What is Grief?
Grief is a normal and natural response to loss. It is most often an unhappy and painful emotion. Though we often expect to grieve the death of a family member or friend, many other significant losses can also trigger grief. Examples include:
A chronic condition that affects one’s quality of life (PTSD, for example)
The end of a significant relationship
A move to a new community
A much-anticipated opportunity or life goal is suddenly closed to us
The death of a pet
Someone we love contracts a potentially life-threatening illness
We contract a life-threatening condition or illness
Loss of a bodily function
Loss of employment
Grieving such losses is important because it allows us to 'free-up' energy that is bound to the lost person, object, or experience—so that we might re-invest that energy elsewhere. Until we grieve effectively we are likely to find reinvesting difficult; a part of us remains tied to the past.
Grieving is not forgetting. Nor is it drowning in tears. Healthy grieving provides the ability to remember the importance of our loss—but with a newfound sense of peace, rather than searing pain.
No two people are likely to experience grief in the same way or in the same time frame. The way we think and feel, the way our body functions, and the way we interact with others may all be affected. Some of the more common experiences/symptoms include:
Anger—at those responsible, at the deceased, at ourselves, at God, at any handy target
Guilt—"If only I had done. . .”
Loss of appetite
Withdrawal from others
Intense sadness or tears when a memory is triggered
Loneliness or a sense of separateness from others
Loss of life's meaning
Sometimes our reactions are so changeable, intense, or irrational that we fear we may be going crazy. Often grieving people are afraid to confront their grief for fear that if they open the door they will be drowned in a flood of tears or rage. Though this is very unlikely, allowing others to help us in our grieving is good insurance that we will keep our balance.
No matter what our intense experiences of grief may be, they are temporary. There is life after grief—if we acknowledge and work through our reactions, rather than trying to stop them. Remember, taking it slowly is an option. In that way, we do not feel all of the pain of the loss at once. That would be too much for most of us.
Everyone feels grief in their own way. However, there are common stages to the process of mourning. It starts with recognizing a loss and continues until a person eventually accepts that loss. People's responses to grief will be different, depending on the circumstances. Grief can last between several months to several years to work through and process.
There can be five stages of grief. These reactions might not occur in a specific order, and can (at times) occur together. Not everyone experiences all of these emotions:
Denial, disbelief, numbness
Anger, blaming self or others
Bargaining (for instance "If I am cured of this cancer, I will never smoke again.")
Depressed mood, sadness, and crying
Acceptance, coming to terms
How Do You Do Grief Work?
Fortunately, much of the process of healthy grieving seems to be built into our genes. Acknowledging and growing from losses is such a natural process that much of it will happen without our direction—if we relax our expectations of how we "should" grieve and give up some of our need to be in control.
But healthy grieving is an active process; it is not true that, "You just need to give it time." One way of understanding the work to be done is to think of grieving as a series of tasks we need to complete (not necessarily in sequence):
To accept the finality of the loss;
To acknowledge and express the full range of feelings we experience as a result of the loss;
To adjust to a life in which the lost person, object, or experience is absent;
To say good-bye, to ritualize our movement to a new peace with the loss.
Good friends, family members, or a personal counselor can all be helpful in doing this vital work. You can also do a good deal to help yourself.
Helping Yourself Through Grief
Active, healthy grieving requires balance—balancing the time you spend directly working on your grief with the time you spend coping with your day-to-day life; balancing the amount of time you spend with others with the time you spend alone; balancing seeking help from others with caring for yourself. Focusing too strongly on any single side of these pairings is getting off-track.
Here are some things others have found useful in their healthy grieving. Choose the ones that fit for you, or make up your own methods of self-care. Remember that grieving is an active process, it takes energy that will likely have to be temporarily withdrawn from the usual pursuits of your life. Treat yourself with the same care, tolerance, and affection you would extend to a valued friend in a similar situation.
Go gently -- take whatever time it needs, rather than giving yourself a deadline for when you should be "over it;"
Expect and accept some reduction in your usual efficiency and consistency;
Try to avoid taking on new responsibilities or making major life decisions for a time;
Talk regularly about your grief and your memories with someone you trust;
Accept help and support when offered;
Be particularly attentive to maintaining healthy eating and sleeping patterns;
Exercise moderately and regularly;
Keep a journal;
Read—there are many helpful books on grief and trauma. If your experience of grief/trauma is understood, it is easier to handle;
Plan, and allow yourself to enjoy some GOOD TIMES without guilt. The goal is balance;
Carry or wear a linking object—a keepsake that symbolically reminds you of your loss. Anticipate the time in the future when you no longer need to carry this reminder and gently let it go;
Tell those around you what helps you and what doesn’t. Most people would like to help if they knew how;
Take warm, leisurely baths;
See a counselor;
Get a massage regularly;
Set aside a specific private time daily to remember and experience whatever feelings arise with the memories;
Choose your entertainment carefully—some movies, TV shows, or books can intensify already strong feelings;
Join a support group—there are hundreds of such groups and people have a wonderful capacity to help each other;
Plan for 'special days' such as holidays or anniversaries. Feelings can be particularly intense at these times;
Take a yoga class;
Connect on the Internet. There are many resources for people in grief, as well as opportunities to chat with fellow grievers;
Vent your anger in healthy ways, rather than holding it in. A brisk walk or a game of tennis can help;
Speak to a spiritual leader;
Plant yourself in nature;
Do something to help someone else;
Write down your lessons. Healthy grieving will have much to teach you.
I have found that life is one grieving process after the other, of course, in varying degrees. For example, moving from grade school to middle school and then to high school and to college involves a grieving process. You are leaving behind relationships/experiences as you are moving toward new ones. All life changes require a form of grieving to move through them. Learning to recognize grief for what it is and learning to grieve in healthy ways makes life much easier to take.
Family and friends can offer emotional support during the grieving process. You can help the stress of grieving by joining a support group, where members share common experiences and problems. Sometimes outside factors can affect the normal grieving process, and people might need help from:
Mental health specialists
Grief and loss can affect your overall health. It can lead to depression or excessive alcohol or drug use. Grief that lasts for more than two months and is severe enough to interfere with daily life may be a sign of more serious illness, such as major depression. Medication may be helpful.
Call your health care provider if:
You can't deal with grief
You are using excessive amounts of drugs or alcohol
You become very depressed
You have prolonged depression that interferes with your daily life
Grief should not be prevented because it is a healthy response to loss. Instead, it should be respected. Those who are grieving should have support to help them through the process. Although grief is a part of being human and a part of life, it can be very painful and difficult. Be easy on yourself and seek help when it is needed.