing as ‘normal’ grief, the following are typical symptoms:
• Shock, numbness, disbelief, feelings of unreality • Anger • Guilt • Sadness and tearfulness • Preoccupation with what has been lost • Sleep and appetite issues • Weight loss or gain • Seeing or hearing the person lost
Opinions vary as to how long these symptoms to exist but between 1 – 2 years seems realistic for a major loss and can vary between cultures and the nature of the loss. Level of intensity usually starts to dissipate after about 6 months. Bereavement ranks as one of the highest, stress level wise and especially if combined with other resultant changes eg financial, having to relocate etc.
WHAT IS ‘ABNORMAL’ GRIEF?
When the symptoms are very intense, prolonged and with no signs of diminishing, this is considered to be ‘abnormal’ grief and includes the following symptoms:
• Preoccupation with feelings of worthlessness • A belief that they will never get over the loss • Excessive guilt • Marked slowing of thoughts and movement • A prolonged period of not being able to function well
MYTHS AND FACTS ABOUT GRIEF
• The pain will go away faster if you ignore it: For real healing, grief needs to be faced up to and dealt with • It’s important to ‘be strong’ in the face of loss; Feeling sad, lonely, angry, afraid is normal. It is not necessary to put on a brave front to protect others. Showing your true feelings can help them and you. • If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the loss: Crying is just one of the normal responses to loss and everyone feels and reacts to pain in their own way. Remember too that the first stage of grief is numbness, the body’s way of helping someone to get through the initial shock so the reality may not yet have ‘sunk in’. • Grief should last about a year: Again, this is different from one person to the next. • You cannot heal until you have gone through all the stages of grief: All grieving process models are just theory and not a rigid framework.
There is no such thing as typical loss or typical response to grief. Time is a great healer but even years after a death, we may experience grief symptoms if memories are triggered due to the situation eg wedding, Christmas, birthday anniversary.
THE GRIEF CYCLE
Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss medical doctor whose pioneering work focused on grief, discovered an ‘emotional cycle’ whilst working with terminally ill patients which can also be seen in people who are experiencing loss or change ie something that the person ‘perceives’ as a significant negative event, noticing that people were on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, swinging between activity and passivity.
As a respected therapist, Marco de Vries writes: “We need to let go of our feelings of impotence in the face of death, whether we are aware of them or not – feelings that make us see death as the only thing we cannot rule, which therefore inflicts an unavoidable defeat on us.”
Many people going through such trauma will focus their attention on how everyone else is coping. As therapists our role is to help our clients to start focusing on how they are feeling to enable them to heal and be able to start taking responsibility for themselves, making choices that are realistic and meaningful to themselves by accepting the reality of the loss, working through the pain, adjusting to life without the one they’ve lost and emotionally relocate them.
There is considerable emotional and physical pain associated with grief and this must be worked through. Tears, anger and anguish should not be stopped, since they are part of the human’s natural and instinctive behaviour pattern to discharge a sense of loss. There is also some evidence that the release of tears is physically therapeutic, affecting the body’s chemistry.
Many people have difficulty because they feel they will be in some way disloyal if they move on through life without the deceased. They need to be able to let go of the emotional ties, so that they can comfortably build new relationships. And this is where our therapeutic skills enable us to help our client to recognise the truth that it is perfectly moral and natural to move on, to form new relationships and to find peace and happiness.
Asking what the deceased would choose for your client to experience in life will almost always produce the answer: “Happiness” and our job is to help the client identify what could make them feel that happiness once again.
Bear in mind that grief can also be over a lost relationship, a still-born child, a terminated pregnancy or a lost pet, a lost job, lost mobility, lost opportunity, lost status etc . All these grief issues must be treated with the solemnity and respect that they deserve. It can be difficult when dealing with someone who is grieving, whether it is a client or a family member or friend. Just knowing what to say is always a challenge. The following are a guide to the best way to handle this kind of situation:
LISTEN WITH COMPASSION
Let them know that it is ok to talk about the one they are grieving for and that you are there to listen.
• Accept and acknowledge all feelings – don’t try to reason with the. Let them know it is ok to cry, get angry, break down • Be willing to sit in silence – don’t press them to talk but listen if they want to • Let them talk about how the person died – repeating the story is a way of healing and often people feel awkward talking to a person is grieving about the person they have lost • Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss – share your own experience if you have had a similar loss but don’t claim to know what they are feeling
WHAT TO SAY
• I heard your father died – using the word ‘died’ shows that you are open to talk about the situation • I am sorry to hear that this happened to you • I am not sure what to say but I want you to know I care • Let me know what I can do • How are you feeling? • Would you like to talk about what you are going through?
WHAT NOT TO SAY
• I know how you feel • It’s part of God’s plan • Look at what you have to be thankful for • He’s in a better place now • This is behind you now; it’s time to get back on with your life
If anyone you know is struggling with grief or bereavement, send them our way. Sharing is the first step towards healing.