We are born, we live, we learn, we grow.
And then we die.
Death is a part of life.
Like a lot of people, I am no stranger to grief. Three of my grandparents died when I was a child and as an adult this has been followed by a step grandmother (paternal), my parents, my older brother, a favourite cousin, a grandmother (maternal) and the son of my best friend. Each of those people has meant something different to me and my experience with coping with each death has also been very different.
When somebody dies it is natural for us to feel like there has been a hole left in our lives and hearts. We get used to a person being a huge part of our lives. We depend on them. We feel safe with them. We feel comfortable. We look forward to being with them. We love them and connect with them. We often spend an entire lifetime with them. And one day we turn around and they aren’t there any longer.
So then what?
We need to get used to an entirely different way of living. Of being. Not only do we miss the person and grieve for them, we also need to learn how to live our life without them in it. This can be a huge undertaking, especially if we have lived our entire life with them. Spouse. Son. Daughter. Mother. Father. Grandparent. Aunt. Uncle. Best friend. Whatever that person’s role was in your life, making adjustments to live a different life can be seriously tough.
Common grief responses
One of the key things to note is that every person’s grief experience is different. Your way of grieving is going to be different to the person sitting next to you, even if that person is a close family member. There are however, some commonalities. There has been a lot of research into these common responses, which have resulted in several models being developed to describe how grief “works”.
One model of the stages of grief
There are several “stages” that people usually experience. Shock & numbness occurs immediately following the death. There may be denial. You then go into a protest stage where the shock becomes heightened, you feel angry, you yearn for the person who died and you are preoccupied with thoughts of them. This is followed by disorganisation, where there is a loss of interest in normal daily activities, depression, apathy, lethargy, restlessness, aimlessness, confusion, withdrawal. Sleep disturbances, crying, irritability are also seen. Eventually there is reorganisation, where things start to come together again. You start to look forward to doing some of the activities you used to enjoy. You start to try new things and find meaning in the death. You may experience guilt in here too. Many people feel like they shouldn’t be enjoying themselves because their loved one isn’t here to share in those moments. Then you move into recovery, where a new “normal” comes about. At any one of these stages we could move into deterioration. We may be going along fine, and something will trigger us and we end up “going backward”. We get cranky, we cry, criticize ourselves, feel guilty, experience sleep and appetite disturbances. Physical symptoms may include sweating, breathing difficulties, nausea etc.
Another model of the grief wheel. Note the similarities.
A couple of important notes to consider.
Firstly, this process is not a linear one. We don’t move from one stage to the next and the next and the next. As already mentioned, we may be triggered at any time and feel like we are back where we started. If we graphed what actually happens to us we would have a curvy line jumping up and down, back and forward all over the place.
Secondly, I am giving a very brief, basic outline here on grief and a general picture of how it looks. Many people experience an intensified, long-term grief process that may be considered out of the ordinary. Symptoms are experienced as very intense and long-lasting. Grief is supposed to ease over several weeks and months. If this does not happen, it could be that this is an experience of complicated grief. There are several risk factors that make some people more prone to complicated grief, including having had a very close relationship to the person who died, the death being unexpected, and an inability to adapt to change (lack of resilience), among other things. For more details on complicated grief, the Mayo Clinic in the USA has some good information. Please note that there are several pages to digest, which can be navigated by clicking the links on the left side of the page. It includes what to look for and how to get some help. Here in Australia I would recommend seeking help from a grief counsellor or psychologist.
Ways to cope
It’s important to understand that unfortunately, the only way to the other side of grief is to go through the process. You can’t go around, under or over it, and you can’t avoid it. Ever. You must go through it.
- Allow yourself to feel the emotions, whatever they are. Sadness, sorrow, shock, numbness, listlessness. All of these are a normal, understandable reaction to the circumstances and it is ok to feel them. We often push these feelings down because they hurt, but the more we do that the longer the process takes. Those feelings will always come back.
- Most people find that what they really want is to bring back the person who died. So why not do that? Yes, I know that you can’t bring them back in person, but you can bring their memory alive. A lot of grief counsellors will encourage the person to talk about their loved one. To describe them. Talk about what they love and miss about them. This may bring up a lot of emotion, and that is ok. I understand that a lot of people get nervous around emotions, and that’s fine too. If you can allow yourself to sit with it, even a little bit at a time, it does get a little easier. Eventually.
