Let’s start by making one thing clear: grief is not an illness. Grief is a completely normal response to losing someone - or something - that you love dearly. Grief is what it means to be human. But even though we might expect grief, unfortunately it doesn’t make the pain of moving through it any easier.
Most of us relate grief to the experience of losing a loved one, but grief can also happen for lots of other reasons too. Grief represents the end of something - be it the death of a family member, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a much-loved family pet, the loss of a job or even just an overhaul in the way we experience our everyday lives. Grief is the process of adapting to a new reality. For most of us, this takes time, and often requires additional support.
If you’re experiencing grief, it’s important to remind yourself that there’s nothing wrong with you. The intensity of emotions can be very overwhelming and make you feel like you’re ‘going mad’. Just remember that the mourning process is a completely natural human response, and it’s important that you allow yourself the time and space to fully process your emotions - however they crop up.
Grief can take on many faces, and people are affected in lots of different ways. Symptoms of grief can range from being very physical (tummy troubles or difficulties sleeping) to emotional (tearfulness and guilt), behavioural changes (wanting to disengage or socialise less) and even cognitive difficulties (problems concentrating, memory loss etc).
Some people will experience just a handful of the symptoms listed below, whilst others might go through many more. Some people find they feel guilty for not feeling very much at all. Always remember that there’s no one way to experience grief. Every experience is as valid as the next, and each of us has our own process.
Lack of motivation
Isolation and withdrawal
Loss of interest in social interactions
Feeling numb and disconnected
Reckless behaviour e.g substance abuse, sexual promiscuity
Difficulties concentrating and memory loss
Struggling to make decisions
Exhaustion and fatigue
Changes to sleeping patterns
Digestive or tummy troubles
Lowered immunity or getting ill more often
Changes to appetite – loss of appetite or eating too much
The first mention of the seven stages of grief came about in the 1960s, from the swiss psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book ‘On Death and Dying’. The seven stages range all the way from shock and guilt towards acceptance and hope. Each of these stages are understood to be a necessary part of the mourning process. For most of us, these stages won’t appear in a linear fashion. It’s possible to experience one stage, move forward, and then find yourself returning to it again.
Grief might be a universal experience, but it’s also very personal. Depending on your own unique circumstances and coping mechanisms, grief can take anywhere from a few weeks to many years. Cliched phrases like “time heals all wounds” can be extremely frustrating when you can’t see an end in sight.
The circumstances surrounding your loss will also have a bearing on the length of time it takes to heal. If, for instance, we lose someone to a drawn out illness, we might have started processing our goodbyes before our loved ones death. The same might apply to a relationship that’s been stale for a long time... Whilst we can never be fully prepared for loss, in these cases we might have already thought about what it’d feel like to not have that person in our lives anymore. When we lose someone very suddenly, we’re not given the same chance to say our goodbyes. This can make the process of grief that much longer as we go back over the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of what happened and try to integrate its meaning into our lives.
It’s normal to have good days and bad days. You might go through a period of feeling ‘better’ and then suddenly find that emotions resurface again. Holidays and occasions associated with that person can be especially difficult, but this to-ing and fro-ing can also happen seemingly out of the blue.
The idea of getting ‘better’ means different things to different people. For one person, it might mean less tears, for another it might be the gentle pull to see friends and be social again. Tracking process when it comes to our feelings is always a challenge. For this reason, some people find keeping a daily journal helpful. Acknowledging progress - however small - can provide the motivation to keep moving forward.
It’s a parent’s natural instinct to want to protect their child, and the pull to keep your composure and remain ‘strong’ is normal. But remember: “you can’t pour from an empty cup”. First and foremost, you need to make sure you’re looking after yourself so you can support them in the best way you can.
The truth is, grief is a part of the human experience and try as we might, we can’t protect children forever. Kids learn by example, and by hiding our feelings we inevitably end up teaching them to do the same. By sharing difficult emotions, we teach them that it’s OK to feel sad, to express pain and grieve. By including children in the grieving process - instead of hiding it from them - we’re given the opportunity to teach them a valuable life lesson.
