Over the years I have encountered many people suffering and struggling with grief and grieving in my work and in the greater community. Historically, there has been conflicting information available about how “best” to do this, from cultural and scientific perspectives alike. For example, those in mourning may have heard, “cry, men shouldn’t cry, go through the stages of grieving, there are no set stages of grieving, power through it, don’t power through it but experience your feelings…” and the list goes on.
While this confusion has existed, and there have been different theories surrounding the topic of grief over the years, some things are clear:
-death of someone close to us is one of the most severe stressors possible
-grief, like fear, is a stress reaction that has been found to cause real physiological changes (including changes in levels of stress hormones like cortisol, changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, heart palpitations and more)
-grief is a normal reaction to loss in humans
-everyone will experience grief at some point in their life
-grief is profound
-grief is complex
-people grieve in different ways and in different time frames
-how someone is likely to grieve is best predicted by their personality and resilience before the loss
-grieving is work
-grieving is a process
In the current field of psychology there is much agreement that grieving is a natural process that involves strong feelings that often come in waves. In fact, in the field, part of the definition of normal grief states that the bereaved experience a mixture of sadness and more pleasant emotions as they think about the loved one they lost. One researcher (Bonanno), who interviewed the bereaved, found it was common for them to be crying in one moment and laughing in the next. This can happen for weeks or months, even years. It used to be thought that the first year was common for the grieving process to largely occur but more recently some have noted that in many cases much of the first year is focused on just learning to adjust and survive so that in the year/s that follow the person may need to address more of the emotional impact of the loss. I like to acknowledge to those grieving how different this process tends to be for different people. Some are surprised by their strong emotions, or lack thereof, but everyone needs to do the work of grief at their own pace. This work can be very painful and distressing and I always say individuals are never really prepared for it. I also try to avoid saying we are working to help them “get over” their loss because many say love continues after death and they don’t want to “get over” that. So we discuss the process of grieving involving learning to live with the loss and adjust to the loss but not necessarily “get over” it.
Psychologists help people who are experiencing fear, guilt or anxiety that might be associated with some of these normal, but difficult, grief reactions. Similarly, sometimes the loss of a loved one can also lead to, or coexist with, a major depression where the pain and anguish of the loss is experienced more continuously and the grieving individual finds themselves more hopeless and despairing almost all of the time. Therapists can help with this too.
Here are some strategies to try to help with the work of grieving:
*Make time for your feelings (try to accept them without judgement).
*Talk about the loved one who died (share with others what happened and let them know about the death).
*Know that it is normal for your feelings to fluctuate (you might be crying one minute and laughing the next).
*Take care of yourself and your family (eating healthy, getting enough rest and even a walk can help get you through each day and moving forward)
*Help others struggling with the loss (sharing stories and feelings about the deceased can help you and other loved ones).
*Spend time in a ritual with a picture or object connected to the person who has died.
*Know your limits and allow yourself a break when the feelings are too much (but do get back to your grief at a set time or it could eat away at you).
*Try to stay open to the wonders of life (the smile on a baby’s face, the smell of a beautiful flower…) even in the midst of grief.
*Remember and celebrate or honor the life of your loved one (it could be a donation to a cause or a tree or garden planted in ones memory – it needs to be something that feels right to you)
*Most importantly, treat yourself with love, patience and kindness during this time.
Sometimes people feel alone in their grief. In those instances I also often make these recommendations:
- Read one of the many good books available on grief and loss (e.g. When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner, Necessary Losses by Judith Voirst, How to Go on Living When Someone we Love Dies by Therese A. Rando, Don’t Take My Grief Away by Doug Manning…)
- Find a support group. Check your local hospital website under “bereavement services” for groups they hold or publicize. Often these groups are very specific (for the loss of a spouse/partner, loss of a parent, loss of a child, newly bereaved…) which can be helpful.