- If you feel like the people you are talking to are getting impatient with your never-ending talk about the person who died, try either talking to somebody different or writing things down instead. Write a letter or a story. Or even talk into a voice recorder. You can erase it if you don’t want to keep it, but it may give you an outlet without feeling like you’re being a burden on the people closest to you.
- Talk to the person who died. This is especially helpful if it was a long, intense or close relationship. Tell them about your day, about how the kids are doing, about how much you miss them.
- There is no right or wrong way to feel when you are grieving. The stages described in the wheel can come and go in a seemingly random pattern. You might think you are getting through the worst of it and then you’ll be right back in the middle of all those intense feelings. This is normal.
- Honour the person who died in some way. You could try planting a tree, creating some artwork or craft, a memory box, write a letter to the person, write some poetry or a song. Even go to visit their grave and talk to them. There is no right or wrong with this. Go with your instinct and do something that feels right for you.
- I know this one could sound a little harsh, but I am going to say it anyway. Ignore the people who tell you that you “should be over it by now” (or some variation on the theme). Grief is not something that has a timetable. It is different for everyone and is a very individual experience. What works for one person may not work for another.
- Try not to force yourself to do things you’re not ready for. Sometimes you may feel like you’re never going to be the same again and you’ll feel like staying in bed all day every day. I’m not suggesting that you spend the rest of your life in bed, and sometimes it can help you feel a little better to force yourself to get out of the house. Sometimes though, it is ok to allow yourself some time to be with your memories.
- Find a support group in your area. Sometimes it helps to know that there are others out there who are going through the same thing you are. You don’t have to do this on your own.
- If you don’t start feeling more like your old self within a few months, please consider seeking professional support. A grief counsellor or psychologist may be able to help you to sort through some of the feelings you’re having. This can be particularly helpful if you are experiencing complicated grief. It’s hard, and not everyone understands what it is like. A professional can help you to gain some understanding of what is happening for you. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be you sitting there spilling your guts. Sometimes you can do other things. I know someone who had a counsellor help them edit a book of poetry that had been written to help with the grief. Others will do art or craft work, or something completely different. If you have something in mind that you feel would help you, but feel uncertain about it, discuss it with your professional. You may be able to do it in session.
Helping someone through their grief
If you have a family member or a friend who is grieving, remember that everyone grieves differently. Even if that person is your spouse, brother, sister, daughter or son (or whoever).
- Honour and respect the grief process for the individual, personal experience it is.
- Never (EVER) tell a person to “snap out of it”. There is no such thing as getting over the person who has died and moving on with your life. The person who has died will always be a part of treasured memories. They will always be missed. It’s simply the intensity that varies.
- Grief has no timeline. Some people can reach the stage of acceptance within a few weeks, while others take years. Sometimes feelings of sadness will hit you out of the blue, triggered by simple things such as hearing a song on the radio or smelling a favourite meal cooking on the stove.
- Grief is a process that upsets everything you have known in your life. Grieving people benefit from sameness, familiarity and routine. It can be comforting to have the same neighbours, the same furniture, and the same house. In some cases, such as with the death of one half of a long-standing elderly couple, the surviving partner may not be able to remain in the familiarity of the home they have been used to (e.g., if they require care). These changes require a lot more adjustment than would otherwise be required. If at all possible, allow some time to make the transition. Allow them to sort through treasured possessions and to gather anything that will help them gain comfort. Clothing, furniture (if possible), photographs and so on. The more familiarity they have around them, the better their transition is likely to be.
- Sometimes it can seem like this grief lasts forever and you can feel impatient with the person who continues to talk while you want to move forward. This is common if you are also grieving the same person. You could try suggesting something different to do, or maybe respectfully suggest that they talk with a professional instead. You need to honour your own needs in dealing with your grief and have every right to do so. If you are uncertain, please consider talking with a professional to get some advice on what you can do to balance your own needs and helping this person with their grief.
I know this post has been quite wordy and very lengthy, but I think to do it justice it has needed to be. One of the biggest things I have found in working with grieving people, is the knowledge that you are not on your own. Grief can sometimes feel like a very isolating experience and knowing that there are others out there who are going through the same thing can help ease that for you. I would encourage you to share your experiences here in the comments. Let’s see if we can create a small community of support right here.
I hope this post has helped in some small way.