Understanding grief. How to live through it and how to support others.
February 28, 2020
8 min read
Dying is a part of life. It’s not something we’d chosen, it’s not something we can avoid either. It’s definitely something that awaits us all. And so is grief and mourning. We all go through it. Sometimes we’re able to deal with it ourselves, sometimes we need professional help.
This essay is about:
– Understanding grief to better help ourselves or somebody who’s grieving
– Things to remember that are not that openly discussed in the public space
– Red flags – signs you should consider when making a decision whether to seek professional help.
Phases of grief
We all know the 5 (6) stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, finding meaning.
They are true and accurate. But. We just need to remember grief is a process. One that is not at all linear. It’s more like a sinusoid where you go down, and then back up again. It takes time. Here’s a short description of what it may look like:
First, you’ll most likely experience shock. Especially when our loved one died as a result of an accident, or a sudden illness. Though people say you can never prepare yourself for somebody’s passing. Even if they’ve been sick for months or years.
We face denial, everything is pretty difficult to comprehend. We may feel there are two worlds – one with that person in it and the other without. There’s tears, silence, sadness, anger. Everything might happen at once.
Something that you may find surprising is that we tend to do pretty well before the funeral. We gather all our energy, we act, we are in the mode of getting things done. Plus there’s support coming from family and friends. Things sometimes change afterwards. You may feel alone and all the feelings may come back. Especially that when it’s your partner who died or somebody you’ve lived with or worked on an everyday/regular basis – you will experience this sad reality without them.
Another one is anger. It’s very natural and common too. As all the others. It’s not very socially acceptable somehow. As a society, we deal better with somebody’s sadness rather than anger in these situations. Interestingly enough – it’s much more available for us psychologically. More than sadness and hopelessness. We often call anger a ‘masking emotion’. Because we unconsciously choose it to cover those dark depressive clouds that we don’t really know how to tackle. A curious thing about anger is that it’s useful. It may give us energy and structure. Temporarily that is.
One other thing. We may be angry at all sorts of things. At the doctors and the hospital (that they didn’t save our loved one), ourselves (we couldn’t stop their way of life, or didn’t notice the signs of illness), at other people (who get to live their life…). We can also be angry at the person who died. Yes! Either because they died, and ‘left us here’ or because the relationship we had with them was a complicated one. It does happen. And culturally – it’s not usually acceptable to “talk ill of the dead”. Even so – it’s very natural to have all sorts of feelings and we need to recognize them to actually process them fully. Some of us also need closure, I’ll get back to that later.
Depression – or depressive phase – is another one. While I’m naming them – please remember – this is not a linear process. It’s not smooth sailing. If, when and how we experience those stages depends on a lot of factors. Our psychology, personality, our support system, the relationship we’ve had with the person who passed, our age.
This one feels like it’s gonna last forever. We have no energy, we may experience difficulties sleeping, changes in appetite, we simply withdraw from life and social activities. Some people may recognize their faith crisis. To not experience this part would feel quite unusual.
This one is a tricky one, simply because oftentimes people will fear what it would mean if they were to admit ‘they accept’ this situation. It may feel to them as if they didn’t love their husband, mother, son enough, or that they were not that important in the end. Acceptance simply means we’ve recognized the different – permanent reality of our life – without someone we love in it.
Some things worth remembering when we think about grief:
– TIME – we really need time. I can’t stress that enough. Much more than moving past this and letting go – we’re going through the process. Recognizing our feelings and learning this new reality.
– not processed feelings will not simply go away. This is something that happened to some of my patients/clients. Past trauma – not dealing with grief, not paying attention to whatever was going on, repressed feelings. They do come back later in life. Sometimes it’s not possible at the time to recognize them though. Imagine a mom with two very young children whose husband died suddenly, without any support system in place. She can’t really focus on herself – she’s just trying her best to be a mom. No matter the circumstances – not processed emotions will come back. Either as a depressive episode “out of the blue” or as a physical illness we can’t very much explain medically.
– notice your HYPERACTIVITY. If you live as if nothing had happened if all of a sudden you engage in many different projects and have millions of things to do – and it hadn’t been your MO before – it might mean you’re repressing your emotions. Simply stop and reflect. It may be that you’re avoiding the inevitable wave of sadness.
– Making grief a part of your identity. You may know a person like that in your circle. Somebody who gave up on life. Who decided life without this special someone in it does not have any sense. They may finally agree to meet with a doctor or a psychotherapist, but they can also refuse any help. You may try and be there for them – but keep in mind to take care of your own boundaries too. Because sometimes it is an unconscious way to get the sort of help and attention they wouldn’t otherwise know how to ask for. Grief then becomes their second nature. They become someone who chose not to live.
– Loneliness is a silent killer – it’s a back door to depression. Take all the time you need but try to be with other people as much as you can.
So how do we help ourselves?
– Remember everything in life takes time. Especially such incredibly intimate and personal moments like saying goodbye. Give yourself that time, and do not hesitate to ask for help.
– Think about closure and saying goodbye. Some patients/clients of mine had these experiences where they weren’t able to say goodbye. And most of us simply need it – this way or another. What we can do is to write a letter. It sounds small and simple, but it reallytruly helps. We can journal about it too, but writing a letter seems a bit more relational. We can address all our feelings as if you talked to our loved one. We can tell them whatever we’d need them to know. This is a natural way of saying goodbye
– Some people like to give advice that in short sounds like – “just get over it, let it go”. This is not the way to go obviously. We do need to be able to talk about people we loved that are now gone. Recognizing these feelings is a part of the healing process.
How to help another?
– Just be in their life.
– Give them a call,
– Listen without judgment.
– Don’t wait for the person to invite you over – check up on them. Ask if they need anything, offer to help with something, bring them soup. Just be in their life.
– Accept their feelings. However strange they may feel.
– Encourage them to talk about what happened, how they are experiencing it.
– It may happen that the help you’re offering is not enough. The professional consult might be necessary.
When to consult a specialist?
Whether it describes you or the person you’re concerned about – you may consider the below-listed symptoms as orange (red) flags for depression:
– suicidal thoughts,
– difficulties sleeping – a person cannot go to sleep or wakes up in the middle of the night,
– extreme changes in appetite,
– lack of energy needed to function normally,
– social isolation,
– panic or anxiety attacks,
– ruminating thoughts,
– sudden disregard for personal hygiene,
– irrational behavior – like weeks of cooking for the person who passed away, actually seeing them,
– alcohol and/or other substance abuse, promiscuous sexual behavior.
We all have a certain number of funerals ahead of us 😞 Our loved ones’, family members’, friends’. There’s no way to avoid it. But if we can talk about it, if we’re well educated on the subject, if we know it’s ok to open our hearts and minds to the new – often absolutely disturbing experiences – we may find meaning in all this. We can try and go through this time as intentionally as we can.
This way we can save the memory of the person that we loved so much and take care of our own life too.