Bereavements are hinge points in our lives…Grieving well is hard work and a full-time job. When it’s done fully and well, I believe it leads to an expanded person, deeper in wisdom and compassion than before, more able to give and accept love.
Christy Keneally, Life After Loss
Grieving is a natural but sometimes unpleasant process. It can be associated with death of a loved one, but also any type of loss, such as a divorce, unemployment, emigration, retirement or loss of good health.
Feelings of anger, guilt, numbness, fear, profound sadness and yearning are common in grief and bereavement. Although these are normal responses to loss, we may benefit from professional, non-judgmental and confidential support at this time.
There is no clear timeline for the grieving process. Grief is as unique as we are. For some people, it can take months or even years to reach a stage of acceptance. But remember that even those who have felt the greatest depths of despair have recovered to lead full and rewarding lives.
Bereavement is painful, in our sessions we try to sit with the pain of the loss, we try to gain perspective when so many people are telling you so many things about grief it can be hard to hear what your voice or the lingering voice of your loved one trying to say to you, in our sessions we try to hear that voice and give it space to express itself.
What is Grief?
Grief is a normal and natural reaction to the death of a loved one. The grieving process follows certain patterns, but is unique to each indvidual.
- The first response is often shock, disbelief and numbness. It is the body and mind’s way of helping us cope with the initial period until we can start to accept the reality of the loss.
- As the shock wears off, you may experience anger – at yourself, the person who died, doctors, God or the universe. This is a natural part of the healing process. It is important not to suppress anger – find someone you can talk to who will listen in a non-judgmental way.
- Guilt is another common emotion. We wonder ‘what if?’ or ‘if only’ as we try to think of what we could have done differently.
- It is also normal to feel sad, anxious and fearful. You may feel anxious about your own death, helpless or lonely. This may be accompanied by strong feelings of yearning or longing. Dreaming of the deceased person is also very common.
- There might be feelings of relief, especially if the death occurred after much suffering or if there was an unhappy relationship. In these cases, we may have grieved years before for the relationship that might have been.
- Physical symptoms of grief might include reduced appetite, changed sleep patterns, nausea, tightness in the chest and throat, breathlessness, muscle weakness, lack of energy, pain, confusion and difficulty concentrating. These symptoms are usually temporary, but if they continue, seek advice from a medical professional.
The Five Stages of Grief
As I have said, each person’s grief is unique: your relationship was unique, only you experienced it and as such it can seem unnatural to think that there are “stages” of grief or that it can be conceptualised in a formula. But it might help to know that the following reactions are common amongst grieving people. Very often I find that it’s hard to accept anger – one can feel as though it’s a useless emotion at this time, but it’s also one of the most common. When I work with people we do not try to find what stage we are at, as if it is a linear journey, but we can recognise that we are experiencing this emotion, be it denial, anger or any of the many emotions that rise and pass.
The five stages of grief were initially proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book ‘On Death and Dying’.
- Denial – this is usually the first stage of grief that helps us to survive the loss. It is a stage of shock and denial. Life may make no sense, the world may appear overwhelming or meaningless, or we may become numb. On the positive side, denial is our way of coping until we can start to accept the reality of the loss.
- Anger – is a normal part of the healing process . Anger might be directed at yourself, the person who died, medical staff or God. Thoughts might include ‘Why did he abandon me?’, ‘Why did God do this?’, ‘If only the doctors did more’. Anger usually arises from the pain we feel because we loved the person. When we recognise this, we can see anger as a strength, giving us temporary direction and structure after the the initial shock.
- Bargaining – this stage is often accompanied by feelings of guilt. We wonder ‘what if?’ or ‘if only’. We want to go back and do things differently to change the outcome. ‘If I had done xyz, then this wouldn’t have happened’. We find fault with ourselves, or we try to negotiate our way out of feeling pain.
- Depression – when we realise we can’t change the past, our thoughts turn to the present, and we feel the enormity of the loss. Emptiness and depression can descend. We are intensely sad, withdraw from life and wonder if there is any point going on. This depression may not be a sign of mental illness – it may be a perfectly understandable response to the situation. But if these feelings are unrelenting, extremely distressing or cause concern, then a qualified mental health professional may be able to help.
- Acceptance – the final stage, acceptance, does not mean that everything is back to normal as before. This stage is about accepting the new reality – a world where our loved one is not present. We learn to live with it and re-assign roles in our life. We may start to feel moments of joy and this may lead us to feel that we are betraying our loved one. But this stage signals our growth as we build new connections and relationships.
As Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, wrote in her recent book about grieving her husband and the father of their two young children:
“It’s important to remember that everyone grieves in their own way and on their own time. There’s no right way to do it…To this day and I believe for the rest of my life, I will live with both the grief of losing Dave – of missing option A – but also the desire to try to make the most out of option B.”
(Sheryl Sandberg, ‘Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy’)