A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog article about coping with loss. The article was about loss in general - whether that was the loss of a loved one, a job, one's health or a relationship. Little did I know that within a couple of months, my family would suffer a bereavement of its own - someone so central to the family.
Whilst this had not been the first loss I had experienced myself, it was surprising how much my blog article helped me to understand what was going on both for myself and for my other family members. I thought I would revisit my article and write it with a specific focus on bereavement, loss and grief of a loved one.
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.
"This can't be happening!"
"They can't be gone!"
"I don't believe this is happening."
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, doctors, the healthcare system. It could be aimed at objects (hitting the wall) or at higher entities such as Gods. Anger can also be directed inwards. Could I have done something to have prevented this from happening? It may be mis-directed at other family members, when actually a person may simply blame themselves.
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.
“If she had taken better care of her health, this would never have happened to her."
"Why don't the government spend more on research into this? It's all their fault."
“Where is God in all of this? How could God let this happen!”
Blame is so difficult - but the reality is that blaming yourself, or someone else is never going to help. I always try to make people understand this, and the futility of the blame game.
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.
“If only I had phoned her that night, she wouldn’t be gone.”
"If only we had seen the decline, there would have been something we could have done."
“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.
“Why go on at all?”
“I don’t know how to move forward from this point.”
“What am I without her?”
“My whole life has come to an terrible end and I'm so alone.”
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.
“I am really lucky to have had so many tremendous years with her, and she will always be in my heart and mind.”
"She had a happy life and I will take all over those happy memories with me."
"I did everything I could to make her last years the best they could have been."
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.
Remember to deal with your own grief too. The old adage of putting your own oxygen mask on before helping someone else! You will be feeling sad too - talk about that. Being strong for others without having a chance to express your own emotions will leave you in a difficult place. There is no hierarchy of grief - no one person's grief is more important than anyone else's. Be there for each other. Be kind to one another. This is a time to collectively help.
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 www.talkingworks.uk
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This article is dedicated to the memory of Sue Ward. A very much loved wife, mother, grandmother and, to me, mother in law. She never had a bad word to say about anyone. She enjoyed a laugh, a beer, music, and most of all - her family. You will never be forgotten. We will all remember you with love and fondness.
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