How might you experience grief?
Physical responses to grief:
- Crying and numbness. Our body produces narcotic like chemicals to help us cope with the pain of loss. These create a numb feeling experienced at the beginning. These chemicals are also released through crying to assist you to feel better. Crying indicates that you are going uphill and is helpful in healing.
- Not eating. These chemicals also induce relaxation and slow down digestion which suppresses appetite. Your body doesn’t need as much food as usual, but it is best to try to eat smaller quantities of nutritious foods like fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Not sleeping. Bereavement can be regarded as the most potent form of stress. The flight or fight response is a stress reaction that releases adrenalin in response to a perceived threat. This adrenalin can be responsible for keeping you awake. It is good to try to expend energy to use up the adrenalin released into your body by taking long walks with a friend, gardening, housework or doing some exercise.
- Muscle tension. Massage relaxes tight muscles and often facilitates crying and allows us to feel nurtured. You don’t need a masseur to counsel you or ‘fix things’, rather to allow you to ‘just be’.
Emotional responses to grief
Shock and Denial The grieving person’s thoughts are spinning out of control. Exclamations like “oh no, it’s not true” are a result of the emotional filter system which allows traumatic information to filter in at rate the individual can handle. They may be confused in relation to time, place and person. At this time, all you need is someone to listen, give minimal verbal input, feel helpless (it is a form of empathy), give gentle reassurance and physical touching only if typical for that relationship.
- Anger – The bereaved person may blame themselves for the death or blame the dead person for not taking some preventive action. Anger expressed openly in a safe and accepting environment will gradually decrease in intensity, even though you may still use the same words to describe the feeling you are experiencing. Express anger energy using exercise or other physical activity, punching a bag, screaming into a pillow or ripping up old phone books. Bereavement does not make people aggressive; this is a pre-existing problem in the way anger is expressed and is not acceptable.
- Guilt – Bereaved people often say they feel guilty and they need someone to listen to their guilt, without judgment and without trying to take it away. Comments like “this is all my fault” and “if only I hadn’t let him go out”, are expressions of how bad the bereaved person feels. The person experiencing the guilt needs to be able to recount the story, tell it the way they wish it had been, apologise and repent.
- Intense sadness – This is a normal part of bereavement and can be confused with clinical depression as the signs are similar (e.g. loss of appetite, sleep problems, crying). If you are unsure of whether it is a normal grief reaction or a more clinical problem, seek professional advice from your GP, psychologist, psychiatrist, or counsellor.
- Despair – After the numbness wears off the reality of finality of loss is realized. This is when all hope of seeing the loved person again is lost and when despair can set in. Despair may last for a long time and may come and go at intervals, but won’t last forever.
- Replacement grief is often experienced as a void, where the bereaved feels, ‘part of me has gone’. This may give rise then to attempts to replace what is missing, for example remarry or have another baby. In most instances it is best to wait for at least a year before any big decisions are made. What the grieving person does need is a replacement of some of the things that the deceased person would have provided (e.g. love, support, listening, money, hugs and belonging). These qualities are often best being provided by more than one person. Friends may try to help by packing up deceased belongings or the nursery whilst the mother is still in hospital. This may deprive the bereaved of going through the things in their own time, reliving memories of the past and dreams of the future, shedding tears that are therapeutic. Bereaved people often like to keep belongings of the deceased ranging from letters, socks, cards, jewellery, and clothing.
- Accommodating loss – With time a greater sense of logic emerges, allowing plans to be made for the future and acknowledging that there is a future. Practical difficulties become a focus (e.g. finances, schooling, and hospital bills). There may be a reappearance of guilt at times, like when they start to feel better and begin to laugh again and are soon reminded of the person they had lost.
Experience the emotion
In our society people are uncomfortable with the expression of strong reactions to pain and may discourage crying. They may say things like “It’s all going to be ok, pull your socks up now, think of the kids” or “you’ll get married again someday”. If you get upset people may say you are ‘falling apart’, ‘breaking down’ or ‘not coping’. On the other hand if you demonstrate restraint you are seen as brave, strong, courageous and holding yourself together. Our society can suppress grief. These feelings experienced as part of bereavement are a healthy, normal part of the healing process. Research shows that people who are supported and given permission to grief openly have a lower rate of sickness and death.
Generally speaking, bereaved females are more likely to elicit ‘caring behaviours’ whilst males tend to act more distancing. As parents, gender differences are seen also. When a child dies, the couple initially mourns the same loss. As time goes on, these differences often become more pronounced. The focus for the wife’s grief is likely to remain on the child who has died. Whereas her partner’s grief for the child may diminish in intensity as he begins. This difference can have profound effects on the relationship including sexuality. Most people’s sexual responses are affected by grief, often with a loss or reduction in libido. If a child has died, this compounds the loss of interest in sex as it is associated with the creation of the child they are now grieving. Issues can result from the male seeking intimacy and closeness through sexual contact whilst the female prefers to attain intimacy via verbal communication, sensitivity and affection. It is not uncommon for temporary impotence to occur. In some cases couples feel more inclined to reach closeness, reassurance and distraction through sex. When both partners are able to understand that interest or disinterest is neither good nor bad, it ‘just is’; that both partners are seeking comfort in their own way, it may be possible for them to discuss with each other, or with a supportive outsider, ways of meeting their own needs without placing too many demands on each other or of straining the resources of the relationship.
