Grief Matters – The Grief Process
You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.
J.K.Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
There is not a word to adequately describe what it feel likes when you hear the news that someone you love has died. What happens next is a roller-coaster of emotion and experience impacted by the attachment bond with the person who has died, the meaning of the relationship, the circumstances of the death, and your psychological, physical and spiritual perspectives.
What does it mean to grieve? It is your inner response to a loss, the way you integrate the reality of the death of someone significant to you. (You may also grieve when you experience any other significant loss such as a relationship, employment or loss of physical function.)
There is no one right way to grieve. The experience of grief and loss is a personal journey that is as unique as those encountering it. Much has been written about stages and the grief process as attempts to make sense of the varied impacts and experiences of people facing the loss of significant people in their lives. These approaches can be helpful as you try to regain a sense of well-being following such a loss.
There are three core tasks of the Grief Process:
The first task in the grieving process is to confront the reality that the person has died and will not be coming back. Then, the grieving person needs to experience and manage the emotional suffering caused by the grief. The final task is to find a way to change the relationship with the person who has died from presence to memory.
Sometimes we know that a person’s life is coming to an end and other times death comes unexpectedly. There are some differences about the resultant grief reactions to consider, and some understanding of the factors for different scenarios will provide a framework for thinking about your reactions to grief.
When you become aware that death of someone you care for is a likely outcome, or that it is inevitable an anticipatory grief response may commence. This may come about due to an extended illness, disability, severe accidental injury, terminal diagnosis or ageing or decline of an elderly person. There will be a wide range of losses that may occur over time, such as loss of cognition, memory or personality, awareness, independence, identity or stability.
The range of common grief responses may result from this awareness: sadness and pain, anger, depression, anxiety. You may also experience weariness or exhaustion with being a care-giver, and the stress of anticipating the death and the uncertainty about when that might occur. Hence you may live for an extended time in a state of hyper-alertness that can be both physically and emotionally exhausting.
However, anticipating a death provides opportunity for preparing for the loss. There is time to reflect on what life without the person will be like. You can choose how to best use the remaining time with your loved one, to prepare for the future and attend to unfinished business.
For some people experiencing anticipatory grief can reduce the symptoms of grief following death, but this is not so for everyone. Again, there is no one right way to grieve.
Dealing with sudden, unexpected or traumatic death.
A sudden or unexpected death can be a traumatic experience, shattering your sense of safety and security. Everything changes in an instant, and leaves you shaken to the core. The experience of grief in such circumstances may be very different to an anticipated death, and may result in severe reactions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or compound the grief response. Shock, anger, guilt, depression and hopelessness may be severe.
Unexpected death immediately plunges family and friends into a world that is forever changed. Your sense of security and safety may be significantly impacted resulting in vulnerability and heightened anxiety. The shock of the death of your loved one may result in a numbness and unreality that persists for a long time. This is a defence mechanism that helps you manage overwhelming emotional reactions. Becoming afraid that such a situation might happen again to someone you love may occupy your thoughts. Only when the reality is fully grasped can you move past the trauma to face the reality and pain of grief.
Relationships within families can be shaken when someone dies unexpectedly. The role held by the person within the family is gone, and it takes time for the family to reorganize. Hence relationships within the family may become strained. When someone dies unexpectedly there may be unfinished business within the family that needs to be handled. This may be about relationships or conflicts, work-related matters, financial concerns, or property issues.
When there is an unexpected death there will be involvement of legal and medical authorities. Often these processes are difficult, time consuming and lengthy. They add to the layers of issues that require attention and are often confronting and distressing, perhaps forcing you to consider difficult realities about the one who has died.
The nature of the death will impact the meaning of the loss, whether an act of violence, suicide, accident, or medical issue. Preventable deaths often result in questioning about how the death may have been avoided, and guilt or anger towards those responsible or those perceived to have contributed towards the death may be intense. The age and life stage of the person who has died is another important factor that gives meaning to the death, and can cause great pain and suffering. This is linked to the psychological expectation of life and death. A child, a parent, someone recently retired, an elderly person; is it fair, acceptable? Is it part of the natural order?
The impact of an unexpected death will affect people differently. These include psychological factors such as the nature of the relationship, meaning of the loss, strength of attachment or unresolved conflicts. The coping styles of individuals, behaviour patterns, self-esteem, needs, attitudes and beliefs are factors that also impact the grief response. Past or current experience of mental health issues may significantly influence the individual’s capacity to deal with the grief process, and monitoring by a health professional is recommended. Another factor that may contribute to a difficult grieving process may be past experiences of loss.
Making sense of the loss may challenge religious or spiritual beliefs and result in an existential crisis. Belief systems and values may be questioned, and life priorities may be re-evaluated. Often people emerge from grief with clear intent about what they want out of life, or how they will change their life to achieve important goals. Others may be affirmed in their beliefs.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve – the grief process is as individual as the person experiencing it. There are different responses that people often have to grief, you may experience all of them, a mixture or your experience may be completely different – but one thing that can really help is talking to someone about your feeling and experiences of grief.
If you, or someone else you know are in need of someone to talk to, to help you through your experiences of grief, I am always available for a chat – all you need to do is make an appointment.