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How to recognise, acknowledge and release grief


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Grief is often considered a one-dimensional and predictable response to the death of a loved one. Culturally, we are generally able to recognise the signs of grief in others and can usually formulate the appropriate responses and support required to help someone through the grieving process. Yet grief is much more than tears and learning to live without someone you love. Instead, it is a complicated and sometimes secret collection of emotions that can, in extreme circumstances, trigger chronic psychological and physical distress.

So what is grief? Grief is a multi-faceted response to loss. How deeply you feel this loss depends on your connection to what has been lost. Although we generally focus on the emotion of loss it also has physical, cognitive, behavioural, social and philosophical dimensions. Loss changes you in sometimes subtle ways with the impact of loss often requiring you to rethink your goals, your future, your relationships and, to some extent, your identity.

Apart from the variety of ways grief manifests itself, it is also important to recognise that grief isn’t a one-size-fits-all prospect. Instead, grief comes in many forms: complicated and uncomplicated, disenfranchised and anticipatory, delayed and sudden, to name a few. But within these types of grief there is also the need to understand that we each grieve in our own way. Your temperament, personality, the context of the loss and the way in which your loss is viewed by others will all impact on your ability to grieve properly and to recover fully.

The death of a loved one is the most acknowledged form of loss yet there are many losses in life that can trigger the grieving response. There are the losses of dreams or relationships ended and there is also the loss of the things you will never have, such as a child or career. While these kinds of losses are less readily acknowledged as triggering grief, they can still cause a great deal of angst and distress for the individual. Significantly, they can generate issues for the one grieving because their “loss” may not be recognised by others or be seen to be very important.

In psychology it’s called disenfranchised grief — the kind of grief you feel when your loss is not acknowledged by others. The loss of a beloved pet, a trauma from childhood, losing your home or job, the loss of your health, the death of a celebrity or the death of an ex-spouse are all examples of this kind of grief. What they have in common is that they are often not easily understood by others: your ex died — why should you care? You lost your job — get another one! Your dog died — sad, but really … The crux of disenfranchised grief is that others don’t “get” the depth of your feelings and the fact that a part of you or a part of your life/history is gone; that your identity, in some respects, has been compromised.

While disenfranchised grief Deals with loss that others may not fully understand, it also refers to situations where it may seem unacceptable to openly grieve. If your child is born with or diagnosed with a disability of some kind, for example, you are not supposed to express grief at the loss of the life you imagined you and your child would have. Yet feeling this as a loss — expectations of having a healthy child not met — is completely normal, even though social mores might encourage you to hide your grief for fear of being judged by others.

Unfortunately, the problem with grieving in silence is you don’t have support when you need it most. When you try to deny your feelings, when you try to pretend that you aren’t experiencing pain, you put undue stress on your mind and body, making yourself more vulnerable to illness and to self-destructive behaviour. Instead, it is important in the situation of disenfranchised grief to claim your right to grieve, to acknowledge that your feelings are valid because they come from your experience and because loss, in any form, is real and requires acknowledgement.

Anticipatory grief is the kind you experience when you find yourself in the situation of having someone close to you who is dying slowly from a condition such as cancer. With anticipatory grief you have the time to envision and rehearse your life without the person who is dying. It is also an opportunity to resolve any regrets or issues you might have with or about that person. The most distressing and exhausting concern with anticipatory grief is the roller-coaster ride of emotion you will experience as you go through each medical emergency and recovery leading up to death.

It is a state of emergency that you need to endure for months and sometimes years causing a kind of emotional numbness that protects you while you wait for the inevitable. While you may be seen by some to be coping remarkably well, your grief simmers just below the surface, sometimes surfacing as anger or frustration or depression. While anticipatory grief is normal, it is still necessary to acknowledge your feelings and talk about the process you are going through. Grief, in all its forms, is inevitably easier to manage when you have support.

While many of us deal with grief well enough to resume our lives, for some people, feelings of loss are extremely debilitating and don’t improve as time passes. Known as complicated grief, or Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD), it is a situation where painful emotions are so long-lasting and severe that the individual has trouble accepting their loss. Because of this lack of acceptance, you can find it impossible to resume your own life in any meaningful way; you may begin to struggle financially, cut yourself off from relationships and become isolated.

The symptoms of complicated grief include overwhelming feelings of disbelief, loss, anguish and bitterness. You may also have recurring thoughts of how unfair the situation is, believe you cannot cope or go on or that you are somehow to blame for what happened. You may also find yourself withdrawing from the things you used to enjoy doing; you may begin to drink heavily or exhibit other addictive behaviours. You can feel fatigued and unmotivated, and experience chronic sleeping problems, loss of appetite, unexplained pain and even anxiety.

With this kind of grief it is important to seek help from a professional to work through the issues and emotions that are preventing you from moving forward. The guilt of still living, of enjoying life and even moving on to a new relationship can be overwhelming for some and can keep you in a state of grief in an attempt to appease your guilt. These kinds of emotions, while normal when experienced healthily, do need to be dealt with in the context of complicated grief.

The near opposite of complicated grief is healthy or uncomplicated grief, which may sound like an easier form of grief to endure, but it simply refers to a “normal” experience of grief that resolves itself over time. While no grief is an easy ride, uncomplicated grief is healthy grief in that you talk through your feelings and go with the flow of what you are experiencing. This kind of grief might be described as an “active” form of grief in that you — as time passes — feel less overwhelmed by loss and more in control of your future.

Another kind of grief that can be felt in some circumstances is delayed grief. There are many reasons why grief can be delayed: if you’ve been in an accident where others were killed, your grief will be delayed while you heal; if you are a parent, your grief may be delayed if you have children to care for; or if the loss was extremely traumatic you may block grief in an attempt to protect yourself.

