Grieving comes to most of us at some point in our lives. In fact, statistics show that each person can expect to experience the loss of a loved one every nine to thirteen years. The resulting sadness may be the most painful of life’s experiences. Because it is painful, however, our eventual adaptation to the loss can bring meaning and integrity to our lives – and this, ultimately, is a gift from the one we have lost. It reminds that the circle is unbroken.
Our ability to adapt to loss is an important feature of the course of our lives. Change can foster growth. Loss can give rise to gain. If we do not grieve a loss however, it may drain us of our energy and interfere with our living fully in the present. If we are not able to mourn at all, we may spend our lives under the spell of old issues and past relationships – living in the past and failing to connect the experiences of the present.
The Grieving Process
Grieving is a process of experiencing our reactions to loss. It is similar to mourning. The term “bereavement” means the state, not the process, of suffering from loss. Normal grieving is an expected part of the process of recuperating from a loss. The intensity of the process comes as a surprise to most people – and for many it becomes one of their most significant life experiences. People have their own individual grief responses. No two people will experience the process the same way.
The first reaction to the loss of a loved one, even when the loss is expected, is usually a sense of disbelief, shock, numbness and bewilderment. The survivor may experience a period of denial in which the reality of the loss is put out of mind. This reaction provides the person time to prepare to deal with the inevitable pain.
The feeling of numbness then turns to suffering. The person feels empty. There are constant reminders of the one who has passed away. There may be periods of increased energy and anxiety followed by times of deep sadness, lethargy, and fatigue. There may be a period of prolonged despair as the person begins to accept the loss.
The one who grieves may find it difficult to feel pleasure and it may seem easier most of the time to avoid other people. The bereaved may dream repeatedly about the lost loved one or hear their voice or even actually see them. The grieving survivor may adopt some mannerisms of the one who has died.
Sadness may be interspersed with times of intense anger. Many of us have difficulty in expressing anger toward a loved one who has died. However, anger enters into most of our relationships, and our relationship with the deceased does continue, even after death. We may criticize ourselves for not doing enough to prevent the death or for having treated the deceased badly in the past.
The grieving person may become irritable and quarrelsome – and may misinterpret signs of goodwill from others as messages of rejection. Normal stress may trigger periods of deep anger. Physical symptoms commonly accompany grief. These include weakness, sleep disturbance, a change in appetite, and shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, back pain, gastric reflux or heart palpitations.
Some people may show a “flight to health,” as though the loss were behind them and they had started to move on again. This pattern can occur frequently, especially in a society that encourages quick fixes, and even though complete resolution of the grief process can take up to two years to three. To shorten the process by pretending that it’s over invites prolonged symptoms.
Suggestions for Experiencing Grief
All of us grieve in different ways, depending on the circumstances of the death, our own personal characteristics and the meanings attached to the death by those left behind. There are specific actions that most of us can take to complete the process in a way that allows us to move on, eventually, to a whole and meaningful life.
Allow yourself to grieve and feel the depth of your loss.
Grieving is hard work. We may feel that we should “be strong” and hold in our emotions; that happy thoughts and feelings are the only way to get through a trying time. This approach, however, makes it very difficult to complete the grieving process. It is important to accept the reality of the loss. The person who died is gone and will not return. This fact must be accepted in order for the grief process to continue.
Try to understand why the death occurred and the events that led to the death.
Give yourself permission to feel and think about whatever comes up regarding your loss. If happy thoughts come your way, allow them to happen. If deep pain or sadness or anxiety show up, or when tears turn into uncontrollable sobs, give in to these temporary feelings. Embrace your sadness and make it your own. If it is difficult to open yourself to these feelings, it may be time to make a personal commitment to complete the grieving process. Vow to yourself that for your own benefit; for the good of others in your life and for your future happiness, that you need to get through your loss completely and in a healthy way. This means opening yourself up to all of your feelings and letting them happen.
Accept the help of others and let them know what you need.
Don’t try to go it alone. This is the cardinal rule of grief work. Isolation is bad for most people, and is especially harmful for the person who is grieving. Research shows that people who have social support complete the grieving process better than those who grieve in isolation. Social support should be available to you during the entire grieving process but especially initially after the death. Turn to people who you trust and who are willing to listen. We need to share the intense thoughts and feelings that we experience when we are alone.
