Grief and Loss
“Grief is love turned into eternal missing”
Grief and Loss
Each day we make assumptions about ourselves and others; we expect to go about our everyday business without any interference, we expect our loved ones to return home, we assume that they are safe and well when they are away from us, and we take for granted our plans for the future. However, when something tragic happens, like the diagnosis of a critical illness, or the death of someone we love, everything we once assumed gets shattered into a million tiny pieces. Life can become unrecognisable, and putting any of those pieces back together feels impossible.
When we experience significant loss, grief will follow. Whilst this article is devoted to bereavement, I do also want to reiterate that life brings forth losses in so many different ways. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with a life threatening or life changing illness, if your marriage or relationship has ended, if your children have left home, if you are retiring or being made redundant. You may have experienced a miscarriage, or have difficulties with conception, both of which represent a particular sense of bereavement and loss. In all (and more) of these life experiences, you may have some sort of grief reaction, and you may find some of the following information helpful.
Reactions to Grief
The death of someone we love is one of life’s most heartbreaking and traumatic experiences, and is associated with emotional and physical ill health. Whilst people die every day the world over, when it touches us personally the grief reaction that follows can be frightening, painful and overwhelming. Helplessness, shock, and fear are to be expected in the face of any significant bereavement.
I could spend some time quoting the theories of grief, and whilst this can be helpful for some, in my experience grief is so multifaceted and dependent upon other factors such as your attachment to your lost loved one, that I view it as an individual experience, which carries a personal reaction. What I can describe to you are some of the things you might expect as a result of becoming bereaved:
- Painful yearning
- Dissociation (feeling like things aren’t real)
- Overwhelming sadness
- Dislocation from others
- Others avoiding you
- Weight loss/weight gain
- Change in role
- Identity confusion
- Fleeting thoughts of suicide
- Increased responsibility for others
- Paperwork/unfamiliar legal processes
- Strained friendships/family relationships
- Being treated differently by others
- Avoiding places, photographs, memories
- Jealousy of others
- Financial hardship
- Overwhelming exhaustion
- Preoccupation with your deceased loved one
- Moving home
- Changing job
- Inability to think about the future
- Physical illness
- Becoming aware of being talked about
- Insensitive questions
- Flashbacks, eg unwanted images and memories that are distressing
- Avoiding going out
- Going out too much
- Eating more
- Eating less
- Drinking more
- Reckless behaviour, eg spending, gambling, promiscuity
- Telling others “I need to move on”
- Thinking how impossible it is to move on
- Others telling you “you need to move on”
- Actually not really knowing what everyone means by “moving on”
- Feeling ashamed of not being “over it”
- Not knowing what being “over it” means
- Feeling afraid that being “over it” means forgetting
- Being told that “time is a great healer”, but not feeling like it is
That sounds exhausting doesn’t it? How can anybody possibly survive all of that? I assure you it may feel like you cannot survive what you are experiencing, but I wanted to highlight the ‘normality’ of some of these responses, that these are described by so many bereaved people I work with, and in the research I have completed. What you may notice is that some of these responses are contradictory; grief can be so confusing.
There is no doubt that if you are grieving it is likely that you will be preoccupied with who has died, and how they died, whilst simultaneously trying to readjust into your new life where your loved one is so painfully missing. These are incredibly heart-wrenching and uncompromising processes.
Some people also experience traumatic reactions to death, where there is extreme avoidance of thinking about your lost loved one, the suffering of flashbacks, memories and images that occur out of the blue that can also cause nightmares, and extreme anxiety. These can be incredibly distressing experiences, particularly as people become confused about what these symptoms mean, and can even believe that they are losing their mind. Unfortunately, this then leads to feeling more frightened, confused and lonely. If you are experiencing these symptoms, it would be helpful to talk to your GP, or contact a trauma focused bereavement therapist. You are by no means going mad, but you may require trauma focused therapy to help you to work through the distressing and painful memories. Please see my trauma pages for more information.
“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or sign of weakness.
It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love.
The only cure for grief is to grieve”.
5 Myths about Grief
Grief is an expected reaction to the death of a loved one, yet causes so much confusion. Below, I outline five common myths I encounter in my work with the bereaved:
1.There are stages of grief, that everybody follows, in the same order, I’m at the wrong stage!
Whilst research shows that grief can be a sequential process, with common experiences shared by those who are grieving, there is no ‘set’ sequence of grief reactions that are experienced by all. The way in which we grieve is dependent upon many factors, such as how close we were/weren’t to the one who died, cultural and religious beliefs, the role the deceased played in our lives, financial circumstances, what support is available, etc. Whilst there may be stages of grief, they are not necessarily followed in a strict order.
To give an example of stage theories, historic research found four common stages to grief (Bowlby & Parkes, 1970), and they are:
- Numbness, shock and denial with a sense of unreality;
- Yearning and protest. It involves waves of grief, sobbing, sighing, anxiety, tension,loss of appetite, irritability and lack of concentration. The bereaved may sense the presence of the dead person, may have a sense of guilt that they did not do enough to keep the deceased alive and may blame others for the death;
- Despair, disorganisation, hopelessness, low mood;
- Re-organisation, involving letting go of the attachment and investing in the future.
Whilst these theories can help you to recognise that some of what you are experiencing are also experienced by others, a common sense approach to loss would suggest that bereavement is such an individual event, that the grieving process cannot be pre-determined; the loss needs to be processed in your own time, and in your own way.
2.Readjustment, or ‘moving on’ means letting my love go and forgetting about them. How can I do that?
