Recently, I was asked to be a guest on a fellow therapist’s Facebook Live show in which she interviews local therapists on their particular area of specialty. Since my specialization is in grief and loss, I had the pleasure and honor of being her guest and discussing some very important topics related to grief. Below you can find the answers to what I think are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding grief and how it affects us. If you prefer to skip to the video, please just scroll down to the bottom.
BEREAVEMENT = DEATH OF A LOVED ONE + GRIEF + MOURNING
To begin, let me clarify that grief is the term that is used for many different types of losses. You may grieve when you get divorced, have a big move or for experiences you didn’t get in childhood, just to name a few examples. For today’s blog post we will be focusing on bereavement which is the term that is used for the grieving and mourning process after someone has died.
We all know intellectually that death happens but until someone very close to you has died, it is difficult to fully realize the impact that grief will have on your life. Additionally, the nature of your grief is dependent on different factors such as your relationship or role with the person who has died, how old you are when you experience the loss, the age of the person who has died and the conditions surrounding their death. For example, the impact of losing a child is different than losing a partner or spouse. This doesn’t mean that your level of pain or grief is more or less intense than someone else. It just means that the way in which your loss impacts your life and your sense of identity is going to be different depending on who you lost. So, without further ado…
COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT GRIEF
- What is normal when you are grieving?
I always explain it like this to my clients with the hopes of normalizing what they are experiening: Losing someone you love is incredibly overwhelming on many different levels. It overwhelms your usual way in which you feel and think. The death of a loved one feels as if this huge earthquake has shaken your world and nothing is put back the same. You feel as if you could die just from the feelings alone. The pain is incredibly intense and can literally bring you to your knees.
Handling and surviving your grief is about being able to tolerate and handle all of this overwhelm. The level of pain and sadness may be like nothing you have ever known. It is likely much bigger than anything you may have ever had to deal with before and that can be very scary. I’m hoping that the information I offer about grief will help grievers to know that they are NOT crazy and knowing what to expect may be a light through the tunnel.
Let’s go into the different levels that grief affects you (please keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive):
- Physical: You may have problems with sleep, headaches, fatigue, over or under-eating or not eating healthy, physical feelings of aches & pain in your body, especially your stomach and heart space or feeling very heavy and slow. For some people there is a higher risk of turning to drugs/alcohol (which I refer to as an “unhealthy distraction”) to cope with these overwhelming physical feelings.
- Emotional: You may have an overwhelming flood of different emotions: pain, sadness, frustration, longing, fear, anger, a lot of crying, guilt and regret are to be expected and are normal parts of grieving.
- Psychological & Social: Grief impacts what you think & how you think. For example many people feel a sense of confusion, especially in the beginning. There’s usually a sense of denial (your brain just can’t wrap itself around the reality), racing thoughts, feeling as if you’re going crazy, unstable, nothing makes sense, hard time thinking clearly, memory issues and you may feel as if you are in another world. You may get this very felt sense that the veil between life and death is very thin and you may feel that you are somewhere in between the worlds. You may also feel that everyone else is in “normal” living and you may feel isolated as a result because how you are feeling is so different than what you see around you. A Note on Trauma: It is normal to keep reimagining the last moments or the last time you saw your loved one. This can be particularly difficult for people whose loved one had a very traumatic way of dying. If thoughts or images surrounding the death continue to significantly haunt and disturb you, it is a good idea to seek counseling to begin processing the trauma in a safe and supportive space.
- Spiritual: Many people may question their religious or spiritual beliefs because their previous belief system is being tested in a new way. People may wonder, “Why did this happen to me?”. Many people will wonder, “What is the meaning of my life now without that person?” It is helpful to remember that it may take time to trust life again. It may take time to reconcile this ugly truth of life and to move forward despite this new reality. I believe that over the years, going through our grief has the potential to deepen our sense of meaning or purpose in life, to appreciate the small things in life and our connections with others. Realizing that this life is all we have and we never know when it all can change can bring up a lot of anxiety but it can also put you in touch with living your life more fully.
- How long does grief last?
There is a common misconception that grief at some point will end. The intensity of grief will change over time and usually softens as time goes on. However, you may always notice your grief affecting you on some level at certain times in your life. The first year after the loss is particularly hard as you must go through all the first times without your loved one including birthdays, anniversary dates and holidays, not to mention any other important milestones that were approaching such as a marriage, having a child or adult children moving out of the house. That first year is about just taking good care of yourself, focusing on your needs and what helps you. The impact of losing the person will change over time. Know that it will be a rollercoaster for awhile. You may have times when you realize that you haven’t cried in a few days and then WHAM, you’re struck out of nowhere by a moment of intense grief and find yourself crying all over again. This does not mean that you regressed. That is normal with grief. It comes and goes. Trust that over time the intensity will change and you will slowly begin to re-enter life again without having to worry about suddenly crying in public or getting triggered by something. At some point, and I know its hard to even imagine in the beginning, but at some point your everyday life will be front and center, rather than your grief.
