Usually our most traumatic experiences of loss are when a loved one dies.
The same kinds of feelings arise with other losses and separations. Loss can include the break-up of a relationship, a miscarriage, the termination of pregnancy, separation from family and friends (homesickness), loss of health, moving house. Other forms of loss may not be so devastating but can still touch us profoundly, such as the death of a pet or the loss of a possession with great sentimental value. Also if you happen to be a medical or nursing student, you may have experienced feelings of loss when a patient dies. With loss comes a strong feeling that part of our emotional world has changed forever and can never be retrieved or made good.
Loss is central to our lives. We cannot avoid it. Just as the tree sheds its leaves, making visible the beauty of its structure, so does loss strip us down to our essential nature. Paradoxically it is in this period of seeming abandonment and vulnerability, that our inner strength comes to the fore. It is often through brokeness and loss that we truly grow into our humanity and develop the compassion that connects us to others.
Following loss of any kind we go through a period of adjustment. This time and process is called grieving. It's important to remember that grief is natural and necessary. Though the range and intensity of grief may come as a surprise, it is an entirely normal process that has been with us since the beginning of time. And, of course, as we adjust and the bits of our emotional life start to settle into a new pattern, the grief gently recedes. Just as scar tissue is said to be stronger than the surrounding skin, so does our grieving often lead us to a state of greater resilience where we are more able to deal with future adversity.
What is our Grief?
Grief is the normal response to loss. The sense of helplessness and lack of hope is present to some degree in everyone who has suffered a loss. The expression of grief will vary across cultures and religions. Each has its own traditions and rituals associated with the mourning period. The marking of death in these ways is part of the healing process and helps in adjusting to life without the physical presence of the dead person.
Each one of us contains both an adult and a child. As the adult seeks to make sense of loss and tries to do all the appropriate and sensible things, alongside this is the emotional inner child, with a different agenda, who usually feels confused and abandoned. While the adult struggles bravely on, the dependent inner child is desperate for consolation. So that grieving is often a seesawing between these two parts of ourselves, as we try to be reasonable, but we actually feel at sea, lost and awash in anguish.
The journey from initial shock and disbelief to acceptance and emotional healing takes time. How long does it take? There is no answer. Its duration and its intensity depend on individual circumstances: our relationship with the deceased, the network of support that sustains us, previous experience of loss and all the other business of our lives. The grieving period can last from several weeks to months and sometimes years. There is a sense in which the grieving never ends, but fades gradually into the background of our lives, to be felt in occasional poignant moments.
If our loss is sudden and traumatic, for example an accidental death or suicide, grief can be particularly acute. There may also be strong feelings of guilt, as we react to the enormity of the event. It's very easy to feel guilty when someone dies, guilt about all the things left unsaid or undone, guilt about those areas of neglect in our relationship with the deceased for which we irrationally feel we shoulder all the blame, all the responsibility. Strong feelings of anger may often be present, as we rail against the apparent unfairness of being abandoned and left to cope alone with all the heartache that death brings.
How is grief experienced?
In the beginning we will react with shock, disbelief, or denial even if death were expected. In the first hours or days we often feel numb or detached, as though we are observers watching a film. The shock may be such that we can't even remember what our loved one looked like. We may feel outwardly calm and be able to function mechanically, which is very self-deceptive given the nature of the situation. Sometimes we try to maintain a normal routine to retain some vestige of structure in our lives. Often in the aftermath of bereavement, how tidy and clean our flat or house becomes, as we set about our domestic chores for the tenth time! And we can laugh, in the midst of our utter desolation we can laugh and sometimes even joke. It all seems so contradictory and confusing. Yet we need the laughter to cope well with the sadness. Sometimes we feel like totally cutting ourselves off from our family and friends and lose any interest in what is going on around us. These are often good and healthy reactions: they serve us well and protect us against feeling uncomfortably exposed.
We may experience all or none of these feelings. But however we react it's important to try and stay in touch with whatever changes are happening to us. It's really helpful to seek support at this time whatever the nature of the feelings and particularly if ideas of self-harm arise. Even the worst feelings will eventually pass, so it's vital that we don't let ourselves feel too overwhelmed or too isolated.
After a while once the numbness has subsided, we will become more fully aware of our loss. This can be the most distressing part of our grief, as we struggle with our distress. It can be difficult also for our friends who seek to provide us with understanding and support. It may take some time for the full extent of our loss to sink in. Typical signs at this time are a loss of appetite, anxiety, sleeplessness, frequent crying, sadness and hurt. Some people are known to have symptoms of physical illness similar to that of the dead person. We may have feelings of guilt or anger towards the lost loved one, a close friend, doctor or God. Or we turn inwards against ourselves. Some people see or hear the dead person or feel their presence. All of this is completely normal.
At this time we tend to be disorganised, unable to make plans and forgetful. Our concentration may be upset. Our sleeping and eating patterns may be disturbed. Our ability to work or study could be badly affected. Energy may be low as our immune system hesitates and we become prone to coughs and colds.
This most acute phase of grief can last several months or more and sometimes much longer. As the feelings diminish it's tempting to wave them goodbye, only to experience the return of loss and desolation as birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas celebrations come around. So it's like a carousel, which circles us time and again, with varying degrees of intensity and distress.
Over time the wild swings of the emotional pendulum start to calm down. This is the time of acceptance, a time of integrating past and present so that we can slowly put together a different future to that which we had entertained in the past. The grieving is softening, and future possibilities beckon. As we re-adjust we may be surprised at how we have managed to survive our loss and the extent to which in confronting the fear of loss we have lost our fear of living.
Grieving is hard and much emotional energy is churned up in the process. It is not unusual to cope very well with the first few weeks only to be overwhelmed by emotional exhaustion later, once the stress of the event is over.
How do we get through it?
- Accept our feelings. They are normal. They are ok. However strange they are part of the healing process.
- Allow ourselves to cry. We should attend the funeral if possible and talk about our loved one, remembering the times of love and laughter, even if that is difficult. In sharing our feelings with a trusted friend, we can sometimes talk about things that have long remained private. In visiting places familiar to our loved one, we can celebrate the joining of our lives. In seeking out memories of time spent together past happiness can begin to soften the burden of grief.
- We may need to take time off our studies or work. If so, it's sometimes good to go home or stay with friends for a few days.
- We should take plenty of rest, eat light, frequent meals, and make time for relaxation and a little exercise. It's not self-indulgent. We need to be kind to ourselves.
- If we try to compensate for poor concentration and lack of motivation by overworking, our time will often be unproductive. Little and often will achieve more.
- We need to find someone we can trust, maybe a friend, a colleague, a tutor or a counsellor, who can really listen to what is going on inside us. For instance the staff at the Counselling Service is very familiar with bereavement and the sorrow that goes with it.
- It's tempting to see alcohol, tranquilisers, sleeping pills and other drugs as a means to lessen our pain, but there may be a price to pay in not confronting our grief directly.
- Grieving can be a very powerful experience. If it never seems to diminish, with both health and work affected, it makes sense to seek help. If the desire to self-harm is present, do something about this sooner rather than later.
There is no right way to grieve.
There is only that which brings us comfort and resolution.