As 2010 comes to a close, I am sitting 30,000 feet above the earth taking the time to write one last blog on grief. I felt it would be appropriate to do somewhat of an overview on the topic of grief so I could go into greater depth on certain aspects in 2011. With that in mind, I am going to pen an entry that tracks a universal theme – Coping With Grief & Loss.
Losing someone or something you love is very painful. After a significant loss, you may experience a myriad of difficult and surprising emotions, including but certainly not limited to shock, anger, and guilt. At times it may feel like the sorrow is relentless. While these feelings can be frightening and overwhelming, they are normal reactions to loss. Accepting them as part of the grieving process and allowing yourself to feel what you feel is necessary if you are going to experience genuine healing.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There are, however, healthy ways to cope with the pain that invariably accompanies your grief. You can get through it! Grief that is both expressed as well as experienced has a potential for healing that eventually can strengthen and enrich your life.
In this post I want to highlight the following topics:
– What is grief?
– Are there stages of grief?
– Common symptoms of grief
– Helpful Tips to endure the grief process
What is grief?
Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. You may associate grief with the death of a loved one – and this type of loss often causes the most intense grief. But any loss can cause grief, including, among many others:
Loss of health
Loss of a job
Loss of financial stability
Death of a pet
Loss of a cherished dream
Serious illness in a loved one
Loss of a friendship
Loss of security after a trauma
The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief. However, even subtle losses can lead to grief. For example, you might experience grief after moving away from home, graduating from college, changing jobs, selling your family home, or retiring from a career you loved. Something important to remember is:
Everyone grieves differently.
Grief is a personal and highly individual experience. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality, your coping style, your life experience, your faith, and the nature of the loss. The grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried – and there is no “normal” timetable for grief. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
In my experience I have discovered there are all kinds of myths about grief. Here are some common myths and the facts that I believe counteract them:
The pain will go away faster if you ignore it.
Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will simply cause your grief to intensify long-term. For real healing it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.
It’s important to be “be strong” in the face of loss.
Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss. Crying doesn’t signify weakness. You don’t need to “protect” your family or friends by putting on a veneer of strength. Showing your true feelings can help them and you.
If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the loss.
Crying may be a normal response to sorrow, but it’s not the only one. Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others. They may simply have other ways of showing it.
Grief should last about a year.
There is no right or wrong time frame for grief. How long it takes can differ from person to person.
Are there stages of grief?
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what became known as the “five stages of grief.” These stages of grief were based on her studies of the feelings of patients facing terminal illness, but over time countless people have generalized them to other types of negative life changes and losses, such as the death of a loved one or a break-up. Here are the five stages of grief that Kübler-Ross established:
▪ Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
▪ Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
▪ Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
▪ Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
▪ Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”
If you are experiencing any of these emotions following a loss, it may help to know that your reaction is natural and that you’ll heal in time. However, not everyone who is experiencing grief goes through all of these stages – and that’s okay. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to go through each stage in order to heal. In fact, some people resolve their grief without going through any of these stages. And if you do go through these stages of grief, you probably won’t experience them in a neat, sequential order, so don’t worry about what you “should” be feeling or which stage you’re supposed to be in.
Kübler-Ross herself never intended for these stages to be a rigid framework that applies to everyone who mourns. In the final book she authored prior to her death in 2004, she said of the five stages of grief, “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”
Rather than looking at grief as a series of stages, it would be helpful to think of it as a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows. Like most roller coasters, the ride tends to be rougher in the beginning; the lows may be deeper and longer. The difficult periods should become less intense and shorter as time goes by, but it takes time to work through a loss. Even years after a loss, especially at special events such as a family wedding or the birth of a child, we may still experience a strong sense of grief.
Common symptoms of grief
While loss affects people in different ways, many people experience the following symptoms during the grief process. It is important to remember that almost anything you experience in the early stages of grief is normal – including feeling like you’re going crazy, feeling like you’re in a bad dream, or questioning your religious beliefs. Here is a list of common symptoms:
– Shock and disbelief
Immediately following a loss, it can be hard to accept what happened. You may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss really happened, or even deny the truth. If someone you love has died, you may keep expecting him or her to show up, even though you know they’re gone.
Profound sorrow is probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief. You may have feelings of emptiness, despair, yearning, or deep loneliness. You may also cry regularly and unexpectedly or feel emotionally unstable.
You may experience regret or feel guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do. You may also feel guilty about certain feelings (e.g. feeling relieved when the person died after a long, difficult illness). After a death, you may even feel guilty for not doing something to prevent the death, even if there was nothing more you could have done.
Even if the loss wasn’t anyone’s fault, you may feel angry and resentful. If you lost a loved one, you may be angry with yourself, God, the doctors, or even the person who died for abandoning you. You may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that was done to you.
A significant loss can trigger a host of worries and fears. You may feel anxious, helpless, or insecure. You may even have panic attacks. The death of a loved one can trigger fears about your own mortality, of facing life without that person, or the responsibilities you now face alone.
– Physical symptoms
We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves physical problems, including fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, and insomnia. If you experience physical sickness or pain, don’t panic, it will pass in time.
I’d like to close this post and this year with some practical tips to help you deal with the grief process.
1) Get support
The single most important factor in healing from loss is having the support of other people. Even if you aren’t comfortable talking about your feelings under normal circumstances, it’s important to express them when you’re grieving. Sharing your loss makes the burden of grief easier to carry. Wherever the support comes from, accept it and do not grieve alone. Connecting to others will help you heal.
2) Draw comfort from your faith
If you follow a religious tradition, embrace the comfort its mourning rituals can provide. Spiritual activities that are meaningful to you – such as praying, meditating, or going to church – can offer solace. If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to a clergy member or others in your religious community.
3) Join a support group
Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around. Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help. To find a bereavement support group in your area, contact local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling centers.
4) Talk to a therapist or grief counselor
If your grief feels like it is too much to bear, call a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.
5) Take care of yourself
When you’re grieving, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. The stress of a major loss can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time.
6) Face your feelings
You can try to suppress your grief, but you can’t avoid it forever. In order to heal, you have to acknowledge the pain. Trying to avoid feelings of sorrow and loss only prolongs the grieving process. Unresolved grief can also lead to complications such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.
7) Express your feelings in a tangible or creative way
Write about your loss in a journal. If you’ve lost a loved one, write a letter saying the things you never got to say; make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life; or get involved in a cause or organization that was important to him or her. Make a donation to a charity or church if it was an important part of their life.
8) Don’t allow anyone tell you how to feel
Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without shame or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to yell at the heavens, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
9) Plan ahead for grief “triggers”
Anniversaries, holidays, and milestones can reawaken memories and feelings. Be prepared for the oncoming pain associated with these events. If you’re sharing a holiday or lifecycle event with other relatives, talk to them ahead of time about their expectations and agree on strategies to honor the person you loved.
When everything is said and done – here is a universal truth – grief is not easy. I never had any intention to become an expert on grief, and the process of becoming considered as such has required far more grief than I have cared to endure. I have had years of turmoil and years of triumph, but in the end I have come to lean on the wisdom provided by Chaucer in Troilus & Criseyde –“As tyme hem hurt, a tyme doth hem cure” which can be translated to say – “Time heals all wounds.” Maybe 2010 has been the most difficult year of your life and you can’t fathom getting better or imagine being able to endure more, but you will be amazed what will happen if you allow yourself to grieve and walk through the process that it demands. It is amazing what a difference just a year can make. The journey will not be easy, but one thing you can count on as you enter into 2011 – I will walk this journey with you. Keep tuning in and we will experience healing together. You matter to me. Happy New Year!