Traditional theories of grief (Freud, 1957) stated that “grief work” (note the use of the word ‘work’, this hints at the reality of grieving and the amount of physical and emotional energy it consumes) was not complete until detachment from the lost loved one has occurred, and that moving on involves re-investing that love into a new relationship. However, this view has been strongly challenged by more recent research (Klass & Silverman, 1996 ; Stroebe & Schut, 2010; Stroebe & Stroebe, 1991). Many people whom I have counselled describe how they still retain a connection to the deceased, even though their current circumstances have changed. The connection is kept alive in many ways, such as reminiscing, talking to the deceased, remembering happier times, reflecting, commemorating, essentially keeping the attachment alive. This bond is retained, and evolves over time; some people feel embarrassed or ashamed of this, as if their grief is ‘stuck’. This is not an adverse grief reaction, and does not impede the ability to keep moving forward. Because your lost loved one is no longer physically with you in the flesh does not mean that you cannot continue a connection with them, and to do so is not unhealthy. Equally, if you feel that you have detached from your lost one, that would also not be considered unhealthy; how people readjust to loss is an individual process, there are no hard and fast rules.
3. Time is a great healer
It cannot be denied that the passage of time can dilute the pain of the ‘acute’ phase of grief, however this oft-quoted one liner might have you believe that time does all the hard work for you! This, unfortunately, is not the case. Grief does not simply go away; it evolves. When I work with the bereaved, this is something that I explore with them; what do you expect to happen to your grief? We use the word grief in connection to death, without actually thinking about it’s meaning. I think what is actually being referred to is the pain. What clients want to hear is that their pain will go away, but their sense of connection to the deceased will continue – there is a lot of fear that if the grief goes, then the treasured bond may also be lost. Whilst it is true that the intensity of grief may quieten down over time; the intense yearning for instance, the disbelief, the intrusive traumatic memories; they do all soften. However, it is likely (and remember, there are no hard and fast rules here) that your grief (ie your sense of loss of physical, ongoing connection with your loved one) will remain with you until the end of your days. What should significantly lessen is the intense pain and yearning that accompanies it. But, there may be times when that too resurfaces and catches you unawares.
4. A year has passed, everyone says the first year is hardest, yet I don’t feel much better – what is wrong?
It is true that time helps to ease the intensity of the pain of grief, however there is no fixed ‘end point’ to grief. The first year is often difficult simply because it contains all the ‘firsts’, the first birthday (yours and theirs) without your loved one physically present, the first Christmas, the first summer holiday etc. Getting through all of those is a major hurdle, but it doesn’t necessarily make facing them again any easier. Many clients report that the second year can be so hard because then the reality is so much sharper, the first year can go by in a bit of a blur. My own research in grief demonstrated that grief has a lifespan: as a new milestone is encountered, the grief can be ‘refreshed’ even if many years have passed. Again, this is not a hard and fast rule (there are no rules, remember?), but it can happen, and if some time has passed and you don’t feel much better, this does not necessarily imply that there is a problem. Again, this is a notion I explore with clients; what do you mean by “better”? When you really reflect on what you mean by “better” you may identify that there have been some changes, and that your expectations may be too high, in terms of expecting that life will go back to what it was like before. This may be unrealistic, as an important (yet unbearable) aspect of loss is the adjustment to a new life where your loved one is missing.
“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together,
there is something you must always remember.
You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem,
and smarter than you think”.
(A.A. Milne, cited Geurs, 2007)
5. “Their life has ended, therefore my life has too”
It is true that the life you have known may have ended. You will feel sadness, anguish and despair. Your hopes, dreams and assumptions have been shattered. Your life will be different, that is certain, but there is always hope that your life can go on, even if at times that feels impossible. In my academic research (Forshaw, 2013), my work with bereaved clients, and also in my personal experience, one consistent theme that has emerged is how some individuals describe having grown in some way as a result of surviving their loss (Neimeyer, 2001). People have described themselves as developing new skills, increased confidence, less fear, enhanced problem solving, all as a result of ‘grappling with grief’. Others have described how they have experienced such terrible loss, but as a result they have found aspects of themselves they did not know were there.
The final word goes to hope:
The thought of growing in some way may seem unthinkable to you right now. I am sharing this information with you, not with the expectation that you too will grow, but simply to demonstrate that there is hope that what you are experiencing is survivable, even when there are times that you believe it not to be. You are here, you are reading this article, you are surviving, sometimes that is all that is required.
Please contact me if you think that bereavement counselling may help you.
I hope that if you are currently bereaved that you have found this information to be helpful. If you feel you would like to talk with someone professionally, there are a number of people who can help you. You may want to discuss your feelings with your GP, or alternatively you may find some of these organisations to be of help:
Cruse Bereavement Care
The WAY Foundation (Widowed and Young)
St. Loyes House,
20, Loyes Street,
MK40 1ZL (Tel. 0 300 012 4929)
Winston’s Wish (childhood bereavement)
Clara Burgess Centre,
GL50 3AW (Tel. 01242 515157)
List of References
Bowlby, J. & Parkes, C. (1970). Separation and loss within the family. In E. J. Anthony & C. Koupernik (Eds.), The child and his family (pp. 197–216).New York: Wiley.
Forshaw, N. (2013). Everything I value might change in a heartbeat: Exploring therapist’s perceptions of developing (vicarious) resilience as a result of bearing witness to grief: Unpublished dissertation
Freud, S. (1917/1957). Mourning and Melancholia. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 14, pp. 152-170). London: Hogarth Press.
Klass, D., Silverman,P.R., & Nickman, P.L. (Eds.) (1996). Continuing bonds: new understandings of grief. Abingdon: Routledge.
Neimeyer, R. A. (2001). Reauthoring life narratives. Grief therapy as meaning reconstruction. Israel Journal of Psychiatry, 38, 171-183.
Stroebe, M., & Schut, H. (2010). The dual process model