Grief – What’s Normal, What’s Not?


Grief is a natural part of life, but the experience can be different for each of us

Most of us will experience grief at some point. The pain and emotional turmoil that goes hand-in-hand with the loss of someone we care deeply about makes it the most difficult human experience. And while there is no right or wrong way to tackle grief, there are many ways a person can help themselves, and be helped, on the road to recovery.

You don’t always go through all the stages of grief, and that’s okay.

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying(available from Amazon), which established the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. According to life coach and counsellor Julie Parker, however, not everyone goes through these stages the same way. “The reason we experience grief differently is as varied as people and relationships,” she explains. “It depends on many factors; if a death is sudden or expected, if it’s a child or an elderly person, or if they died from natural causes or from a violent crime.”

You don’t always experience each stage of grief, or in the same order as someone else. “If a person has been caring for a loved one who’s been ill for a long time, they may not experience denial or anger at all because they have already come to terms with the knowledge that someone close to them is going to die,” says Parker. “Instead, they may go straight to an acceptance phase.”

Grief isn’t just about losing a loved one.

We grieve for many reasons, which can include the loss of a relationship, or the loss of a way of life. “If someone loses a limb, they may grieve significantly for that limb, or if they can no longer walk, or do a particular type of activity they previously could,” says Parker.

We grieve for many reasons, which can include the loss of a relationship, or the loss of a way of life.

It’s also no less devastating than the loss of a loved one. “If you lose a beloved pet, the grief can be incredibly difficult to live with,” she says. “The same feelings can also be experienced by someone who is betrayed in a relationship, fired from a job, or any other experience where they lose something close and important to them.”

Grief isn’t measurable, so comparisons should be avoided. “When someone is grieving, no matter why, we should simply love and support them,” says Parker. “Don’t hurry them through the process, or make them feel that what they are grieving about isn’t important.”

Grief and depression are not the same thing.

Grief and depression can feel the same, says counselling psychologist Dr. Annie Cantwell-Bartl, but there are two key differences. “The first is that depression tends to be all-consuming, whereas the feelings of grief come and go, particularly as time passes,” she says. “The second difference is that the feelings of grief are directed towards the person who has died, or what has been lost, while the feelings of sorrow in depression are likely to be non-specific.”

Grief and depression can feel the same, says counselling psychologist Dr. Annie Cantwell-Bartl, but there are two key differences.

Depression is often treated with medication and counselling, while grieving people mostly need support and time. “Sometimes they can benefit from help by a professional skilled in grief who understands the journey,” says Cantwell-Bartl. “Grieving people sometimes wonder if they’re going mad, because their world is turned upside down. Someone skilled in grief counselling can offer reassurance.”

Men and women may grieve differently.

Just as people experience grief differently, the way men and women grieve can be related to personality, style, cultural experiences and the expectations of men in society, says Cantwell-Bartl. “Generally, many men are more concerned with restoration of life after someone is lost, and women are more focused upon feelings and talking about them,” she says. Both sexes need to address each aspect to recover well.

“Sometimes men experience delayed grief responses as they feel there is no one who wants to listen to their experiences, or they support their partner and sidestep their own grieving,” says Cantwell-Bartl. “However, these are stereotypes; some women are more focused upon restoration than grief work and vice versa with men.”

Sometimes men experience delayed grief responses as they feel there is no one who wants to listen to their experiences, or they support their partner and sidestep their own grieving

You feel guilty for the things you didn’t say before you lost your loved one, or for the relief you feel when someone has died after a long and serious illness. According to mental health social worker Sarah Wayland, people are flooded with emotions and feelings in the early days after a loss, and in the weeks, months and years to come.

“Grief is not a constant feeling,” she says. “It ebbs and flows depending on the nature of your loss, what else is happening in your life, and how resilient you are.”

According to Wayland, people often experience surprising feelings with grief, such as anger, confusion, ambivalence, hopelessness and anxiety. The first step in dealing with them is to seek support from a partner, a friend, a GP or a counsellor skilled in grief work.

“It might just be that the person requires a safe place to explore what the loss has meant to them,” says Wayland. “Grief isn’t about finding closure, it’s about giving yourself time to adjust to what has happened.”

Grief can sometimes be too intense for too long.

There is no established period for the grieving process; it can last a lifetime. Although the majority of people will grieve in their own time and recover, some may get into psychological strife and need extra help. “Extreme reactions to grief can involve other mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression,” says Cantwell-Bartl.

There is no established period for the grieving process; it can last a lifetime.

There are many reasons why grief can persist or be too intense. “Possible scenarios might be a traumatic death, such as an unexpected illness or accident, when someone is unprepared for that death,” she says. “Another example is a stigmatized death such as a suicide, or drug overdose, or a person who’s had a problematic relationship with someone who’s died, such as an abusive parent. They may experience trauma as well as grief.”

Grieving people always need help as well as someone to talk to.

Often they don’t know what they need, but instead of being concerned about intruding, take the initiative with a grieving person. Bring food, offer to help with the kids, and extend social invitations without taking it personally if they refuse, or change their minds.

When it comes to talking, however, Sarah Wayland says that grieving people are often met with silence, or well-worn platitudes. “In the early days after a loss, people find it easier to offer condolences,” she says. “But as time moves on, the grieving person often feels that they haven’t been given the space to talk about what they’re experiencing.”

Allow a grieving person to share how they are feeling, whether it’s difficult to listen to or not. You also don’t have to put aside your own sadness. “It’s okay to acknowledge the sadness you feel on behalf of another,” says Wayland. “It’s okay to show that their loss has affected you, while giving them space to lean on someone.”

Often they don’t know what they need, but instead of being concerned about intruding, take the initiative with a grieving person.

10 ways to help yourself

The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement says there are many things a person can do to ease their pain after losing a loved one.

  1. Put off for six to 12 months any major decisions that can’t be reversed.
  2. Keep a journal of your feelings.
  3. Create a memorial; do, or make, something to honor your loved one.
  4. Develop your own rituals; light a candle, listen to music, or find a special place to think.
  5. Express your thoughts and feelings privately, such as writing a letter, drawing, collecting photos, or crying.
  6. Deal with pent-up energy by exercising – walk, swim, garden or do anything you enjoy.
  7. Draw on religious or spiritual beliefs if you find it helpful.
  8. Read about other people’s experiences with grief.
  9. Try meditation, relaxation techniques or massage therapy.
  10. To help sleeplessness, get plenty of exercise, limit alcohol, eat before going to bed, and stick to a daily routine.

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