Coping with grief
For some people, grief is a new experience – the funeral of a loved one they are just about to attend may be the first person close to them that they have lost. For others, grief is more familiar, they may have been through numerous episodes of grief and be more aware of the different stages of grief and how they tend to respond to it.
Grief has different stages
Grief and loss have five recognised stages; these were first defined in a book entitled On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published in 1969 and these concepts have been in use ever since. These five principles are listed below in a defined order but, in fact, they may be experienced in any sequence; it is better to think of them as a circle rather than as a sequential list. Not every person experiences all the stages of grief. They are as follows:
- Denial – this is a common reaction in the immediate aftermath of loss, it’s a mechanism of defence and self-preservation. Denial is like an anaesthetic, everyday life can carry on or not for some people, it is a sort of numbness. – think of it as the human body’s reaction to pain
- Anger – as the anaesthetic of shock (and shock can be felt just as keenly from a long-anticipated death as one that is sudden) begins to fade, the huge reality of what has happened can hit like a tidal wave. The difficulty of facing this emotion and raw pain can be deflected by anger which may manifest in numerous different ways and situations. Anger can be personal or totally random. Anger can be directed at the person who has died, this is very common – anger is directed at them because they have left and this type of anger is often followed by guilt. Or anger can be directed at one or more of the healthcare professionals who have looked after that person. Anger can also be focused on the grieving individual who feels they should have done more and possibly even prevented the death from occurring
- Bargaining – this is the beginning of the human desire to reassert control and can be characterised by the ‘if only’ outbursts driven partly by feelings of guilt and the beginning of the human survival instinct. This process is as relevant before death as afterwards. We may make bargains with ourselves or with God, a trade deal to keep that person for just a little longer
- Depression – depression manifests in different forms. People can be worried and depressed about the practical implications of loss so the funeral costs and coping without that person going forward; this type of depression can be more obvious and visible. There is also an innate, private depression and sadness which is purely a reflection of the fact that loss and grief is a part of living
- Acceptance – some people never reach this stage particularly if they lose a loved one suddenly or in perhaps violent or unpleasant circumstances. Acceptance is not about forgetting someone or moving on, it is about learning to live with what has happened and continuing to function and experience the joy that life has to offer
Everyone copes differently
Whilst grief has common denominators for many people, each individual’s grief is totally unique and personal to them. The shades and nuances will differ one from another. Although there are always elements of grief which are universal to all people, ultimately grief is as individual as love.
Grief connects us all as it is an inevitable part of the human condition. Respecting someone else’s grief is critical as it may be very different from your own experience. Everyone has the right to grieve in the way that they want and for as long as they want.
Dealing with grief
There are no right or wrong ways to deal with grief although there are accepted techniques and processes which can be helpful including:
- Don’t judge your emotions – there is no prescription that says you must feel a certain amount of guilt or anger if indeed, you feel any at all. Emotions will wax and wane, this is normal
- Some people find it helpful to allocate time each day to spend with a photograph or special item of their loved one
- Try and take good physical care of yourself – lack of food, exercise and good sleep will only make the suffering worse
- Don’t deny the wonders of life which will still be all around you – the feel of the spring sunshine on your face, the happiness and joy of an animal or child. Don’t feel guilty for living
- Try and spend periods each day when you get on with living, put your grief on the back burner. It’s still there and it will come back again in vivid technicolour but it doesn’t have to define every waking moment
- Do something positive or charitable. You can often see this after the tragic death of a loved one which is reported in the media. Some people set up charities, others volunteer – it doesn’t have to be a cause or idea connected to your loved one but frequently it is. Helping those less fortunate than you will remind you how much you do have and take you out of yourself for a few hours
- Support can be found through friends, relatives or actual bereavement groups. There is no right or wrong way to seek support – it is whatever you feel comfortable with
Supporting someone who is grieving
The key thing is patience. Never impose your own experiences on someone who is grieving in a well-meaning attempt to sympathise and empathise. Let them lead the grieving process and follow them passively, offering support and suggestions when appropriate but allowing them to set the pace.
Don’t try and control someone else’s grief in an attempt to support them and take the pain away. Just being there for someone in a calm, supportive and non-controlling way will ultimately be the greatest reassurance and help to them.
The most important things to remember about grief
- Grief is individual, as unique as our fingerprint, grieve in the way that is right for you
- There is no right or wrong way to grieve
- Grief can begin before death as the inevitability of what is going to happen becomes unavoidable
- Grief does not have a time limit, it remains present in one shape or form always but it becomes manageable and bearable over time
Grief is the contra to love; feeling grief means you have felt love and sadly the two go hand in hand and one will inevitably follow the other as sure as night follows day.