Managing Grief and Loss
Updated: Mar 6, 2020
Nobody can tell you how to manage your grief or how you should. It is a uniquely personal and individual experience but it might be useful to understand some of the ways in which it impacts us and why your grief impacts you the way it does.
Loss and grief are an inevitable part of life and are experienced in many situations, particularly those that involve change and adaptation e.g. a child leaving home, losing a body part, divorce. However, in this article, I am referring specifically to grief that comes with loss through death.
We have all lost someone during the course of our lives and while some of these losses are difficult but manageable, the loss of someone significant to you can be very traumatic. It can upend your whole emotional world, your capacity to cope and your belief system.
While cultural variations may exist in the actual expression of grief or the rituals and ceremonies, which are used as part of the mourning process, cross-cultural studies show that the state of grief is a universal experience.
People are important in our lives and those who we become attached to leave a huge space when they die. Adapting to this loss is the process of mourning. Many of us have family who are spread all over the world and need to find alternative support systems in our immediate environment.
While each person’s process of grieving is different you may recognize some of these reactions.
Shock or numbness that may last from seconds to weeks.
Disorganisation - from slight to being unable to function.
Denial which is a defence against too much immediate pain. It involves denial of the reality of loss as well as denial of the emotions experienced. People frequently go through searching behaviour e.g. imagining seeing the deceased in the street
Emotional distress, restlessness, anxiety, despair, guilt and anger as well intense longing and yearning for the person.
Physical symptoms like nausea, loss of appetite and sleep disturbances.
Suicidal and self-destructive behaviour may occur. It is easy to feel that you are going crazy because of the intensity of grief.
Anxiety and helplessness about coping alone are often experienced.
Acceptance. Over time emotions should become more integrated and lead to an acceptance that life goes on despite the change and loss. This does not mean that it is not painful but that the pain is no longer so disorganizing to the self. One lives with it differently.
Reintegration. Through a long and difficult process this acceptance has to be “put into practice” in the way your life is lived. Many people feel that it is disloyal to be able to carry on or eventually even enjoy themselves.
Initially with grief, all the thoughts and emotional energy are attached to the lost person.
Healthy grieving is a process, which takes place over time. It does not mean that the person is forgotten, that there is no distress when thinking of them or that you should just pretend nothing happened. But it is a process whereby the loss lives differently within you and eventually allows you to get meaning from other things in your life.
In a healthy grieving process the person should eventually be able to see the deceased and the relationship with them realistically and remember them as real person i.e. both the good and the bad aspects.
It involves coming to accept the reality of the loss i.e. that this person is gone and reunion in this life is impossible. It involves allowing yourself to experience the pain of grief. It is widely acknowledged that physical and emotional pain that is not worked through will manifest itself in some kind of physical or emotional symptoms or problem behaviour.
You have to adjust to an environment in which the lost person is missing. Often you are not aware of all the roles played by the deceased until their death. Over time, your coping capacity can be strengthened and your confidence in your own decisions and abilities increased.
There may be very real practical changes that have to be made, for example having to move house, living with reduced finances or making arrangements if you are unable to take care of yourself.
Major life decisions made when you are very emotional can tend to lack good judgement. If necessary, find the right people who you can bounce ideas off and get information from and delay costly changes that don’t have to be made immediately until your thinking is clearer.
Provide time to grieve. Often family and society are eager for others to move on. So, give yourself permission. It is common for wounds to open at anniversary times e.g. birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmas etc. Some religions build in ceremonies and rituals for recognizing the grieving process at different stages beyond the funeral.
You can do your own rituals to recognize the person, e.g. planting a tree in their memory, writing them a letter to thank them for what they have meant to you, later writing to say goodbye and telling them why you are letting go, etc. This must come as the logical conclusion of some kind of grief work that has been done.
WHAT IS COMPLICATED GRIEF?
Sometimes grief and mourning can be more difficult or “complicated”. Many factors lead to this. It involves being “stuck” in the earlier stages of grief e.g. shock, disorganization or denial.
Relationship factors e.g. where there are excessive amounts of anxiety and guilt, where the deceased represents an extension on oneself, where the relationship with them was strained when they died, or very dependent relationships.
Circumstances e.g. when loss is uncertain (e.g. missing in action); multiple losses or sudden and traumatic death. e.g. suicide; murder.
Historical Factors e.g. past losses and separations affect present ones.
Personality Factors e.g. inability to tolerate emotional distress, inability to allow others to support one.
Social Factors e.g. the loss is socially unspeakable e.g. suicide, AIDS, abortion; the loss is negated and people pretend it didn’t happen. The absence of a social support network is hugely significant
Become aware of your coping mechanisms. If you do not easily cope with loss, do not withdraw from others excessively. Instead work on creating a healthy support system and accept help. If you need medication to reduce symptoms while you work with your loss, rather consult with a practitioner than self- medicating with drugs or alcohol to dull the pain.
Nothing can reverse the loss if you are struggling, but grief counselling, either individually or in a group, can assist you to work though some of your emotions towards making good life decisions that suit your situation in the here and now.