When most people think about grief, it is usually within the context of the death of a loved one. However, grieving can include other situations involving loss, such as divorce, serious illness, or loss of a job. We may also grieve the intangible losses of life, such as the loss of innocence or unfulfilled hopes and expectations.
Surprisingly, grief can occur over any change, even a positive one, such as changing jobs, moving to a new home, or watching your children head off to college. In reality, we have all experienced grief in one form or another, whether through the death of a pet, a broken promise, or the loss of a loved one.
Grieving is a process and is unique to each individual. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, although there are healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with the emotions associated with the pain and loss.
Most of us are aware of the five stages of grief first proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Ironically, Kubler-Ross originally developed this model to illustrate the specific process experienced by terminally ill patients when first receiving and then adjusting to their diagnosis.
Over the course of time, however, this system has been adopted by many as a general model for the grieving process. Although not supported by specific research most grief experts agree that these five stages are consistent with what most people experience when suffering a significant loss.
It is important to remember that some people will not experience all five stages, nor do the stages occur in any specific order.
- Denial – Denial is the defense mechanism that we use to buffer the immediate shock of the loss. It is generally a temporary response that helps carry us through initial pain.
- Anger – As reality awakens, fear, hurt, and pain will begin to emerge. These feelings quickly evolve into anger, which is our body’s natural reaction to a threat. Anger prepares us for a fight and equips us to defend ourselves.
- Bargaining – The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control. This is where we make deals with God, or those in power to postpone or divert the inevitable.
- Depression – Sadness sets in as one begins to comprehend the loss and its impact on our lives. Signs of depression include crying, sleep problems, and loss of appetite. One may also feel overwhelmed, regretful, or lonely. Depression can incorporate two basic grieving themes, the first being the reaction to the practical implications relating to the loss. Sadness and regret predominate this type of depression and involve such things as funeral costs, survivor security in the future, and remorse over not being more involved with the decedent. The second type of depression is more subtle and personal and involves the preparation to separate and bid the loved one farewell.
- Acceptance – This phase is marked by withdrawal and calm and often involves a sense of “peace” in accepting the reality of what has happened. Acceptance allows the grieving person to work through the pain of their loss, and begin to adjust to a new reality and changed environment.
So how do we help ourselves and others who are grieving?
The most important thing to remember is that coping with loss is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience. Individuals will exhibit grief differently, depending on a person’s life experiences, maturity, support systems, and personality type.
The nature of the loss and the importance of the relationship will also determine how one feels and behaves. With all of that taken into consideration, here are some important things to remember as we move through the grieving process.
- There is no standard time for how long the grieving process will take. Don’t set a deadline, nor try to speed up or avoid the process.
- There is no standard way in which individuals grieve, even if they all are grieving the same loss. Expect emotional ups and downs.
- A period of depression is expected, but if deep depression lasts for an extended period (usually 6 months or longer) or if depression begins to affect the quality of a person’s life (reclusive, lack of self-care, personality changes, deteriorating health, loss of job, etc.) seek professional (counseling or medical) help.
- Be alert for unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with grief. These can include substance or alcohol abuse, food disorders, fits of rage, and sleep disorders. Once again if unhealthy behavior is detected, seek professional help.
- Give priority to healthy self-care, which would include proper rest, a balanced diet, regular exercise, and surrounding yourself with close friends and loved ones for support.
- Avoid making major decisions if at all possible. If such decisions are necessary, seek wise counsel from friends, family, and professional consultants.
- When comforting one who has experienced loss, avoid the common platitudes that we have all spoken in the past. These can include such phrases as, “time will heal your pain”, “at least he isn’t suffering anymore”, “the sooner you get back to work, the better.”
- Frequently communicate your feelings. Talk often with friends and family. Write about your loss, journaling about unexpressed emotions can be helpful. A grief support group is often beneficial.
- Create your own rituals, which helps us acknowledge that the loss is real and honors those we love through commemorative acts.
Redefining and recreating a purposeful, meaningful life after suffering significant loss can potentially pose enormous physical, emotional, social, psychological, and spiritual challenges to those who are grieving.
But if a healthy grieving process is understood and respected, it can actually help us move forward on a path of recovery that will eventually lead us to a new reality that can include peace, joy, hope, and fulfillment.
Gary Lee is a licensed professional counselor with the Counseling Alliance in Cincinnati, Ohio.
His practice focuses on individuals and couples suffering from depression, anxiety, trauma, addictions and posttraumatic stress.