3. What can help a person when they are grieving?
This really depends on the griever’s needs and interests but in general, allowing yourself to grieve at your own pace and in your own way is very important. Some things that may help:
- Good self-care, especially the first year after the loss.
- Healthy vs unhealthy distractions: Healthy distractions are good! You don’t need to feel guilty that you are experiencing breaks in the intense pain. Healthy distractions are things such as exercise, eating something that really nourishes your body, reading books, watching movies, gardening or any activity that you enjoy and brings some relief as you get through your day. Unhealthy distractions would be using alcohol or drugs or engaging in any kind of reckless behavior that puts you at risk for getting hurt and will just prolong your grief process.
- Being in nature
- Being around family and friends who are also grieving the loved one deeply and who understand and support you.
- Generally, it is a good idea to hold off on making big decisions the first year after the loss. That being said, there was one dear client I worked with whose husband of 50 years died and felt very strongly about moving out of her house immediately as it was too painful to stay there alone. It turned out to be a huge catalyst for her healing. The bottom line is to always find what feels right for you.
- Acknowledge and express your emotions: Let yourself feel all of the emotions as you are ready to. Cry as much as you want. Crying through your grief is the way your body and mind cope with such a huge loss. You have to let your body release all of it to heal. But, only when you are ready. Grief is incredibly painful and it takes great courage to be able to tolerate the depths of pain that grief can bring on. If you are not ready to let in all of your feelings, its okay. Trust that when you are ready, you can begin to let yourself feel your emotions in small, tolerable doses
- As time moves on, find ways to talk about your loved one and stay connected to their memory. Create rituals that you can do to remember them on anniversary dates, holidays and special occasions.
- Talk to your loved one. Tell them how you are feeling, what you miss about them. It might feel weird but it can be really helpful.
- Many grievers find tremendous comfort in joining a grief support group to be around others who are going through a similar experience and that can really understand what they are going through. Grief can make you feel different than everyone else so its helpful to experience that you are not alone.
- There is no reason you have to forget your loved one. Acknowledge how knowing and loving them has changed you as a person and find ways to honor them in the way you live your life.
- What can you say or do to help someone else who is grieving?
Helping someone when they are grieving doesn’t have a lot to do with what you say to them. Its normal to find it hard to help someone or to even know what to say when they are grieving. The best thing you can do is just be there. Be present with them. Sit with them. Be by their side. Listen. If they are in need of logistical help, especially if they have kids or major responsibilities to take care of, you can offer to help with meals, childcare, grocery shopping or errands. Its very hard to carry out even typical daily tasks when you are grieving so anything you can do to help the griever in that way is usually very appreciated. If you are able, be wiling to talk about their loved one with them.
Some things you may want to avoid: Giving advice or saying things such as, “They are in a better place”, “You will be okay”, “There is a reason this happened” or asking if they are okay now. Your tendency will be to help the person you love to feel better but this may backfire as people who are grieving need space and time to heal. Telling them what they should be thinking or doing can make the griever feel angry and as if you do not understand what they are going through.
TAKE HEART AND TAKE CARE
At the most fundamental level of the entire grief process is the fact that you deeply miss and are longing for the person who has died. Our minds try to figure out what to do and to how to grieve but really at the most basic level is that longing for the person who has died. Grieving is a heart-centered experience so notice if your mind is trying to hijack the situation. There’s nothing you “should” do to grieve in the “right way”. People commonly fear that they aren’t grieving properly. Try to let that go and focus on taking good care of yourself first. It is possible that in time, a process of inner inquiry and spiritual seeking may emerge.
WHEN TO SEEK HELP
While grieving after a death is intense and overwhelming at times, many people eventually find their way into healing without professional help. However, you may need additional support especially if you struggled with depression or anxiety before the death or if you are so depressed you are finding it hard to function in your daily life. The grieving process can also be difficult if your relationship with the loved one was complicated or the death was traumatic. Grief tends to bring up previous losses so if you haven’t worked through other painful losses in your life, your grief may exacerbate the level of suffering you were already living with.
If you need some extra support through your grief, please contact me and I am happy to offer a free 20 minute consultation to address any questions you may have about the counseling process or to book your first session. You do not have to do this alone. Take good care.
Previous blog post: How to Practice Self-Compassion
Other helpful links related to grief & loss:
Interview about Grief and How It Affects Us:
Thank you for reading and watching. Take good care.