Lorna is a qualified psychologist and writer with an interest in drawing awareness to and informing others of mental health issues.
That feeling of holding on...
...and trying to let go at the same time can sum up how many of us experience the intense emotions associated with grief. Grief is a natural part of the healing process associated with loss and is normally experienced in cycles. This can sometimes feel like being on a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, with no end in sight. My own personal feelings of grief when my father died fluctuated between extreme numbness to anger, sorrow and sadness. I feel that grief gives us lots of room to experience behaviours, thoughts and feelings which might otherwise appear unnatural.
We all have our own individual coping mechanisms when dealing with painful experiences; loss of a loved one, loss of a pet, moving home and leaving school are but a few that we can encounter. Due to our unique experiences, personalities and traits, each person will cope with grief differently. It is advisable to gain an insight into the mental, physical and emotional toll of grief, as a better understanding will enable you to support family members and others who are grieving.
There are many varying responses to grieving, however, the following responses have been seen in adults and children.
- Emotional: Distress, sadness, helplessness and anxiety
- Physical: Difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite and feeling lethargic
- Spiritual: Questioning beliefs, unable to comprehend and feeling lost
- Behavioural: Withdrawal and isolation, bouts of uncontrollable crying and listlessness
- Cognitive: Vivid dreams, confusion, poor concentration and forgetfulness
As with any traumatic event, recovery and acceptance of grief will be an emotional journey unique to each individual’s experience. There is no particular order or time frame during which this process occurs – it is as personal as the grief itself.
It takes strength to make your way through grief, to grab hold of life and let it pull you forward.
— Patti Davis
Stages of Grief
1. Shock and Denial
When faced with loss, we often put up a barrier in order to protect ourselves from the painful truth. We are overwhelmed as our world is turned upside down, no longer safe and predictable but chaotic and meaningless. However, shock and denial are perfectly normal responses and allows us time to get our bearings, enabling us to cope with day-to-day living. Giving yourself a little grace to only deal with what you can cope with will protect you in the moment, and is an important part of moving towards healing and acceptance.
Denial will eventually dissipate, allowing the reality of the situation to finally sink in. This is the time when feelings of anger may come to the surface; even though it is important to let those feelings of anger have a platform, there are a few ways in which you can deal with your anger in a controlled manner.
- Ask for help: Rather than lashing out in anger, talk through how you are feeling with a trusted friend or family member. There is also the option of seeing a Bereavement Counsellor who can assist you in dealing with angry feelings.
- Write it down: It might help to write a letter to the deceased person, letting them know how you feel. This will enable you to release the anger, fear or remorse. I see this as a form of grieving where you can say all the things you wanted to, leaving the final paragraph for feelings of love and remembering.
- Meditate: Find a quiet space where you can fully relax, breathe deeply, and try to clear your mind. This not only has a calming effect but it also allows you to gain some perspective.
Internalising feelings of anger does not work, and can leave you feeling frustrated and more likely to lash out. Acknowledging and understanding the reason behind your anger is an important piece in the puzzle which enables you to process your pain.
Bargaining has a certain poignancy attached to it; the person accepts the outcome but still wants to hold on to a few more moments of normal within the chaos that surrounds them. This is achieved by attempting to negotiate either with themselves or a higher power, if they are religiously inclined. “If only I had been there for them” or “I will attend Church more often in the future” are both common thoughts attached to bargaining. You may become intensely focused on all the things that could have been if only you had more time. If these thoughts become too intense, they can lead to feelings of guilt and remorse, which can have an adverse effect on the healing process.
4. Depression and Sorrow
Accepting the truth of the loss yet still being unable to cope with it leaves the individual feeling depressed and demoralised. Very often, the bargaining stage reinforces acceptance and this can alleviate those feelings of hopelessness attached to depression and sorrow. However, grief is not linear and will be influenced by not only the strength of the attachment to the person, but in the memories you hold dear about that person. It can be triggered by a familiar smell, favourite song or anniversary. It is so important to have a good support network, especially for those days when grief hits unexpectedly.
Searching for solutions and ways to overcome their grief may mean that many people will have to restructure their lives with the aim of trying to come to terms with the reality of their situation. Joining help or support groups will give them the tools they need to overcome those intense feelings of sadness and loss.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is particularly effective for those people who suffer with a condition known as ‘complicated grief’ and who tend to avoid reminders of their loss. They become so overwhelmed that they start to close off from their feelings and, if left untreated, can contribute to ill-health and total isolation. Complicated grieving is never a choice, and is usually a combination of the circumstances of the death of the loved one and fear.
Acceptance does not mean forgetting your loved one or not experiencing feelings of sadness anymore. It comes from working through all the other emotional stages and being able to understand and come to terms with the loss. You have processed the painful truth and have now accepted your reality, however, many of the other emotional stages may surface periodically, which is perfectly natural. Acceptance is an ongoing process and is individual to the needs of each person.
Grief is a journey and the above stages can act as a guide throughout the process. However, it would be naive of us to think we can walk through the stages, tick the boxes, and put it away in a drawer to be forgotten. Most people never really accept the loss of a loved one, although they do eventually accept the reality of the loss and the fact that it is permanent. Time is of the essence when grieving, and even though we can never replace what has been lost, we can begin to live again, reach out to others, form relationships, evolve, and eventually make peace with our grief.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Lorna Lamon
Lorna Lamon (author) on June 14, 2019:
Hi Brenda, I feel grief is different for everyone and it's also a journey. Knowing that we have little reminders of our loved ones on this hard journey makes it a little easier to cope with. Thank you for commenting.
BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on June 13, 2019:
This is a good article. It has very valid points on dealing with one's grief.
I find that no matter how good we deal with it the pain doesn't completely go away.
Each time we are reminded of our loved one's through the simplest of things, we feel it once again. Be it, however brief.
Lorna Lamon on November 28, 2018:
Sorry for your loss Liz. I find it catches me unawares when I least expect it. Even now six years later I still experience the loss. Thank you for your comment and for sharing.
Liz Westwood from UK on November 28, 2018:
A friend once described grief in terms of waves. At first the waves are strong, high and frequent, but, even as they calm down and time passes, a wave can catch you unawares and throw you into turmoil again. It was a very good description of the process we went through after losing our first grandson in stillbirth.