Grief is a natural human response to loss; the loss of a loved one, a relationship, a child, a job, or perhaps even an object that’s important to you. Typically, it is an acute response that remits gradually as time passes, however, it can be debilitating and interfere with daily life. Everyone has a different way of expressing grief. Some may display erratic or aggressive behavior, while in others, it may manifest in the form of deep suffering and heartache. Although it is a natural reaction, it can vary in intensity depending on the significance of one’s loss.
Each person’s experience of grief is different and cannot be compared to another’s. Some people’s experiences may be fleeting but intense, while others may report feeling grief for years after an incident resulting in a loss. It is often reported that grief is experienced in waves and cycles; a depressed and sorrowful period followed by a more optimistic period, and repeat. When one thinks of loss, one may think about losing a loved one, but the loss can be more than that. It can be:
- Loss of a relationship, such as a divorce or a breakup.
- Death of a pet.
- Loss of a job.
- Loss of good health, such as being diagnosed with cancer or being paralyzed.
- Moving away or selling a home.
- Serious illness of a loved one.
- Graduating from school.
- Losing financial security.
Certain responses to such events are normal. Some common reactions related to grief are:
- Feeling shocked and uncertain.
- Anger and irritability.
- Excessive sadness and despair.
- Feeling numb and emotionless.
- Overwhelming fear and anxiety.
- Guilt and shame.
- Feeling like you’re ‘going crazy.’
- Having a difficult time concentrating.
- Short-term memory loss.
- Feeling suicidal.
- Loss of interest.
These cognitive, behavioral, and emotional reactions are often coupled with physical reactions such as excessive crying, frequent headaches, indigestion, muscle tension, fatigue, increased or decreased blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, change in appetite, sleep issues, etc.
Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in 1969, postulated that we go through five common stages of grief. The stages are non-linear and may not always be present.
The denial phase is usually the first phase of the grief process, however, this is not always true. This phase works as a defense system against the onslaught of pain and sorrow, creating a temporary, semi-permeable barrier between the trauma and yourself. This barrier protects you from the initial grief that seeks to attack with full intensity, allowing instead, a gradual understanding of the pain according to one’s ability to process it. This stage is characterized by feelings such as avoidance, shock, and confusion. Denial is when your brain refuses to acknowledge the news of a loved one’s death, instead hanging on to a sliver of hope that they’re alive. It is when your brain refuses to accept when you or someone you’re close with is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Denial, by erecting this safe barrier, paces the process of grief to make it bearable.
It is natural to feel disoriented after a major loss as you try to adjust to the new reality you have just been shoved into, trying to make sense of everything. As the denial stage wanes and you’re exposed to the images and memories of the loss, feeling overwhelmed and angry is normal. Anger, during such a time, may seem like the best outlet for your emotions. You may feel like whatever has happened is unfair and you may be bombarded with questions like ‘why me?’
The anger phase is very important, according to some psychological experts, as anger serves as the bridge that assists you in reconnecting to your reality and takes you out of wallowing in misery and denial. The anger stage, thus, allows you to process your grief and provides you with a — mostly — safe outlet of emotion.
It is a desperate time when you lose something or someone. When you’re out of the denial stage, utterly exhausted, and navigating your way through this tough time, your desperation may often lead you to scramble to find a balance. The utter humanness of your situation starts setting in during the bargaining stage as you try to negotiate with whatever entity you believe in to be shown towards the light at the end of the tunnel. In this phase, desperation can make you call out and promise things like, ‘God if you heal my mother, I will never fight with her again,’ or, ‘If you let this person live, I will be a better person,’ etc. The bargaining stage deals with struggling to find meaning as you’re constantly bombarded with thoughts about how you could have done something differently to avoid your current predicament.
As the desperation subsides and you begin to feel your grief abundantly, and when bargaining and negotiating no longer seem like good enough options, overwhelming sadness and despair can take over your senses as you begin to fully acknowledge, accept, and understand your loss. With the process of understanding and acknowledging comes a feeling of utter helplessness that can be defined as depression. In this stage, you may feel overwhelmed, anxious, extremely sad, hostile, and even numb. You may turn inwards and wallow in self-pity, leading to isolation and loneliness.
Acceptance is the last stage of grief. In this stage, your grief tends to resolve as you figure out a way to move on from your pain. Acceptance does not mean forgetting. The pain remains but it is coated in a salve that makes it hurt less. Instead of resisting or rejecting the reality of your situation, you learn to accept it and come to terms with it. You basically realize that this isn’t the end of the world and there’s still a lot to live for. You explore new options and resume your life the way it was before the loss.
Moving On After a Major Loss
Grief can sometimes be so overwhelming that it might seem impossible to get out of the cycle you’re stuck in. Granted, it may be among the most difficult things you’ll do in life, but moving on is possible. Here are some tips that can help you move on after a major loss:
Be Patient With Yourself
Grief is a very personal experience. It manifests among different people in different ways. Similarly, the duration it takes for each person to move on from it may also differ. Each person has his or her own pace at which they process their grief. Comparing your experience with others can actually cause more harm than good, shoving you deeper into despair. Letting your emotions take charge and trusting them can be a long and challenging task but once you get the hang of it, everything starts to make sense.
Find Alternate Outlets For Your Emotions
When you’re grief-stricken, you may find it is easier to numb yourself to the pain or let it out through aggression and anger. Sure, it may be easier but it’s definitely not healthy. Once you acknowledge your grief, you can try and find alternate outlets for your emotions instead of going numb or bottling them up. You can easily transform your aggression into creativity through activities you enjoy, such as music or art.
Talk to Friends and Family
Grief can lead to depression, which can consequently lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. It’s definitely not easy to talk to people about your loss because you’ll feel like they don’t understand but you’ll be surprised how much people are willing to understand. Talking to friends and family about your loss can help you process your grief and make sense of it, allowing you to detangle your thoughts and assisting you to move on, gradually, but surely.
When you’re consumed with thoughts and memories of the thing or person you’ve lost, it’s easy to fall into a habit of neglecting yourself; your body, and your mind. It is important to ensure that you do not let your emotions consume you to the point it pushes you to self-sabotage. Keep your mind focused and try to invest your time in easy self-care activities to keep you away from depressing thoughts. These activities can include painting, journaling, watching a movie, or reading!
Join a Support Group
Support groups are a brilliant way you can push yourself to move on from your loss. Support groups allow you an opportunity to speak and listen to people who have had similar experiences. There are specific groups that provide support for loss and grief. If speaking about your experience seems intimidating, simply listening to others can be a source of guidance, support, comfort, and encouragement to you. If you feel comfortable enough to speak eventually, that’s even better because it will allow you to understand your grief.
If all else fails and you find yourself stuck in your grief cycle, unable to move on, seeking professional help is recommended. There is no shame in seeking counseling. If you feel like you lack support from family and friends and nobody understands you, you can speak to a therapist that specializes in grief counseling about your experiences and they can help you overcome obstacles in your healing process.
Finally, it’s absolutely natural to feel sad and depressed following a loss, but what is not natural is to give in to it rather than struggle to fight through it and allow yourself a chance to move on. The feelings that come with grief and loss can be all-consuming but have faith in yourself, you’re way stronger!