How to Grieve
I twice experienced the death of my father. The first time was following a massive heart attack that starved his brain of oxygen and left him a shell of his former self. It was like Dad had died, but his body remained behind to remind us of what was lost. He was only 60. We were told he wouldn’t be around for long, but when his body joined the rest of him a year later, I was as unprepared for this event as the news of his original heart attack.
The most disturbing part of dealing with my dad’s death was not knowing how to behave. If you asked me before it happened, I would have predicted that I would be openly devastated by his loss, but my actual reaction (both following his heart attack and after his actual death) was a kind of confused numbness. I didn’t seem to be grieving the ‘right way’, and my reactions troubled me and filled me with guilt.
There is No Right Way to Grieve
There is no 5-step plan for dealing with these type of events (or not one that is going to work for all of us). There isn’t a right way to grieve, and we can’t know how we are going to react until we suffer a loss. A lot will depend on our current coping strategies, and most importantly, our ability to face emotional pain. If the loss is too much for us, the brain will do what it can to protect us (e.g. it will use defense mechanism such denial, blaming, or becoming detached).
The important thing to understand is grief is not something we do but something we experience. We can’t get it wrong because we are not actually choosing our reactions. The best we can do is support ourselves through the process, and we will discuss some ways of doing this throughout this post.
Remember We mustn’t feel guilty about our reaction (or lack of reaction) to loss because this just gets in the way of the grieving process.
Is Grief a Bad Thing?
Grieving a loss can be the hardest thing we have to face as a human, but does this mean it is necessarily a bad thing? Imagine if when somebody we loved died, we just got on with things as usual – wouldn’t that be kind of bizarre? Wouldn’t that suggest that the person who died didn’t mean that much to us?
One way we can look at grief is to see it as a tribute we pay to someone or something we have loved but have now lost. It is the cost of love, and if we consider the benefits of having experienced this relationship, we will probably agree it is a price worth paying. The problem then is not how do we get rid of grief, but how do we learn to deal with it.
It is not only the death of a loved one that triggers grief, it could also arise due to:
Loss of a job.
Death of a pet (for people who live alone, the death of a pet can feel just like the death of a partner).
Adult-child leaving home.
Legal problems (e.g. the possibility of imprisonment).
Loss of religious faith.
The ending of an addiction (yes, even giving up something that is destroying our life can trigger a sense of loss).
What is Grief?
Grief can be described as an intense feeling of loss. It is an emotion we experience when something major happens in our lives such as a bereavement, divorce, or loss of a job.
We can think of grief as on a spectrum somewhere between sadness and depression. It is far more intense, and usually longer lasting than sadness, and it differs from regular depression in that it doesn’t have such a negative impact on our self-esteem or self-confidence.
What are the Symptoms of Grief?
A feeling of numbness.
Our thinking is preoccupied with the loss.
Inability to obtain pleasure from things we usually enjoy.
Low energy and feeling tired.
It may feel as if there is something pressing down on our chest.
Other physical symptoms such as headaches or body aches.
The Stages of Grief
My own experience with grief following the death of my dad was of a kind of two-steps forward, one-step back kind of process. I initially experienced it as a sense of numbness with moments of intense loss breaking through. Most of the time, I felt like a little child being forced to face something too scary and threatening to even contemplate. This initial period of numbness lasted a few days.
After about a week or so, there were times when I seemed to be getting used to the loss, but then it would all come rushing back again – usually because something triggered a memory of my father (e.g. something would happen that I would want to phone my dad to tell him about it, and then I’d remember that he wasn’t there anymore). These later episodes of loss were in some ways more intense because the feeling of numbness had gone. This is what I mean by two-steps forward, and one-step back process.
5 Stages of Grief
The 5 Stages of Grief is a model proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross that provides a good description of what the process can involve. Of course, we all experience grief in our own way, but the following 5 stages are common:
- Denial – this is a mechanism to protect the ego from devastating news. It can be an effective strategy in the short-term as it gives us some space to adjust to what has happened.
