Death of a loved one is one of the most devastating losses we will experience. It is synonymous with grief. There are dimensions to this kind of loss that go beyond the profound missing of our loved one. Often, we are also grieving a way of life we shared, things we had hoped to experience with the person who has died and what will never come to be. We might also be grieving who we were to this person, and the role they played in our lives. Sometimes the experience of one loss or death will evoke fresh memories of past losses.
We experience many losses in addition to death in our lifetimes. Some of these are not as obvious as the death of a loved one, but they may be deeply felt and just as life-changing. Loss of a job, a pet, a dream, a romantic relationship, a friendship, our health can all be devastating experiences that are overlooked or minimized by those around us. It is important to be able to acknowledge the feelings of loss and grief that accompany these times of change and to reach out for support. In order to heal, we need to treat ourselves with care and sensitivity.
Grief does not merely involve the single emotion of intense sadness. Instead it can encompass a maelstrom of feelings that include:
|- anger||- guilt|
|- anxiety||- helplessness|
|- bitterness||- hopelessness|
|- blame||- irritability|
|- confusion||- loneliness|
|- depression||- loss of pleasure|
|- despair||- numbness|
|- detachment||- being overwhelmed|
|- disbelief||- preoccupation|
|- fear||- sadness|
|- shame||- vulnerability|
|- shock||- yearning|
(list partially taken from The Healing Journey Through Grief, Rich, 1999)
Which of these many feelings are experienced, when, in what intensity, and in what order can be as individual as the person who is grieving. There is not a "right way" to grieve. There is just the way you are doing it.
Grieving does not have a time frame or a map. For some people there will be strong and sustained feelings just following the loss, while others may feel numb for quite a while only to be surprised by feelings related to grief at an unexpected time. It is generally helpful to try to stay open to and accepting of your own way of grieving. However, there seem to be some likely phases or stages of grieving that many people experience. These are not experienced in a reliable order, nor is each stage experienced by everyone dealing with loss. Yet it can be helpful to be aware of the possibility of these phases, and to remember that grieving is a fluid or changing process.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grieving. Other writers have identified similar stages, but in general they have included phases of shock, emotional suffering and struggle, and recovery. The stages identified by Kubler-Ross are:
Sometimes there is a belief that grief should be "done" within a certain time frame, and that grief extending beyond or lessening before that time is extreme or insufficient. In fact, what is more important is whether the person grieving is able to experience the feelings. If the mourner is having trouble allowing him or herself to grieve, they may be helped by seeing a counselor or attending a bereavement group.
One of the most important truths about grief and loss is that they are inevitable and recurring elements of life. Unfortunately, sometimes those around the mourner believe that they can help him or her deal with grief by staying silent about the loss and by encouraging him/her to think of other things and "move on." This silence can create a profound loneliness that only intensifies the feelings of loss. The expectation that the mourner should think and speak of other things can interfere with the natural and healing process of grief.
According to Rich (1999) in The Healing Journey Through Grief, the work of grief is to:
How you choose to meet each of these challenges will be unique to your life and to your loss. Living through grief and loss requires acceptance of our emotions, patience with ourselves, and the commitment to care for ourselves emotionally, physically, and spiritually. For many of us, it will also involve a willingness to accept the support and empathy that others offer.
Some suggestions for helping you to cope with grief and loss include:
Certain factors have been found to contribute to what is termed "complicated bereavement." These factors include:
When these potentially complicating elements exist, it can be useful to seek additional support through bereavement counseling or a group.
Compiled by Randy Patterson, M.Ed. for the University Counseling Center.