“Time is a great healer…” is a phrase often said with kind intention when someone loses a loved one. It is difficult to know what to say to somebody who’s just suffered a bereavement – and this is one of those things frequently uttered.
It is used to mean that emotional pain will grow less as time passes. But is it true?
While always said with kindness, it can be painful to hear it for someone who’s grieving. As author CJ Tudor wrote: “People say time is a great healer. They’re wrong.
“Time is simply a great eraser. It rolls on and on regardless, eroding our memories, chipping away at those great big boulders of misery until there’s nothing left but sharp little fragments, still painful but small enough to bear.”
It’s hard to think of anything more painful to deal with than the loss of a loved one. While it’s always going to be very difficult – that’s a fact of life – there are some ways that can make it just that bit less painful.
Coping with loss
This applies to the loss of a beloved animal as well as a person. It’s another fact that we are most likely to outlive any of our pets. For some people, it can be just as painful dealing with losing an animal as a person.
Coping with loss can also to an extent be applied to the break-up of a relationship, a job loss or business failure, moving home, getting imprisoned, receiving a terminal health diagnosis or a loved one being diagnosed with the same, and exam results failure.
In fact, even the quitting of an addiction. But mostly this is about directly dealing with the stark emotional suffering of losing a person we love when they pass.
Grieving has many forms
Grieving takes many forms. It is a natural part of the human condition that allows us to process and focus on our loss.
After all, we are given tears for a good reason.
But the pain of grieving can negatively impact emotional well-being and mental health. It can leave us feeling utterly lost and empty.
Loss and grief cause extremely powerful emotions. This is understandable as bereavement is a huge trauma.
These emotions can seem to overwhelm us and make normal life seem impossible. It can make us feel depressed, irritable, restless and anxious.
This can also lead to physical problems. These include:
- Back and neck pains.
- Stomach problems.
- Muscular pain.
- Lowering of the immune system’s protective abilities.
- Loss of appetite or comfort eating.
How to grieve
There’s not a right or wrong way to grieve. Some key advice though is to let out the emotion, all of it.
The emotional suffering and grief we have indicate the love we feel for the person we’ve lost. Bottled-up emotion will always come out some way at some point anyway.
It’s better to let it out – many people find talking therapy very useful – than try to push it down with things such as drinking too much alcohol or using other drugs, perhaps in an addictive manner. Some people might try the distraction of working all hours or other unhealthy behaviors, which could even develop into a behavioral addiction.
Grief arises when someone we cherish and deeply care about dies. For as long as that person remains cherished to us, an aspect and feeling of grief will remain.
This can even be years later. A certain smell, place or song… can all remind us of our loved one.
“Grief” comes from an Old French word meaning “burden”. Grief does often feel like we are carrying something that is too heavy to hold.
Many times people describe it as coming over in waves. Grief will come and we should feel it and not hold it in. When it comes, think of it as a wave that will wash over you, but then flow away.
Nature of loss
Grieving also depends on the nature of the loss. Bereavement from old age can still be incredibly hard – but perhaps we reach acceptance of it much sooner than if it was someone losing their life before their time.
If it is someone who’s been struggling with ill health for a while we have most likely already grieved losing them by the time they die. That’s not to say it is still extremely difficult.
Something that is often said in a situation such as this – although it feels uncomfortable to say it – is that it was for the best as the person was suffering. They had no quality of life and frequently little dignity left either.
This is also frequently said with consideration and love for any key carers of someone who has struggled for a while. It’s clear that the carer was struggling too and in some cases, they can make themselves ill as well from such as lack of sleeping, not eating healthily and stress.
Sudden and unexpected loss
A sudden and unexpected loss will bring up different emotions than the loss of someone who was expected to die at some point soon. Denial will most likely be the strong first emotion in the case of someone who dies suddenly and unexpectedly.
How we grieve also depends on who we have lost. Was it a close relative, a parent, a best friend, or a colleague?
It might not even be someone we have ever met. But they represent something in our lives.
This was seen when the Queen died in Britain. For so many people around the world, she had been a constant part of their lives in some way.
