After her spouse died, a woman wrote in her journal, “I feel like I’m a hamster on a wheel going round and round, but going nowhere. Even though Steve died 10 months ago, I still feel like it happened only yesterday. I just can’t stop thinking about him. What is this strange thing called grief?”
Sooner or later everyone loses someone they love. Yet most people are unprepared for the tidal wave of grief that follows a loss. Here are some commonsense answers about grief.
Q. What is grief?
a. Grief is the emotional reaction that follows loss. The most common cause of grief is the death of a loved one. However, there are many other losses that trigger grief: separation, divorce, disability, job loss, etc.
Q. What are the signs and symptoms of grief?
a. These are some of the most common and normal aspects of grief:
- Conflicting and confusing emotions such as sadness, depression, anger, guilt, regret, longing, despair.
- Death imagery—thinking you hear or see the person who died.
- Sleep disorder—sleeping too much or unable to sleep properly.
- Appetite disruption—not wanting to eat or overeating.
- Difficulty focusing and making decisions.
- Physical symptoms—headache, back pain, nausea.
- Social withdrawal—not wanting to be with people or at social events.
It must be emphasised these are normal aspects of grief, but they are not permanent. The intensity eases for the majority of grievers—they adjust and adapt.
Q. How long does grief last?
a. Generally, most people experience grief relief within 30 months. However, the duration of grief does not have a fixed end point. Michael Miller, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, writes that “grief doesn’t neatly conclude at the six month or one year mark. . . . Although it may persist, grief does usually soften and change over time. How this goes will be influenced by your emotional style, the nature of your support system and the culture you are part of. Usually the raw, all-consuming shock of early grief will ebb slowly within weeks or months. Gradually, at their own pace, most people do find themselves adjusting to the loss and slipping back into the routines of daily life.”
Q. A friend told me I should be over this by now. Am I grieving incorrectly?
a. You are not grieving incorrectly. Moving through grief takes much longer than most people assume. Harold Ivan Smith, a bereavement expert and author of several grief books, says grievers live in a “get-over-it, move-on-with it world”. Many friends “assume a grief should last about 30 days”. “Some of our friends may have never experienced the death of a close family member; they have no real understanding of what you are experiencing,” Smith says. Focus on your grief. Ignore any comments from those who want to rush you through the process.
Q. Are there stages of grief?
a. No, but there are generally four tasks that need to be accomplished in order to have a successful grief recovery. They are:
1. Accept the reality of the loss. This means fully understanding your loved one has died, is not and will no longer be part of your daily life.
2. Allow yourself to feel the pain of the loss. Pain is part of healing. When there is a loss to death, grievers must allow themselves to experience the variety of intense feelings connected to it.
3. Adjust to a new reality. Death brings new changes and challenges. Grievers will have to take on new roles.
4. Adapt to a different life. Grievers need to move on, loosen ties to the deceased, retain memories, but invest their time and energy in new relationships.
Q. Why do I find myself dreading holidays?
a. Most grievers find that it is not only holidays that are difficult because there is an “empty chair”, but also anniversaries, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and so on. Here are some effective ways to manage these special days:
- Plan ahead. How will you spend the day? Who will you spend it with?
- Talk about your deceased loved one during conversation. This will let others know that you want to hear his/her name and to talk about that person.
- Express your feelings. If the holidays make you more weepy, then cry. If you feel the need to talk about the loss, then find a good friend who will listen.
- Value your memories. You loved, and the price of losing a loved one is pain. Cherish the time you had together and value your precious memories.
- Reach out to others. Take the focus off yourself and your pain by helping another person.
- Avoid isolating yourself in grief. Just because you are in pain, do not cut yourself off from others. Stay in touch. Keep communication open with family, friends and colleagues. Accept some invitations for social events, even if you do not feel like it.
- Be hopeful and optimistic. Many find that the holidays or special days are not as bad as they had anticipated.
Q. I’ve been told not to “get emotional”. Is it wrong to show sadness?
a. Feelings need to be acknowledged, not pushed away. Do not allow others to dictate how you will feel and what emotions you can express. The death of a loved one impacts our emotions. We feel sad. We feel vulnerable. These are normal grief responses. As various feelings and emotions come up, accept them with compassion and kindness rather than with fear and frustration.
Q. Is it OK to cry?
a. Yes, it is, though some grievers hesitate to cry because they frighten or embarrass others, or even themselves. Writer Cindy Horyza shares this insight about tears: “People are so afraid that if they start to cry they won’t quit. Trust me, no-one has ever died of crying. Flowers need lots of water to bloom and sometimes we do, too.”
Q. What can I do to help myself get through grief?
a. The best things you can do include: physical exercise (go to the gym, take a long walk, run or bike-ride—physical activity sheds stress as well as weight), eating balanced nutritious meals (staying away from “junk” foods) and avoiding alcohol and drugs (these simply delay grief recovery). In addition, it’s important to exercise your faith. Take time to read and reflect on scriptures such as Psalm 147:3—“God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Or Psalm 34:18—“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Take time for silent meditation. Make time for prayer and don’t hesitate to pray for yourself, asking God to give you daily strength.
Q. How can I help a grieving friend?
a. One woman, who experienced the death of a child, answers: “I have learned that there are many ‘right’ things to do. But there is only one grievous and commonplace ‘wrong’ thing to do, and that is nothing.” As soon as you know a friend has lost a loved one, be there. Listen with compassion. Avoid offering trite cliches. Here are ways of speaking helpfully to a griever:
Q. When is mourning finished?
a. In his book, Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy, William Worden offers this answer: “One benchmark of a completed grief reaction is when the person is able to think of the deceased without pain. There is always a sense of sadness when you think of someone who you have loved and lost, but it is a different kind of sadness—it lacks the wrenching quality it previously had. . . . Also, mourning is finished when a person can reinvest his or her emotions back into life and into the living.”
Victor Parachin is an ordained minister, bereavement educator and the author of several books about grief. He lives in Oklahoma, USA.