Have you ever considered the varying degrees and ways you, or someone you know, might feel and express grief?
Perhaps you have experienced grief first hand. You may have lost your parents, a partner, friend or child and can relate. Contrastingly, you may have very little experience, somewhat limiting your ability to relate to those bereaved. As a nation what exactly are our attitudes and behaviors towards those who are grieving? A recent article quoted Family Therapist, Emily Adams who believes ‘we have a cultural expectation of claiming to be okay very quickly after a loss.’¹ Adams states because we have this expectation that ‘everything’s fine’, when things are not fine, it can be quite difficult to communicate and to reach out for help – adding anxiety to the bereaved.
With that sentiment in mind, have you ever considered how comfortable you are at engaging with friends or family in conversations about their grief or loss? If your answer is, uncomfortable, perhaps very uncomfortable – you are not alone. However, learning more about grief may help you to feel more at ease about starting up a conversation or reaching out to someone suffering a loss.
Below are the five stages of grief, keep in mind, Adams states people often bounce from stage to stage and back again.
- Denial – this helps us to survive the loss and make sense of the overwhelming shock. We can feel numb to the loss as a way to cope or slow down the absorbing and processing of such a painful experience, survive the loss and make sense of this overwhelming shock in or lives. We can begin to feel numb to the loss and try not to feel what has happened as a way to cope or to slow down the absorbing and processing of such a painful experience.
- Anger – Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal.² Grief can feel like being abandoned, deserted or even lost at sea. We can begin directing our anger at all sorts of people. In time anger becomes easier to manage as we begin to process this stage of our loss. ¹
- Bargaining – At this point we begin trying to bargain with God to make changes. E.g. “if you do this God, I will change that and never sin again. We can begin to live in the ‘what ifs’ looking to avoid the pain of our loss or injury or in an attempt to rescue our loved. We want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. This stage is about negotiating our way out of the pain.
- Depression – At this stage we can experience grief, intense sadness and emptiness on a more profound level. This is the appropriate response to great loss and may begin to feel like it will never go away. We may begin to withdraw from any social activities and from the activities we normally participate in during our daily lives. This is a very necessary step towards healing and is not deemed a mental illness but a natural, essential and progressive response to loss.
- Acceptance – We may never be okay with the loss of a loved one. This stage is not about liking what has happened. But rather about reaching an acceptance of the permanence and reality of our loss. Eventually we will learn to live our lives as a readjustment to life without our loved one. We can also experience a range of emotions including guilt.
Every individual grieves in their own way, and while you may not know what stage a friend or family member is in, perhaps following the social norms and avoiding the topic, is not the answer. In fact, avoiding the topic may act to exacerbate the pain of someone grieving. They may be left feeling their loved one has been forgotten. It may also rob the bereaved from an opportunity to ask for help or simply talk, reminisce and process their loss.
So what else perhaps don’t we know about grief?
- Children and teenagers may grieve just as intensely as adults but show their grief differently. Adults may not recognise that certain behaviours signify that the child or young person is grieving deeply.
- Just because you have had a significant loss yourself you can never know exactly how another person feels because you are not in their situation. But if you have had a loss yourself you will have experienced some of their feelings of grief.
- An older person may be negatively effected by societal attitudes toward the death of an older person which may act to minimise their loss. For example, people around them may make comments such as ‘he had a good innings’ or ‘she lived a long life’. These attitudes can leave those grieving feeling as though they shouldn’t be so sad, or they should heal more easily. These attitudes are not helpful and don’t consider the feelings of loss the bereaved is feeling.
- It is common to feel less confident in yourself after you have suffered the loss of a loved one. Research shows that following the death of a close relative or friend, or other major loss, many people feel that they lose control of “normal” feelings, thoughts and routines.
- People react in many different ways to grief. Moods may swing up and down between despair and elation. Laughter can be part of grief. And it’s OK to have ‘time out’ from grieving.
- Grieving does not have an end date. It can take many months or years to adjust to the changes in your life following the death of a close relative or friend.
- The different genders may grieve differently. Gender identity can affect grieving responses and behaviours. Where there are differences in grief responses these may cause misunderstandings and conflicts.
- The time after a funeral can be very difficult. A funeral or other ceremony to farewell and honour the person who has died can bring comfort through shared grief. However, after the funeral, the realisation that the person is never coming back starts to sink in and support from friends may lessen. The months following the funeral can be a very difficult time. ³
Let’s not avoid the topic of grief any longer. Instead let’s talk, listen and support a family member or friend in need and together, we can share in the healing process.