Are you struggling to cope up with grief?
It’s never easy to lose a loved one or anything so significant to you. However, you must distinguish so well if you are experiencing the normal grieving process or if your grief is becoming detrimental to health. Besides, grief is a major risk factor of depression.
What is Grief?
Grief is a natural reaction to the loss of a family member, partner or friend. Grieving is a normal process that will run its course
eventually, although there are no magic timeframes. The timeframe of grief and the degree of pain experienced will be dependent on many factors including the type of relationship with the loved one, the way in which the loved one passed, personality, coping skills and whether the death was expected or unexpected.
Grief can be described as standing by the ocean. Sometimes it feels like a tidal wave that knocks you down making you breathless and disorientated. At other times, it can feel like your head is just above water but could be pulled under at any time. Some days the waves are up to your waist and it takes a lot of energy just to walk through them. Then there are days when the water is lapping at your feet and you are still able to focus on the beach and the horizon.
Different people experience grief in different ways. It could manifest in physical, emotional or psychological forms. Typical grief reactions can include, but are not limited to the following:
Why is it Important to Process Grief?
Not everybody has enough resilience to manage the intensity of grief. Many factors can influence this resilience such as the type of relationship you had, whether the death was sudden or traumatic and how you have managed stress in the past. Some people find themselves unable to get out of bed, whilst other people are able to engage in daily responsibilities but may have a very strong reaction months or years later. Grieving is a normal reaction to any loss, but sometimes it can get complicated and become detrimental to health with the following factors:
- Avoidance– Throwing yourself into work/family/activities to avoid processing the grief
- Numbing– Using drugs (prescription or illicit) or alcohol to numb the pain to feel better
- Isolation– Poor family or social support, or being away from family support
- Conflict– Relationship, family or work conflict
- Closure– Unable to say goodbye or attend the funeral, difficulties finding answers/information
All of these factors can result in a condition called complicated grief.
Complicated grief prevents you from resuming your normal life. It keeps you in the dark. It’s like being stuck in intense mourning. It gets in the way of your healing process.
Moreover, more than 350 million people suffer from depression worldwide according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and grief is a major risk factor that may lead to depression. To determine if you are going through the normal grieving process, here are the typical stages of grief. These stages do not necessarily occur in order and at times, they overlap and re-occur.
Stages of Grief
- SHOCK/ NUMBNESS
An initial stage of shock occurs when you first hear the news. People often describe this as being in a zombie-like state and some people appear to be functioning well on the outside. Our adrenaline process takes over and a feeling of numbness can prevail as a protection mechanism from reality. This stage can last for a few days to a few weeks.
It is natural to question the loss of a loved one and to be a state of disbelief. Some people want to avoid any planning or involvement of a funeral due to this disbelief as these actions reinforce a painful reality. Common thoughts include “This can’t be true.”; “This isn’t happening.”; “I’ll wake up and it will be a bad dream.” This disbelief can extend to other people with the grieving person wondering how they can be going about their daily business, or even be having fun, when your world has been changed forever and the pain is all-consuming.
It is very common to feel anger towards your loved one for leaving and for the pain you are experiencing. You may even turn the anger inward towards yourself i.e. “I’m furious that I did/didn’t ….” Some people find that this anger is directed in other ways such as towards inanimate objects, family and friends, strangers or injustices within systems. Anger can also be directed towards a higher power and questioning of belief systems “Why did you take my loved one?”, “Why is this happening to me?” “This is so unfair.” Guilt can be very intense after the death of a loved one. The ‘what ifs’ and ‘if only’ can being preoccupying and lead to a variety of different imagined scenarios causing a great deal of pain. In brief moments of pleasure you can be hit suddenly with intense guilt for enjoying yourself based upon the thought that you can’t share that pleasure with your loved one or that he/she won’t experience it ever again.
A normal reaction to intense pain is to try to regain control. It is common for people to ‘bargain’ in an attempt to reduce overwhelming feelings. Examples can include “I will never drink again if you bring him/her back/stop the pain.” “If I just keep busy it will get better.” “If I finish off his/her project then it will be ok.” “If I throw myself into this work/charity/event I can make it better.”
The depression, sadness and missing a loved one can sometimes be the longest of the other stages. It is during this stage that the true magnitude of the loss is reflected upon. The first birthday, anniversary and holidays can be difficult reminders of the loss. Feelings of despair, hopelessness, emptiness and loneliness are common. Often withdrawal from friends, family and social events occurs as you reflect on the memories of your time together and grieve for the loss of future expectations.
This last stage of grief occurs as you start to manage problems that occur as a result of the loss. You start to process the reality of the situation and gain hope that your future can be brighter. Acceptance does not mean forgetting, as this is impossible. Acceptance does not mean you will not ever feel the grief again, as many unexpected situations can trigger memories (i.e. a song, a car, an advert, birthdays/anniversaries, a phrase/comment etc.). Acceptance is about adjusting and creating a meaningful life, re-evaluating values
and using the loss to truly appreciate the importance of those we care for who are still in our lives. A good analogy of acceptance is that grief is like a massive black inkblot on a piece of paper. The inkblot covers most of the paper so that only a few white edges can be seen. That inkblot doesn’t change. As we process the grief, we learn how to add new white paper to the outside as we move through our life.
7 Effective Strategies to Process Grief
- Look back in ‘kind sight’
Our mind naturally torments us with the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ so try to show some compassion towards yourself and rather than being critical for past actions (or lack of), look kindly on these actions as being human and use this as a learning experience for the future.
Acknowledge that the pain you feel is what anyone would feel should they be in your position and that it is ok to have these feelings. Be kind and compassionate towards yourself and try to engage in little things to take care of yourself. If this is too much ask someone to help with cooking and cleaning, or just coming and sitting with you.
- Managing triggers/flashbacks
Memories (even positive ones) can invoke the reality of the loss and before we are even aware, we are caught in the thoughts and the pain overwhelms. A simple mindfulness technique of labelling the thoughts as ‘a painful memory’, acknowledges that it’s ok to feel this pain. It indicates how much you cared for your loved one. Take two or three deep breaths and tune in to things you can see or hear. This will bring you back to the present moment allowing you to refocus on the task at hand.
- Access social support
Connect with those around you, especially when you don’t feel like it. Isolation can intensify the grieving process. Seek out new supports that are non-judgemental and understanding such as a support group or an online forum for people who have experienced something similar
- Family members
Acknowledge that immediate family members and those close to the loved one will grieve in different ways and in different timeframes. Acknowledge these differences without judging.
The grieving process activates our fight or flight response which uses a lot of energy. Although you may not feel like eating, having small nutritious meals can help to restore this energy, which makes it a little easier to cope.
- Recreate or connect with your purpose in life
Losing a loved one can mean that you question the meaning or purpose of your life, often feeling lost or directionless. Reconnecting with a spiritual or religious purpose or developing new goals for work or family can help to create a new sense of direction when the grief can sometimes keep you stuck.
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