As well, some of the outpourings of grief for her, as with other huge celebrities, can be attributed to the fact that it reminds us that we will die one day too.
It can be that we realize a famous singer will sing no new songs with words that speak to us, or an author will never write another book that resonates and helps us with our life. Or it might be a self-help motivator who we’ve greatly relied on to help us live life on life’s terms.
Dealing with a loss due to suicide
If someone we care about has died by suicide, this can also lead to stronger and even more difficult emotions. Anger towards the recently deceased can be one of those.
People left behind after suicide often talk about this and find it extremely difficult that they feel this way. While they know the person was mentally and emotionally unwell and suffering badly, it is still hard not to think that it was a decision the person made.
This is even though the loved ones left behind might have been helping and supporting them for years. It delivers a message to some of those left behind, which can seem impossibly hard to deal with and fathom.
It is interesting to note a connection here: that the word “anger” is from Old Norse angr meaning “grief”,
Five stages of grief
The words “denial” and “acceptance” have already been mentioned. They are two stages in what is known as the “five stages of grief“, also sometimes called the “Kübler-Ross model”.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926–2004) became motivated to help anyone suffering from loss. She introduced the five stages of grief in her book entitled On Death And Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families which was published in 1969.
The five stages of grief are:
These are usually but not necessarily linear. Due to the intensity of grief, someone can go from one to another and then back again.
They might even experience all of them in the space of a few minutes. But generally, the first four need to be worked through until reaching full acceptance.
There is also no set timescale. It can vary by months or even years, depending on the person and who they are grieving.
Stage 1: Denial
This is on first hearing about the loss. People feel numb. The momentous change they have just heard about is too much to comprehend.
This is when many people say they feel like they are in a movie, that life is unreal as if they are looking in on their life. Their world has stopped moving and at the same time, it is turned upside down.
Stage 2: Anger
When denial leaves us, anger usually comes in its place. People are angry at themselves for something they might have said that seems so trivial now; they are angry at why the death happened; some are angry at this world, their society, the system or God; sometimes there is anger towards anyone involved in the death, that sometimes fairly or unfairly includes medical staff who they feel should have done more to save their loved one. At times there is anger towards the loved one for leaving them (as mentioned, especially if it is a death by suicide).
Stage 3: Bargaining
When the anger subsides, many people at this stage start to bargain – that is, repeatedly going over how things could have been different.
“What if they had quit smoking?” “What if they hadn’t gone there?” “Maybe I should have listened more and realized…” “If only they could have stopped working all those hours…” “They should have seen their doctor when it first started.”
It is a way of attempting to deal with the feeling of powerlessness that comes when someone we love dies.
Stage 4: Depression
A feeling such as this of powerlessness will most often lead to depression in some form. “Your sorrow is the inevitable result of circumstances beyond your control,” Kübler-Ross wrote in On Grief And Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, published in 2005.
“As difficult as it is to endure, depression has elements that can be helpful in grief. It slows us down and allows us to take real stock of the loss.
“It makes us rebuild ourselves from the ground up. It clears the deck for growth. It takes us to a deeper place in our soul that we would not normally explore.”
Stage 5: Acceptance
Control over this sense of powerlessness and moving out of feeling depressed comes with acceptance. It is not saying that we like how it is now without our loved one – but it is saying that we accept this is how the world is now.
There might still be much grief, but there is healing now. When acceptance is reached we can move forwards, reconnect and make progress in life.
Kübler-Ross put it this way: “A ship exists on the ocean, even if it sails out beyond the limits of our sight. The people in the ship have not vanished; they are simply moving to another shore.
“The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love. This includes not only others but ourselves as well.
“You will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered.
“You will be whole again but you will never be the same. We will never like this reality or make it okay, but eventually, we accept it.”
It is comforting to know that, as many people believe, the spirit of a person never dies. As Mitch Albom wrote in his bestselling book Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson: “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
There are ways we can learn to let out, deal with and process our grief. This helps us and ensures we can be there to help others who are grieving and lost. Our own recovery also encourages others to get through their loss and find some peace around it too.