Being with other people can give you a sense of security and reality when your life has been turned upside down by the loss of a loved one. Accepting the help of others during mourning is not a sign of weakness. It simply means that you can allow yourself to be comforted during a rough period, and this will contribute to your strength later.
Sometimes other people may not know what you need, even if their intentions are good. In this case, it is important that you educate them. If they say the wrong things, let them know. If there are specific things you need or don’t want, tell them. Assertiveness may be difficult during grieving because you have little energy, but clear communications is essential to getting your needs met.
Be realistic in processing your grief.
Read up on grief work or talk to a grief counselor who can describe the grief process. Understand what you are trying to accomplish, and realize that your pain will subside in time. Understand what this death means to you and what issues it brings up for you. The loss may always be there but you can learn to understand it and feel comfortable with yourself in time. Accept the fact that you have will have some reactions during the process which you may not like – angry outbursts, ignoring others, moodiness.
Expect your loss to dredge up intense emotions, and know that these feelings will pass in time. Your way of grieving is unique to you and to your individual loss. It is not helpful to blame or to be blamed for the unique ways each of us grieves. Don’t let the personal judgments of others determine how or to what degree you should grieve. Your grieving is your own.
Find ways to express your feelings.
Emotional expression is one of the most important aspects of the grieving process. Each of us express emotions differently. Some of us feel better when we talk about our feelings while others prefer to write their feeling in a journal. Some act out feelings – they run, dance, hit a punching bag or pound on a pillow. Look for trusted and nonjudgmental people in your support system who are able to listen to you talk at length; be with you while you cry until you can’t cry anymore, and listen to your experiences with the deceased. Expressing your feelings is a crucial part of the grief experience.
Submit to the grief process and take care of your own needs.
Even though grieving is hard work, and we may prefer to avoid it, there is no way around it. The death of a loved one is a major disruption in your life and you’ll need time to adjust to your loss. Here are some real-life concerns to keep in mind during the grief process:
- Give yourself some quiet time alone. Find a good balance between being around others and giving yourself some solitude so that you can reflect on your loss and process your feelings.
- Allow yourself to have breaks from your grief. Grieving is difficult. As in any hard job, you need to take occasional breaks. Go out and try to have a good time with friends but only if you feel up to it. Read a good book. Lose yourself in a good movie.
- If possible, avoid making long-term decisions. Times of crisis decrease our ability to make rational decisions. Put decisions off until things have settled down to a more stable pattern.
- Take care of your health. Grieving can wear us down physically and make us vulnerable to illnesses. Even though it may be difficult, try to get some physical exercise like a daily walk. Maintain good nutrition but don’t avoid indulging in an occasional treat. A little self-indulgence is important to the process. Above all, avoid alcohol and drugs during this time. They may provide temporary relief, but your goal should focus on grieving productively and not on avoiding it.
Look for the help in for grief counseling.
Finally, grieving is a very personal experience and one of our most painful to endure. It is also a journey into the depths of our lives that can ultimately reveal our strength of character. A professional therapist can offer ongoing support while you grieve and is likely to be better prepared than most to empathize with you and guide you through the process effectively.
My Approach to Grief Counseling
My overall role as a grief counselor is to provide you with emotional support; help you prepare for the grieving process and the inevitable changes that will happen in your world. I will help you focus on the most important things you’ll need to do – allow yourself to completely grieve your loss in your own way and in your own time, and to allow others to do the same.
I will help you to talk openly about your loss and when you’re ready, we’ll talk about the events of that day and how you coped and struggled. We will talk about what’s happened since then and how you’re dealing with family and friends. I’ll give you coping skills for the times that others aren’t available to you and for occasions in which grieving could be detrimental.
I will help you prepare for random and uncontrollable feelings. For example, you might cry one minute; be angry the next, and laugh the next minute. You can feel helplessness, loneliness, guilt, anxiety. At times you might feel your situation is unmanageable.
When you’re ready, I will emotionally support you while you rebuild your life and help you feel connected to the deceased. Home visits and regular phone support could be available and I can be available to other family members as needed.
Please call me at 949-760-7171 or text 949-244-8572 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or to schedule an appointment. Click here for an overview of my book “Building Better Relationships – A Guidebook for Men.”