When grief happens, it can be acute; it feels like your whole world has fallen apart. There is no typical response when living with grief; it is unique for each and every one of us and something we will experience for various reasons at different times in our lives. Grief can be a challenging process and can often take months or years to work through, sending emotions into turmoil with what seems like little or no end in sight.
As a counsellor working with clients who are going through grief and loss, I am often asked how long these heart-wrenching feelings of grief will last for. It’s not an easy question to answer as grief is complex, unpredictable and doesn’t have an expiration date, nor is it a linear process, generally affecting all aspects of our lives.
When we are grieving, we find that we are displaying all types of feelings and emotions and this can be confusing and sometimes disturbing. One thing is for sure, acknowledging the grief and navigating through it is paramount in order to heal from it. It’s also wise to remember that healing from grief is a process and can be timely. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel and remember that you will have people around you who are more than willing to help you to move through it.
The five stages of grief:
There are generally five stages of the grief framework including – denial/shock, anger, bargaining, sadness/depression, and acceptance. Not everyone will experience all of these stages or identify with them in a set order. It is helpful if you can learn all you can about the grief process as this will help to normalise the experience you are going through.
- Denial/shock – During this stage, most individuals will feel emotionally numb, empty, confused, devastated, shocked at the loss, sometimes refusing to believe what has happened. It is difficult to eat, sleep, think or attend to daily routine tasks. The denial stage is our coping mechanism, often assisting in protecting the individual from feeling too many emotions all at once.
- Anger – This stage can present in various ways, including anger directed at the departed for leaving if it’s the loss of a loved one, anger that you’re left behind or anger with yourself for not seeing this coming or being able to prevent it. Anger covers up the underlying pain individuals can experience. There are many variations of anger associated with grief and loss and it doesn’t have to be rational or reasonable.
- Bargaining – During this stage comes a lot of guilt and the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘if only’ statements. It isn’t unusual for those left behind to create in their minds numerous scenarios. If only they’d said or approached something in a different manner, maybe their loved one would still be here. The loss is hard enough to deal with but then comes change, change that is permanent and at times, hard to deal with. It is not unusual to linger in the past during this stage, not wanting to confront the present or the future.
- Sadness/depression – The loss creates hurt, emptiness, withdrawal from other people and life in general and you may be experiencing extreme sadness. This stage can sometimes be compared to going through a depressive stage, although normal, it can feel like life has no purpose, that these feelings will last forever, leaving a heavy darkness that is associated with the grief. It is a situational depression and what you are feeling is a normal process when experiencing grief and loss. You are not broken, although you feel as though you are, you generally move on from the sadness in your own time.
- Acceptance –This is where the final stage of the healing process takes place. This stage can often be mistaken for ‘being okay.’ It is human nature to grieve and be debilitated by grief and it would be fair to say that most people will never overcome the loss of a loved one, a pet or a traumatic situation. But we tend to deal with the change and go about our daily lives, accepting what has happened and moving on.
Getting through the grieving process isn’t easy; it has its ups and downs and many pathways and turning points along the way. Although our psyche is built for loss and experiencing grief is a natural part of life, moving through the grief can be unpleasant. The grief you are experiencing is your journey and yours alone, for however long it takes to move through it, in time hopefully you will have more good memories than pain for your loss.
Some common causes of grief:
- Death of someone you love
- Loss of health
- Relationship – friendship or romantic
- Loss of a job or financial security
- Traumatic event
- The loss of a pet
Below are some suggestions on how to cope through the difficult period of grief and loss:
- Give yourself the time and the space to grieve, be patient with yourself and let go of grief only when you are ready. There is no right or wrong way to grieve; it is a process that is unique for each and every one of us.
- Ask family and friends to be patient, supportive and understanding with you. Let them help in any way they can to make life a little easier for all involved.
- Nurture yourself because grief can be exhausting, get lots of rest, eat well and try some gentle exercise if you can. Self-care and do things that will be calming and relaxing for you.
- Avoid making any major decisions until you are ready.
- Don’t try to hide your emotions, thoughts or feelings, remember that grieving is a normal human process and it is okay to express how you feel. In order to heal from grief, it is important to acknowledge your grief.
- If you have lost a loved one, sometimes it can be helpful to create a memorial in honour of that person, develop a ritual. This may include things such as writing a letter or poem, creating a photo collage, or lighting a candle by a photo of your loved one. Listen to music relevant to your loved one or spend time in a place that was special to the both of you. This process works for the loss of a pet as well and can be very healing.
- Research all you can about the grieving process, what is normal and what’s not. Things you can do to streamline the process.
- It may be helpful to join a support group if you are up to it. Sometimes talking to people who are grieving something similar to you can be calming and a healthy way to move forward.
- It may be necessary to take time away from your normal schedule initially, but after a while try to maintain a normal routine where possible, having things to do can assist in dealing with the grief.
- Seek professional help through a counsellor if you feel that you are having difficulty moving forward.
Allowing yourself to grieve is a healthy way to move through the process. But sometimes, people can’t move on from their grief, feeling stuck or they may feel as though they are deteriorating. If this is the case, it would be helpful to seek professional help with a counsellor so that the grief doesn’t develop into something more serious such as major depression or complicated grief.