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Coping with grief and loss

Loss comes in many forms, and grief is the process that is likely to follow. People think that bereavement is the main cause of grief. But grief may also be for loss of a friendship, a job, a relationship, as well as upon someone's death.

Grief is a natural and totally normal process. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Each person's experience is individual and it is important to allow people to grieve in their own way.

There is no set time it takes, but grief usually lessens and there will be a time when people cope and adjust with the loss they have experienced.

Whilst experiences of grief are individual, there are known to be some very commonly experienced stages of grief, and one model in particular has hypothesised these into 5 common stages. This is known as the Kübler-Ross model.

Stage 1 : Denial

Given grief's overwhelming nature, it is common for people to respond by pretending the loss isn't happening. This is often a defence mechanism or a way of gaining time to process the emotions involved. Typically denial numbs the intensity of the loss. As a person moves past denial, the emotions will rise to the forefront, and the person will likely have to confront the sorrow that has been denied.

Examples :

  • Breakup or divorce: “They’re just upset. It will be over next week.”

  • Job loss: “They made a mistake. They’ll call me tomorrow to say they have changed their minds.”

  • Death of a loved one: “He's not gone. He'll walk in the room any minute now."

  • Terminal illness : “This isn’t happening to me. The results are totally wrong.”

Stage 2 : Anger

Whilst denial is often a coping mechanism, anger is typically a masking effect. Anger hides the emotions and pain that a person carries. This anger could be directed at someone else - perhaps the deceased, the ex-partner or the former boss. It could be aimed at objects (hitting the wall) or at higher entities such as Gods.

Bitterness and resentment may follow, rather than 'simple' rage. The anger stage doesn't happen with everyone, or may not last long, but some people may linger in this stage. As the anger passes, the person may start to think rationally and logically about the situation, and begin to feel the emotions they have been pushing to one side.

Examples :

  • Breakup or divorce: “I hate her! She will regret leaving me!”

  • Job loss: “They’re terrible bosses. I hope the company folds.”

  • Death of a loved one: “If he had taken better care of his health, this would never have happened to him."

  • Terminal illness: “Where is God in all of this? How dare God let this happen!”

Stage 3 : Bargaining

During grief, a person may feel vulnerable and helpless. In those moments of intense emotion, it is not unusual for the person to look for ways to gain control again, or to want to feel like they can alter the outcome of an event. In the bargaining stage of grief, the person might find themselves creating a lot of “what if” and “if only” statements.

Religious individuals may try to make a deal or a promise to a higher power in return for healing or for relief from the grief and pain. This phase is a line of defence against the emotions of grief. It helps people to postpone the sadness, confusion, or hurt.

Examples :

  • Breakup or divorce: “If only I had spent more time with him, he would never have left me.”

  • Job loss: “If only I had worked more weekends, they would have seen my worth.”

  • Death of a loved one: “If only I had phoned her that night, she wouldn’t be gone.”

  • Terminal illness: “If only we had visited the doctor sooner, this may never have happened.”

Stage 4 : Depression

Depression may feel like a much more quiet stage of grief than anger or bargaining. By this stage, the person may be able to embrace and work through their emotions in a more healthy manner. However, the person may also choose to be isolated from others in order to cope with the loss.

The depression a person may experience is not necessarily easy to define, or indeed be well defined. Depression can be difficult and messy. It can feel overwhelming. The person might feel foggy, heavy, or confused.

Depression may feel like the inevitable landing point of any loss, but that doesn't mean it has to be long-lived. If the person feels stuck in this stage or can't move past this stage, it will be useful for them to speak to a counsellor to psychotherapist who can help them work through their grief.

Examples :

  • Breakup or divorce: “Why go on at all?”

  • Job loss: “I don’t know how to move forward from this point.”

  • Death of a loved one: “What am I without him?”

  • Terminal illness: “My whole life has come to this terrible end.”

Stage 5 : Acceptance

Whilst this might be the final stage of grief, it is not given that it will be a happy or uplifting stage. Acceptance doesn't imply moving past the grief or loss. It means the person has accepted it and understands what it means to their life now.

People often feel very different in this stage. That’s completely normal. There has been a major change in life, and this may totally change the way the person feels about things. Acceptance can be a way to see that there may be more good days than bad, but there may still be bad — and that’s OK.

Acceptance is not forgetting. But acceptance often allows a person to remember the good things they have lost with fondness and a sense of pragmatism.

Examples :

  • Breakup or divorce: “When all said and done, this was a healthy choice - the right choice for me.”

  • Job loss: “I’ll be able to find a way forward from here and can start a new path.”

  • Death of a loved one: “I am really lucky to have had so many tremendous years with him, and he will always be in my heart and mind.”

  • Terminal illness: “This gives me the chance to tie things up and make sure I get to do what I want in these final months.”

What do we learn for all of this?

I believe the biggest thing to remember about grief is that everyone experiences grief in their own way and in their own time. People may need several weeks, some may need several years. Grief may be immediate, or it may be delayed - sometimes for many many years.

Helping someone with grief doesn't need to be daunting. Very often, the biggest help you can be is to listen to the person's story, their memories, and to hear about their happiness and their sadness. Resist the temptation to compare a person's grief to your own experiences, and resist the temptation to judge. Be there for them, make time for them, truly listen to them.

If you see a person struggling with grief and you feel ill-equipped to properly assist them, I strongly suggest recommending them to a counselling or psychotherapy service such as Talking Works.

Talking Works is a private counselling, psychotherapy and coaching service that I run. You can request a free consultation with me by using the contact details below, or by using the button above. More details about me, and the services I offer can be found on the website

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