Grief is an intense feeling of sadness that can occur following loss. The most commonly recognized cause of grief is the death of a family member, friend, or acquaintance. Furthermore, however, grief can be triggered by any loss whether big or small. For instance, the loss of a pet, moving away from a childhood home, going through a divorce, or suffering a serious health injury, are all occurrences that can cause grief. There is no right or wrong way for an individual to experience grief and everyone will have to take their own unique road to recovery. The length of the process and how emotionally painful it is, will also differ somewhat based on the type of loss that has been experienced.
Other factors that can influence how an individual experiences grief is their age, financial situation, cultural background, and the support network they have access too. Ultimately, every individual has two ways of dealing with grief. Some individuals may find themselves unable to cope with the pain and ignore or deny that anything has occurred. By acknowledging that a loss has occurred, learning the various reactions of grief, and progressing through the stages of grief, however, the griever can recover. Dealing with factors blocking the healing process, getting help, acknowledging the unique needs of children dealing with grief, and using healing resources are also likely to be part of the grieving process. With time, recovery is possible.
Reactions to Loss
The bereavement process is a highly personalized experience; however, mental health professionals believe that several stages of grief exist. These stages are often defined as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It should be noted, however, that some models of grief use additional stages. Furthermore, not everyone will necessarily experience all of the stages of grief or in any particular order. In fact, many individuals will progress back and forth between various stages or even experience several stages concurrently. To deal with the intensity of feeling, grievers should give their emotions free rein and allow themselves to experience whatever thoughts, emotions, or feelings arise.
Denial, Numbness and Shock
Whether a loss occurs suddenly or with warning, it can still cause a sudden shock, a denial, or disbelief that such a loss could have occurred. The experience has often been described as being in a fog or being in a dream. This sudden numbness or dazed feeling, serves to provide some temporary protection from the reality of the loss. The shock isolates the griever from the full impact of their loss until they are better able to deal with the emotional pain. As the mind begins to accept the loss, the numbness will diminish, slowly allowing the individual to process and deal with their feelings about the loss. Responses to denial can include withdrawal or pretending that nothing has happened. For instance, a terminally ill cancer patient may pretend nothing is wrong at first. Denial is a normal reaction to a loss and should not be thought of as a lack of caring.
Bargaining is about hope and making promises. For an individual who is ill, bargaining may involve pleas to their doctors for second opinions, alternative treatments, and experimental drugs. Anything that will help them hang on a little longer. Some may plead directly to their God, asking to be cured from their progressive illness. In exchange, individuals will often pledge to donate more money to charitable causes and spread the words of their faith in return. If a death of a loved one has occurred, the griever may become preoccupied with bargaining as an unattainable way of undoing the loss. For instance, a young child who has lost a parent, may beg for their parent to come back, in exchange they promise to never misbehave again. Someone who feels quality for the loss of a loved one may become obsessed with imaging how life would have been if they had not committed a specific action, such as driving when another driver hit their car and a loved one died. Insight into the feelings being experienced by the griever such as guilt or resentment can help further the healing process.
When the griever accepts that no amount of bargaining will change their loss, they begin to accept the reality and enter into depression. Individuals who are depressed often feel miserable, hopeless, and powerless to control their loss. Often depressed individuals will sob, have trouble concentrating, feel pity for the way the loss has affected their life and have trouble sleeping. Loss of appetite and weight loss can also occur. These sad feelings are a fundamental part of the grieving process, allowing the griever to fully understand that their loss is not reversible and allowing them to heal from the loss.
For some, loss causes a sense of feeling abandoned and left behind by those who have passed away. To deal with this anger they may become resentful towards the person who has died as well as towards a higher power that they blame for not interfering and saving their loved one. For some, the anger becomes so intense they rage out at others around them. In the short-term, this anger gives the survivor some control over the situation. With time, most will be able to better explore their true buried emotions and let go of their anger.
Eventually, survivors will adjust to the reality of their loss. The pain of the loss will fade somewhat in intensity and the survivor will be able to get back on even footing. The loss that they have experienced, becomes a part of their life experiences, however, the survivor is not as focused on the negative. Instead, the bereaved can reflect back on the situation and remember the good times and preserve their memories of their loved one. This process, however, remains very unique to everyone. Depending on the type of loss that has occurred, the process may be short-term or take several years. The death of a parent, sibling, or other close relative will usually require the longest time to accept.
Factors That Can Hinder Healing
Instead, of dealing with the intense emotions of grief, some individuals instead try to hide their pain and push it to the side. Some may work night and day so they are too exhausted to think about the loss that has occurred. Others may force themselves to socialize much more frequently than before in order to avoid the sorrowful feelings. To numb the distress of their loss these individuals may also turn to drugs, alcohol, or other risky behaviors to mask their true feelings. These solutions only temporarily suppress the emotions, soon they return, even more intensely than before. For some the unhealthy behavior is then further exacerbated as a coping mechanism for the pain and serious substance abuse issues can occur.
Help Resolving Grief
There are a variety of different ways of getting through grief and to recovery. Keeping a journal and writing down all feelings can be a therapeutic and creative way of exploring feelings and putting them into perspective. Other creative ways of expressing grief include creating a photo album, singing, and talking with other family or friends also going through the loss. Attending support groups can also be a useful way of connecting with others who have experienced a loss. The ability to talk about the loss with others in similar situations allows the bereaved to feel less alone and helps them get the sympathy and support they need to move forward. Grief is not just emotional; it can influence physical health as well. To resolve grief and prevent additional stress, regular exercise, healthy eating and getting a good night’s rest are important.
Children and Grief
Age does affect the grieving process. Young children, for instance, may not be able to fully comprehend the loss that has occurred. Alternatively, teenagers often fully comprehend the basic concept of loss but can still have trouble expressing how they feel or accepting that their personal loss is irreversible. When explaining a loss to a child, adults are usually encouraged to provide direct answers but speak gently. Asking questions and encouraging the child to share their feelings and talk about their loved one should be encouraged. They should also be monitored for changes in social behaviors, physical violence towards other children, for instance, may indicate additional help is needed.
Other Healing Resources
Loss is an inevitable part of the life experience and everyone who lives long enough will have to find a way of dealing with loss. Overtime, it is possible to learn to live with the loss, form new relationships, and develop coping skills that help the griever effectively learn to keep on living. Even after recovering from grief, however, holidays, birthdays, and other special occasion can be more difficult to deal with. Learning to fully embrace and move past the loss, however, can encourage survivors to find ways to celebrate and honor the memory of their loved one on these special days.