Anger – when we realize that it is not going to be possible to maintain our state of denial, we can start to lash out at those close to us like a wounded animal.
Bargaining – now that we are faced with the reality of what has happened, we try desperately to find a way out of it.
Depression – we realize the hopelessness of the situation, our attempts to bargain with the universe haven’t worked, and we feel powerless.
Acceptance – we open-up to our pain, and we begin to heal.
How Long Does Grief Last?
In my experience, grief lasts for as long as it needs to last. It is not something we ever completely get over, but eventually things settle down, and we are able to get on with our lives. Intense grief due to the loss of a child or life-partner could last years, but for most types of loss, things will usually return somewhat back to normal within a few weeks or months. If the grief continues to be a problem for longer than this, we may benefit from some type of professional support (see below).
“Why Can’t He Just Get Over It” – Is Grief Selfish?
Friends and family usually have no difficulty appreciating our initial need to grieve, but they may become less understanding as time goes on. People may even start saying things to us like, ‘why can’t you get over it?’ We may then begin to worry that our continued grief is just us being selfish or a sign of weakness.
Grief is like a wound, and it is going to take time for us to heal from this wound. We can’t just ‘snap out of it’ no more than we can demand that a broken leg be healed by the weekend.
We can’t rush the grieving process, but there are things we can do to encourage healing such as:
Removing any obstacles to the grieving process.
We will now look at each of these in turn:
The Importance of Self-Compassion When Dealing with Grief
Self-compassion is the willingness to support ourselves so that we can face our pain. It can be tempting to try to run away when life gets difficult (an example of this would be turning to drugs), but it is only by facing our pain that we can begin to heal.
The only way to develop self-compassion is to deal with life on life’s terms. The good news is the more self-compassion we develop, the easier our life becomes.
Getting Support When Dealing with Grief
The grieving process distorts our thinking as the mind struggles to adapt to the tragedy. There is a risk that we can get stuck in negative thought patterns (e.g. ‘life is meaningless’ or ‘I wish I was dead too’), so it can be crucial to get a more objective point of view on what we are experiencing. This objectivity could come from a trusted friend, but if we are really struggling to cope, this objectivity might be best coming from a professional.
Some organizations that may be useful when dealing with grief include:
Obstacles to the Grieving Process
The biggest obstacle to healing from grief can be our ideas about how we ‘should be’ grieving. This can lead to unnecessary feelings of guilt, anger, and remorse. As we mentioned above, there is no right way to grieve, and all we need to do is deal with the grief as it arises with the understanding that we don’t get to choose how it arises.
Some of the other common obstacles to the grieving process would include:
- Trying to numb our grief using alcohol or other drugs.
Avoiding our grief by overworking, over-exercising, overeating, or some other avoidance behavior.
Viewing grief as shameful or a sign of weakness.
Not giving ourselves the time to grieve.
Trying to intellectualize our grief (e.g. focusing on facts while ignoring what we are feeling).
Trying to deal with the grief without any support (sometimes we don’t need much support, but sometimes we do, and it is important to recognize when we do).
Not taking care of our physical and mental health.
Grief and Addiction
Alcohol and drugs can appear like an attractive option at those times when we feel overwhelmed by grief. Getting drunk or high can temporarily allow us to avoid this pain, but it is still going to be waiting for us when we are sober. In fact, this type of self-medication is ultimately going to make the situation worse, and it can easily lead to addiction.
Grief and Recovery
Grief is a part of life, and it is something we all need to face in our lives. The risk for those of us who are in recovery is that unless we have sufficient coping strategies for dealing with such intense emotion, we are going to be at high risk of relapse. Therefore, developing self-compassion, building a strong support network, and being honest about our feelings is so crucial in recovery. If these things are not in place before disaster strikes, we may not have the resources we need to deal with grief smoothly.
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