What is grief like?
Grief is our response to loss. It is the normal, natural and inevitable response to loss, and it can affect every part of our life, but it is varied and different for different people.
We may experience intense feelings such as sadness, anger, anxiety, disbelief, panic, relief or even numbness. It can also affect our thinking, so that we may think we will never get over this, or we may think we are going crazy. We may think that this is all too hard and wish we were with the person who has died. This does not usually mean that we will take active steps to end life, but can simply be an expression of our pain and sadness. Sometimes grief can cause difficulty in sleeping and can lead to physical symptoms. If these symptoms persist, check with your doctor to exclude other causes.
"I'd never had a serious loss before and I thought grief was basically lots of crying which peaked at the funeral and then you "got over it" and "moved on". I wasn't prepared for the utter emotional, physical, and mental chaos that it was. I wasn't prepared for all the other emotions that came with it - the guilt, the anger, the fear." (Annie McDonald, 2008)
When people grieve they are coming to terms with what has changed in their lives. Following loss the grieving person has to relearn the world and themselves because everything has changed. Grief is not an illness. We don't 'get over' profound grief because we are changed both by our love and by the loss of our loved one. But life will eventually have meaning again, although our loss will always be part of us. Eventually we will learn to live with our loss. It is not unusual for grief to be felt over an extended period of time, even for many years.
How do we grieve?
Everyone grieves in his or her own way. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Some people do not show their grief in public, but only express it in private. We do not always know how people are grieving simply by what we see. Some people are open and expressive with their grief, crying, and wanting to talk, whilst others are more private and may be reluctant to talk and prefer to keep busy. Men and women sometimes may grieve differently even in the same families, but it is important to respect each other's way of grieving.
It is not unusual for people to have "extraordinary experiences" such as dreams of their loved one or to have a sense of their presence. Mostly these are comforting and help us to feel close to the person who has died.
"Your grief is like your fingerprint, unique and personal to you." (Irving & Thompson)
Grief can seem like a roller-coaster ride, with ups and downs, or it may feel like being battered about like a little boat in a storm. But however you experience it, keeping a continuing bond with your loved one can be very helpful and comforting. The love you have for someone does not die just because they have died. People sometimes assume that eventually their grief will shrink to allow room for other things in life and they may worry that if they let go of their grief, they will forget or lose their connection with their loved one, or may even feel disloyal. But, what can happen is that their grief does not go away, but rather their life grows around it.
Helping yourself to get by
Grief is like a journey with many pathways and turnings. Here are some suggestions about how to get through some of the difficult times.
Privately and personally
You may sometimes prefer to keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself.
- Try to defer major decisions for 6-12 months that cannot be reversed, e.g. disposing of belongings
- Keep a diary or journal
- Create a memorial - do or make something to honour your loved one
- Develop your own rituals - light a candle, listen to special music, make a special place to think
- Allowing yourself to express your thoughts and feelings privately can help. Write a letter or a poem, draw, collect photos, cry...
- Exercise - do something to use pent-up energy, walk, swim, garden, chop wood
- Draw on religious and spiritual beliefs if this is helpful
- Read about other people's experience - find books and articles
- Do things that are relaxing and soothing
- Some holistic or self care ideas that may assist include meditation, distractions, relaxation, massage, aromatherapy and warmth
- To help with sleeplessness: exercise, limit alcohol, eat well before sleeping, and try to have a routine.
With other people
Sharing with other people can reduce the sense of isolation and aloneness that comes with grief.
- Allow people to help you, don't be embarrassed to accept their help. You will be able to help someone else at another time. It is your turn now.
- Talk to family and friends; sharing memories and stories, thoughts and feelings can be comforting and strengthen our connection with our loved one
- Consider joining a support group to share with others who have had similar experiences
- Take opportunities to join in public ceremonies where you can be private, yet part of a larger group
- Use rituals and customs that are meaningful to you
- Talk with a counsellor to focus on your unique situation, to find support and comfort, and to find other ways to manage, especially when either your life or your grief seems to be complicated and particularly difficult.
"I was given help to find answers, not given answers. Also I was always told what I was feeling was OK, because nothing I was feeling was wrong or right." (Raymond Baldock, 2009)
When to seek further help
Although grief can be very painful, most people (80-85%) find that with the support of their family and friends and their own resources, they gradually find ways to learn to live with their loss, and they do not need to seek professional help.
However, sometimes the circumstances of the death may have been particularly distressing, such as a traumatic or sudden death, or there may be circumstances in your life which make your grief particularly acute or complicated. You could consider seeking professional help if:
- You do not have people who can listen to you and care for you
- You find yourself unable to manage the tasks of your daily life, such as going to work or caring for your children
- Your personal relationships are being seriously affected
- You have persistent thoughts of harm to yourself or anyone else
- You persistently over-use alcohol or other drugs
- You experience panic attacks or other serious anxiety or depression
- Over time you remain preoccupied and acutely distressed by your grief
- You feel that for whatever reason, you need help to get through this experience.
"You need to allow yourself time to grieve. You think you won't be able to go on, but you do cope. People say time heals, and it does ... I am still standing, but it is still difficult for me at times. But you never lose the love that you shared together." (Merna Curnow, 2009)