When it comes to grief and profound loss, our friends and family’s approach to comforting us becomes a benchmark in which we either vehemently reject or tentatively accept as a way of coping with the pain and symptoms of grief.
Death of a loved one
The way society approaches grief be it acute grief or whether a loved ones’ death was expected in some way (i.e. a loved one suffered a terminal illness) all this can be a precursor to how a person processes their grief (and how they come to accept the death of a loved one) in the future.
What is grief?
There are plenty of grief descriptions and grief stages (such as the Kubler Ross stages of grief) – some of which are helpful and others not so much. Of course, what helps many people may trigger anger, sadness and a whole range of negative emotions in others.
All this is a testament to how personal grief and loss is and how coping with grief looks (and feels) different for everyone.
According to grief recovery experts John James and Russell Friedman, ”grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of, or change in, a familiar pattern.”
Friedman and James’ definition of grief suggests that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that grief gets induced from a series of life events – therefore, the basis for the grief recovery method is not limited to coping with a loved one’s death.
Grief is not just losing someone
The grief recovery model suggests that grief gets induced in various life events and not just the loss of someone. These events include:
- The loss of a job
- The ending of a significant relationship (romantic and platonic)
- Going on vacation
- Moving home
- Receiving a terminal health diagnosis ( or a loved one being diagnosed with a terminal illness)
- The loss of a pet
- A change in life circumstances
- The loss of a dream, goal or aspiration
- Witnessing a loved one with a long-term illness
- The death of a friend, family member, or close loved one
Once we recognize that grief is not limited to someone’s death like a friend, partner or family member – the mechanics of grieving become that much easier to comprehend.
Although the intensity of grief and the grieving process gets felt depending on the circumstances and life event.
Of course, losing a job cannot be compared to the loss of a parent or child – the loss of someone we love is profound, and the pain associated with this type of grieving is intense and life-long.
However, there is a spectrum on which the intensity of feelings associated with grief and loss get felt.
For example, moving home will be no way near as painful or life-changing as the acute grief often experienced by people when someone close to them has died.
If we revisit John James and Russell Friedman’s grief loss theory; ” grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in, a familiar pattern” we may learn that while moving home, although no way near as unbearable as the grief experienced through a lost loved one, still induces grief to some degree.
All this goes back to the emotional spectrum in which we access the severity of something, in this case, grief.
Symptoms of grief
The pain of grief can severely impact our mental health and turn our lives upside down.
The feelings associated with grief and loss are so powerful that our regular habits and patterns become disrupted, and this disruption may be temporary or permanent.
After losing a loved one, any symptoms people experience may vary, and the grieving process often changes with time. The typical symptoms associated with grief get categorized as being emotional symptoms and physical symptoms.
The emotional stages of grief include:
- Denial and guilt
- Depression, isolation and feeling alone
- Feelings of derealization
The physical symptoms of grief include:
- Tiredness and general fatigue
- Aches and pain in the body such as headaches, muscle pains, neck or back pain
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle weakness
- Restlessness and an inability to sit still
- Shortness of breath
- Anxiety attacks
- Gastric issues such as inflammation of the oesophagus, stomach ulcer or colitis
- Loss of appetite or comfort eating
- Compromised immune system
Is there such a thing as recovery from bereavement?
There are plenty of discussions, articles, and theories about grief recovery in the mental health community, some of which can be triggering to those healing from loss and people who are new to the grieving experience.
Words such as ”recovery” and ”completing” get challenging to digest when you are bereaved, even if grief gets considered ”normal grief” (as opposed to complicated grief).
There are many preconceptions about grief.
One of them is that grief is something to be ”gotten over” rather than experienced as a person moves through the different stages of grief and the rest of their lives.
Does the grief ever go away?
In a nutshell, no, grief doesn’t ever go away, and nor would we want that.
Grief experts from the grief movement, whatsyourgrief explain that while the term ”recovery” does have a place in grief, it would be much more helpful to redefine ”what” we are recovering from.
Coping with grief
The definition of ”recovery” is to return to one’s normal state of health, mind, and strength, and as most grievers will agree, it is impossible to return to the person we once were before a loved ones’ death occurred.
Essentially, people do not return to a pre-grief normal.
A process of integration
After a significant loss, our lives, the grief and the memory of the person who died get integrated and impact how we experience the world and the people around us.
The ideal outcome for the grieving process
Grief experts explain that the ideal outcome for anyone who has experienced grief due to the death of a loved one is returning to a general baseline where the intensity of emotions and distress felt at the beginning of the loss starts to lessen and become more manageable over time.
Essentially, people do recover from the intense grief experienced immediately after a loss, but the grief itself is unrecoverable.
Normal grief recovery
Experts at Whatsyourgrief have summarized this point beautifully with the following explanation:
”Grief is born when someone significant dies – and as long as that person remains significant – grief will remain.”
Grief and loss
Grievers must note that ongoing grief gets expected and that we cannot exorcise our lost loved ones’ from our hearts and minds, and nor should we.
The grief and emotional pain we experience is a measure of the love we feel for the person who died.
Humans are supposed to experience a full range of emotions, from warm and fuzzy, to sadness and despair. We should not feel guilty or judge our emotions and feelings either way.
Through our shared experiences with other like-minded grievers – we learn to foster resilience and connection.
In one of his letters to Ludwig Binswanger, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud wrote of grief:
Although we know that after such a loss, mourning’s acute state will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, it nevertheless remains something else even if it is filled completely.
And actually, that is how it should be. It is the only way of perpetuating that love we do not want to relinquish (Sigmund Freud, April 1929).
In cases of complicated grief (or any other grief-related condition) where people get caught up in excessive sadness, worry and rumination over the circumstances of the death or the deceased -it is crucial that these grievers seek the help and support of a mental health professional.
Treatment options vary for those dealing with complicated grief reactions, and support from family, friends, and the community is imperative under these grief conditions.
Going through the stages of grief is never easy, and sometimes we need other peoples’ support to get us through the grieving process.
All this allows people to process their grief in a way that protects their mental health, physical health and emotional well being.
There are various therapies designed to help those who are grieving – particularly in cases of trauma – therapy typically includes:
- One to one counselling
- Psychotherapy such as talk therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Trauma Treatment
- EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing)
- Addiction treatment (in cases where a griever has turned to addiction to substances such as drugs and alcohol to feel better)
- Grief counselling
We may not fully recover from grief, but there are ways that we can learn to access and reprocess our grief in a way that empowers us and encourages others to do the same.
If you feel as though you or a loved one may be experiencing any worrying grief symptoms – perhaps it’s time you spoke to a professional who can help.