Understanding Grief

by Kathleen J. McCune, Ph.D., LCP

Grief is not a problem.  Grief is a process.  A very normal, often painful, process.

Grief can be one of the most emotionally wrenching and “reality-bending” of life experiences.  While the death of someone dear brings on the epitome of grief, it is not only death that brings on grief.  A grief reaction can be caused by any change that signifies a loss.   It need not be a major loss or change, just something meaningful to us.   The change or loss can be an unrealized hope or dream such as a relationship that ended or a vacation cancelled.  Grief can be very public or it may be completely unrecognized. For example, many of the veteran’s coming home are grieving the loss of an important comrade whom their family never knew and about whom they find it difficult to talk.

The grief process is personal and affected by an array of factors: the meaning of the loss, its impact on day to day life and one’s future, the context in which it occurs, the timing, the events surrounding or leading up to the loss, how others are affected, or a sense of responsibility for the loss. There is no “normal” course for grief.  In other words, there is no “right way” to grieve, nor a time limit on grieving.

Anticipatory grief occurs when we realize a loss or unwanted change is coming and we begin the process of grieving.  When this occurs, people often experience a great deal of anxiety, but detachment can also accompany sadness.  When someone knows he or she is grieving and spends energy actively trying to manage it, it can be called active-aware grief.    When there is a disconnection between awareness and the grief process, it can be called passive unaware type; rarely is this type of disconnection a volitional choice but more of a protection against experiencing very strong emotions.

Reactions

Grief reactions range from shock and denial, to anger and sadness.   Our emotional responses to the loss or change usually shift with time.   It is normal to experience episodes of numbness, guilt, loneliness, yearning, fear, worry, anger, resentment, flashbacks, crying, isolation or not wanting to be alone.   Many people can move through the first year after a major loss with little difficulty but later develop a significant reaction that goes beyond grief.  An example would be avoiding having to be alone in the house after a spouse died.

It is only when the grieving person experiences such an extreme reaction that he or she cannot function for an extended period of time that the grief reaction may have shifted to depression or an anxiety disorder requiring treatment .  After a death, when the surviving loved one does not want to make any alterations in his or her life or environment or makes huge life changes suddenly, it could be a sign that the grief reaction triggered a more serious problem.

Many people wonder if it is “normal” to hear the voice of someone they have lost or to see them in the house.  It happens.  It can be a normal grief reaction.  However, if the vision is ongoing, frequently recurrent, or accompanied by fear, paranoid feelings, or unrealistic beliefs, then it is more likely related to a serious medical or psychological issue that can be treated once diagnosed. Suicidal reactions are serious and need immediate intervention.

Coping with Grief

If you have experienced a loss or are grieving a change, it is important that you allow your thoughts and feelings to surface, be expressed, and be shared.  Talk with a friend or loved one.  Write a poem or a journal.  Some people find it helpful to turn to art, music, or even gardening to express grief.  It can be important to honor a loved one in a way that is meaningful to the relationship; for example, children who have lost someone can feel better after releasing a helium balloon with a message written on it.

If you are grieving, it is important to reach out to others if others have not reached out to you yet.  Since we all grieve differently for different things, others may need you to let them know about your pain.  Hopefully they will want to support you.  Keep in mind that it is not selfish to talk about your pain; it is human nature to need our pain to be witnessed to and reaching out to a friend also gives them an opportunity to grow personally.  Pets can be a great source of comfort too during grief.  Animals tend to be a caring presence without judgment.

You may want to seek spiritual connection.  Talking with a spiritual leader can bring a sense of peace with the loss.  Prayer can help you feel connected in a spiritual way or help you to accept the unwanted or hard to understand loss.  Often times, people find it very hard to feel a spiritual connection after a loss; this is a normal reaction as well and generally fades away if you were spiritually connected before the loss.

Taking on a new creative endeavor can also help people heal from a loss or unwanted change.  By enlisting the parts of your mind that are creative and open, a new perspective on life can be developed.

While you are grieving, it is sometimes hard to take care of yourself.  It is very important to swim against the current of this urge.  Continue to eat.  Continue to go to bed on time. Continue to leave the house.  Continue to be with people. Continue or start exercising.  Avoid using alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or medications in ways they are not prescribed.  Be aware that if you have any addictive tendencies, you may find yourself leaning into addictive behaviors such as gambling, overworking, or substance use.  Seek professional or community help- such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, or Narcotics Anonymous- if you believe that you may be struggling with an addiction issue.

Grief support groups are extremely helpful and theRichmondarea has many good support groups.  Grief support groups are offered through funeral homes, hospitals, and churches or synagogues.  The Thursday edition of the Times Dispatch often lists local support groups. Support groups offer a chance to learn how others are coping with their losses, to share your feelings with people who are also grieving and to provide support.  If your grief makes you feel isolated, a grief support group offers a safe place to step out.

Many people find it helpful to find a counselor.  A counselor can be an objective, empathetic listener who cares but is not as affected by hearing your pain as a family member would be.  When grief brings on anger or a loss of belief in God, the grieving person may prefer not to share these feelings with family members. Having an objective listener makes it easier to be open and honest.  The therapist may also facilitate the grief process by exploring the meaning of the loss, obstacles to acceptance, perspectives on managing the pain and new ways of coping with the pain.

Times of grieving in our lives can be difficult to navigate, so it is important to seek help when you need it.  When you feel the need to isolate yourself, it may be time to reach out to others.  When you feel the need to keep everything constant, it may be time to make a small change to find support.  When you feel most closed, it may be time to find someone with whom you can share.  It is important to seek this kind of support and to find what is most comfortable.

No one can judge another person’s grief.  It is a personal experience.  It is also our own responsibility to stay safe and healthy during the process.  If you do decide you want to seek help with grief, we have included many recommendations above so that you may find one that suites your needs and comfort.  We encourage you to read the article a second time to consider ways you can take care of yourself.  Please feel free to call us if you would like to set up an appointment with a counselor.