Anniversaries and special dates
You may experience a physical response at special times of the year like headaches, backache, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, or period problems. You may get a cold or cold sore you can’t shake. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to have similar physical distress to that experienced by the deceased (e.g. feel like your having a heart attack). Prepare yourself for the anniversary. Plan to spend the day with someone who cares about you or go somewhere you are able to be yourself. Don’t rely on them to remember, ask them for support. If you would prefer to be alone, keep someone on notice in case you change your mind.
Alcohol and other drug use
Temporary increases in the use of alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, analgesics and other drugs occur for most bereaved people. This is partly due to the numbing or distracting effects. Problems can result from the use of these drugs (e.g. agitation from high caffeine, dependence). If you are worried about your usage of these substances seek support from a caring friend, relative or professional.
Relationships are usually affected by bereavement. Grief makes many people feel dependent and clingy, afraid of losing the relationships we still have. Friendships and other relationships can suffer as you adjust to your loss or can be made stronger as you realize who your best supports are. In some cases, loss motivates the bereaved to seek out new relationships that can be fulfilling. In some cases, grieving people spend a lot of time and energy trying to make others feel more comfortable and sacrifice their own needs in the process. This drains you of energy and can lead to resentment later on. You have the right to need support, do less than you are capable of, make mistakes and look out for your own needs.
Your immediate needs
Saying goodbye – Making the choice to see the body of the deceased person is an extremely difficult and distressing time. You don’t want to believe they are dead and want to avoid confronting this reality. However, this may be the last time you get to see this loved one. Not seeing the body may lead to partial denial, never truly accepting or believing that this person is really dead. There are a number of ways to handle seeing the body of the deceased person. Ask someone to first describe the scene you are about to view (this is especially important to explain in detail to children). Think about what you want to say and express it to the loved one. Following the viewing, take time to sit down and if possible share your response with someone.
What you need when bereaving – You need a supportive person who isn’t afraid to risk dealing with intense emotions. Who will listen and encourage you to talk. They need not say much at all. They need to let you be yourself. You need to ‘be allowed’ to cry. You need the freedom to experience and express your feelings in your own individual way, ensuring the rights of others are not violated in the process. You will cope the best way you know how. If people may judge you and insist you are not coping, this is likely to be a reflection of how uncomfortable they feel with the way you’re responding. You can work out what works best for you and who is better to be around and who isn’t. Don’t worry about ‘going mad’ you are just trying to cope with a crisis. Remember, there are psychologists and counsellors trained in grief counselling who can provide professional support and strategies to assist your grieving.
The Funeral – This ritual is an important part of the healing process. It should be available to all who mourn, and if people can’t attend the funeral recording the process on video or audiotape is often useful. Furthermore, photos, flowers and cards can help an absent mourner feel involved. Children should be encouraged to be involved in the funeral, they are capable of experiencing all the emotions that adults feel and this assists them to deal with grief appropriately also. If possible, don’t feel rushed into having the funeral straight away. You need time to slow down and process what has happened to allow you be ready for the funeral.
Preparatory Grief – If we know in advance that someone we care about has a serious illness and is going to die, we can actually begin our grieving process while they are alive.
- We can be honest with the person about their future.
- We can share feelings of fear, hurt, love and comfort.
- We can prepare for the inevitable; emotionally and practically.
- We can say the things we want to and where possible do the things we want to do.
- We can prepare to detach on an unconscious level so that when the death does occur you have less distance to travel.
Where the doctor has given an estimation of time left (e.g. one year) and the person’s life extends beyond that time frame it is often difficult for the loved ones to adjust. They may have disengaged to the point where the relationship feels too separate. They may be limbo, wanting to enjoy whatever life remains, but scared to re-invest in the relationship, in case the relative dies. Counselling may help to sustain the relationship in this case. It is understandable that parents do not wish their children to know of the seriousness of the illness. However children will find out eventually and if the parents lied then the children may have difficulty trusting them in the future. Professional help may be useful in helping children adjust to preparatory grief.
How can you help yourself cope better?
- Read information about grief and loss.
- Accept help from others. Ask for support, practical and emotional.
- Openly express your thought and feelings. Cry freely. Nurture pain.
- Be kind to yourself. Take it easy, you cannot hurry healing.
- Talk about it.
- Don’t let others tell you what you should and shouldn’t do to cope, listen to your own needs.
- Self-indulge daily. Reminders that you are important (e.g. go out for breakfast, drive home a different way, do something nice for yourself, buy yourself something, have a bubble bath, massage, positive affirmations or watch the ocean.
- Brief exercise. Walk for 15 minutes, garden, stretch, walk the stairs, dance.
- Healthy eating. This will improve your immune system. Soups, yoghurt, cereals and sandwiches can be easy to digest. Fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Journal writing. Write your thoughts and feelings down daily. You can look back and gauge your own progress. You can write a letter to person you lost, saying what you may not have said and expressing how you will miss them. Recalling memories of good times can be painful but therapeutic also.
- Bereavement counselling may be helpful. Support agencies or groups can offer mutual understanding, comfort and advice also.