While the delay can be necessary for a time, it is not going to be something you can put off forever. Strong feelings, if not released appropriately, can manifest themselves in different and sometimes destructive ways if you do not acknowledge them. Grief can become anger, depression, anxiety, self-destructive behaviour and even abuse if you do not take care of it and yourself. It is a powerful emotion that must be treated respectfully.

Grief can also be experienced when your loss is unexpected and traumatic; the kind of grief that can occur when you experience a sudden and/or violent loss can take longer to accept as shock and disbelief compromise your ability to come to terms with what has happened. Sudden, unexpected loss will often temporarily exceed your coping abilities and can result in feelings of being overwhelmed.

Once the shock passes, once you have been able to accept what has happened, you can then begin the process of grieving proper, taking care to accept the support you need and allow yourself to experience the range of emotions that will flow through you. This opening of yourself to the range of emotions that come with grief and loss allow you to find the strength to cope.

Myths about grief

One of the biggest hurdles to dealing with loss appropriately can be a tendency to buy into the myths surrounding grief and the way you should or shouldn’t behave as you go through the process. For example, one of the greatest myths about grief is that you cannot laugh or enjoy anything while you are in your mourning period, yet laughing and sharing stories about a loved one can be very therapeutic, reminding you of what you gained from that person being in your life and not just dwelling on your loss.

Laughter is a bonding mechanism for humans. It is something we use to break down barriers, to engage with others, to ease tension and to make communication easier and more effective. During a time of mourning it is still important to enjoy the small moments of pleasure that you can with others. Funny observations, memories and even introducing conversation about your feelings through humour can make the ride of grief a smoother one. It also allows others in, giving them a chance to offer the kind of support necessary to help you through.

From this myth comes the idea that you should not bring up someone’s bad news while they are grieving, that somehow ignoring or glossing over their loss is the kinder thing to do. Yet working around the loss is counter-effective to helping an individual process their loss. Talking through a negative situation has been continually proved to be effective in helping individuals through tough times. It can derail both the physical and psychological impacts of grief and trauma.

Social support and the airing of feelings and thoughts are crucial to healthy grieving. They allow you to acknowledge clearly what you are experiencing and trigger the mind to begin to suggest ways to help you begin life again. This sharing with friends and family or a counsellor can also help you begin to remember your loved one fondly. Rather than focusing on the fact that they are gone, you will begin to appreciate what they meant to you with love and a smile.

It’s easy to fall into helplessness and hopelessness after a significant loss. Yet the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” has been proven to be true by researchers. Recent studies have found that adverse experiences do seem to foster adaptability and resilience, protecting your mental health and wellbeing. While there are exceptions, with about 15 per cent of people experiencing prolonged grief, most people realise despite their grief that the intensity of their feelings will lessen over time, even though they will always feel the loss of their loved one.

And this is an important point to remember when your grief is over the death of someone close to you. The space that person occupied in your life will never be filled. Even when you begin new relationships, even when the pain has dulled and even when you struggle to remember the sound of their voice, they are still a part of who you are because of the experiences and time you shared together. How you choose to remember — a memorial, a private celebration of an anniversary or thinking of them on their birthday etc — is just as personal and individual as how you manage the grieving process itself.

This is because there is no rulebook for coping with grief, so whatever you have to do to get through it is OK, as long as it doesn’t involve self-harm. Psychologists suggest that the most healthy and effective way to manage loss is by “coping ugly”, which is about getting it done, doing what feels right to you so that you get through to the other side safely.

Identifying your thoughts and feelings and then expressing them in some way can be helpful. For example, if you’re a writer you might like to start a journal. If you make things, creating a piece of furniture or art might be your way through. If you run, training harder might be what helps. Ultimately, making sure you acknowledge the support you have and/or using the support friends and family offer will make the experience safer and healthier.

Healthy grief

As noted, grief can have impacts on your physical and psychological health. Loss of memory, difficulty following thought processes and conversations, over-reaction to usually benign stimuli, and a lowered immune system are some of the ways in which grief and prolonged grief can affect you. So how do you make sure you or someone you know grieves “healthily”?

Knowledge is power in any situation and the more you understand grief the less you will fight against what you feel and the more you will let the feelings and thoughts associated with your loss flow through you. Fighting against grief, feeling as though you are not doing it properly or that it is taking too long, are unnecessary hindrances to what is a deeply personal experience.

Keep true to your feelings and needs. This is a time to be a little selfish about what you can and can’t manage while you grieve and it is also important not to feel as though you have to hide your grief. Be honest if you are having a particularly bad day. Giving those around you a heads-up about how you are managing can make it easier for them to give you the support you need. If you are back at work and feeling weepy, let those you deal with know — it’s much better than having them tiptoe around you, unsure of what to do or say.

How long you will grieve can’t readily be defined. The grief process can last from a few months to several years, depending on the type of loss you have experienced. The important thing to remember is that it is your loss and your experience and there is no time limit you have to keep to.

In the end, honesty is the most important thing you need to cling to as you deal with any kind of loss. Without it, you will be unable to grieve healthily; you will be unable to come out the other side intact. Grief can be ugly. It can drag up all sorts of negative emotions, including guilt, anger, blame, regrets and shame, all of which need to be acknowledged and dealt with as honestly as any other emotions.

When you grieve, you are not only coming to terms with what you have lost but you are also trying to understand it. We feel safe when we have a sense of control over our lives, but loss takes that sense of control from us, and grieving too is an experience not easily controlled. The range of emotions that boil through you, that come in waves, sometimes unexpectedly, can leave you washed out and at a loss, yet you can and will work through it — with honesty and openness, love and support.