What happens when the grieving process feels like it's never ending?
Even though there’s no timeframe to grief, the intensity of emotions should start to lessen gradually over time. If you’ve been feeling very low for a long time and don’t see a way out, and grief has begun to take over your relationships, work and everyday life, then it might be time to seek professional help.
Without the necessary support, some people don’t feel better. This is what it means to have ‘complicated grief’. Complicated grief is when long-standing grief becomes ingrained and gets worse over time rather than better.
Someone experiencing complicated grief will become obsessive about memories of how things were before. They might create a shrine to their loved one or talk about them constantly, leaving no room for anything else. Complicated grief will start in the same way as ‘normal’ grief, moving back and forth through all the stages: shock, denial, bargaining, guilt and so on… But over time - in the normal grieving process - the intensity of these stages should start to ease as emotions are fully expressed and integrated. Whilst never forgotten, the loss no longer consumes their whole life.
In complicated grief, the hopelessness of grief never lets off, preventing the sufferer from moving through the mourning process. Anyone can experience complicated grief, but those with a history of other mental health disorders like depression and anxiety are at higher risk.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer (COO), wrote a beautiful Facebook essay following the shock of losing her husband in an accident. She listed the pieces of advice from her therapist that helped her the most in the aftermath of his death:
“Personalisation - realising it’s not my fault. He told me to ban the word “sorry”. To tell myself over and over, this is not my fault. Permanence - remembering that I won’t feel like this forever. This will get better. Pervasiveness - this does not have to affect every area of my life; the ability to compartmentalise is healthy”.
Whilst everyone is different and there’s no one-way route when navigating the stages of grief, some people find the following helps them cope during a challenging time:
1. Really feel your emotions, don't avoid them
Emotions can be scary and it’s instinctive to try and suppress them. But avoiding our emotions only prolongs the grieving process. In order to heal, it’s important to really feel and express our emotions - especially the painful ones. If you can, find a form of expressing your emotions that resonates with you best - whether that be walking, writing, creating art, listening to music and so on.
2. Practice self-care
When we’re struggling, it’s easy to fall out of a routine and adopt bad habits. The mind and body are connected so it’s especially important during this time to take care of yourself physically, in order to support your mental and emotional state. Whilst motivation might be slim, just doing simple things like eating well and going for a daily walk in the park can provide a small boost. If you’re finding it hard to get up or out of the house, ask a friend or family member to make a healthy staple dish you can easily throw in the oven as and when you need to.
3. Get back to your normal routine as quickly as you can
As hard as it might be, try to get back into a normal routine as quickly as you can. This doesn’t mean you should be ignoring your feelings, but it can help take your mind off things for while, and lets you focus on some of the things that make you feel good.
4. Get familiar with your triggers
Most people will have specific triggers which make them think of their loved one, whether that be a particular song, birthday or anniversary. Be prepared that these triggers will bring emotions to the surface again. Try to arrange your calendar so you’re not alone during these times and surround yourself with those that know you best.
The way in which someone copes with grief is entirely individual. The main thing is to aim for a balance between being proactive and letting go. This means properly giving yourself the time and space to release and process your emotions, whilst also actively doing things that get you up and moving again.
Many people are afraid to ask for help, and let the grieving process go on for too long before reaching out. Remember that simply ignoring your feelings won’t make them go away.
However much they care for us, it can feel daunting sharing difficult emotions with our family and loved ones. We might be scared of showing the real depth of how we’re feeling - of what will happen if we really let go. Therapy provides a safe space to let it all out. A good therapist can help you work through each of the stages of grief, and help you build better coping mechanisms for moving forward.
Holding down our feelings only makes the process longer. Sharing your concerns in a neutral environment can help you overcome those things that are holding you back, and fully process your emotions - including all the difficult ones too.
As Vicki Harrison said, “Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim”.
Whilst we'll never forget our loved ones, speaking to a therapist can provide us with the support to move through the grieving process in healthier ways. Speak to one of our team to get help to find a therapist today.