What is grief?
Whilst grief is a universal experience it is also an intensely personal one. There is no handbook that can tell us how to grieve. There is no right or wrong way to do it. There is no one size fits all. Grief itself is a normal and completely natural reaction to loss or change of any kind. It can be caused by any number of things and it will be experienced differently by everyone.
Loss and bereavement
A universal certainty is that we will all experience loss and bereavement in our lives and whilst we tend to associate grief with the loss of a loved one, the reasons for grief, grieving and a sense of bereavement can be wide ranging and take different forms.
We can experience grief as we move through life stages, leaving home for the first time, marrying, leaving old lifestyles behind, becoming parents, experiencing children leaving home, retiring, requiring care and losing independence. We can grieve for loss of our health, loss of opportunities, for the past or for the future. We can grieve for the loss of relationships, the loss of loved ones, the loss of friendships. We can grieve for the loss of security, of financial wellbeing, of youth…the list is literally endless and crucially it is completely normal. Grief, grieving and a sense of bereavement is simply part of what it means to be human.
Grief in all its forms
Grief also comes in different forms and can be categorised into different types, although they may also cross over, and we may experience more than one form. Some of the main types include:
This is defined by The American Psychology Association as grief that lasts 6 months to 2 years following a significant loss. However, when it comes to grief and grieving there are many things to consider, including cultural differences. For example, some cultures have grieving practices that call families together over a period of several years to mourn the deceased, and this would still be interpreted as “normal grief”.
This type of grief is felt in anticipation of a significant loss. It may occur for the individual who is dying. It may also occur because of the impending death of a loved one as a result of a terminal diagnosis, or the loss of a loved one to dementia, when we grieve the loss of the person we have known. Alternatively, it may be experienced as a result of life events such as anticipated redundancy, or impending divorce or separation.
It is extremely common for caregivers to feel anticipatory grief over a terminally ill patient or loved one and it can be an extremely challenging to navigate the emotions that accompany this type of grief. There are often conflicting emotions; sadness at the impending loss, guilt at the need, or desire to make preparations for the loss, or for planning for life without the individual.
This type of grief experience occurs when there are significant and conflicting feelings for the loss. For example, someone may grieve over the death of an estranged parent and feel conflicting emotions about the individual and their relationship. Or they may feel alternately relieved and saddened at the loss of an abusive partner. Similar complex grief may also occur around the loss of a job, that we had long since stopped valuing or enjoying.
When someone experiences chronic grief, they have an incredibly difficult time overcoming their grief. If someone is still feeling very strong emotions around their grief months or years after the initial loss, they may be experiencing chronic grief. It differs from normal grief in that the feelings are intense, constant, and do not fluctuate or come and go. The individual experiencing this kind of grief will need assistance from trained practitioners to help them overcome it.
Cumulative grief can occur when a number of losses take place over a relatively short period of time and the impact of these build on one another.
Is the form of grief that can happen after a sudden, unexpected death – eg the death of a of child to an asthma attack, the loss of someone in a car accident, or the death of a loved one by suicide. This type of death is more likely to lead to prolonged grief disorder and to post traumatic stress disorder.
This type of grief reaction occurs when someone does not show any type of outward grief. They often remain very busy or distracted. They could take on more work or start new projects to keep their minds occupied and avoid dealing with their grief.
It is also common to experience secondary loss connected to our grief. It maybe be experienced immediately or reveal itself over time and whilst it is a normal part of grief it can be challenging to process and come to terms with. We may for example experience secondary loss when a child leaves home, or we lose our role of carer for someone who dies, we may grieve the loss of responsibility, or we may grieve the loss of career status when we retire.
The symptoms of grief
When we experience grief, we also fall prey to a range of very real and often very unsettling, cognitive, behavioural, emotional, and physical symptoms. People describe feeling as though they are “going mad”, they “can’t think straight”, they “can’t sleep”, they feel angry, or frustrated, or guilty. The symptoms of grief are wide-ranging and benefit from some exploration.
When we are grieving, we are in a heightened state of alert. Our systems are on over-drive, trying to make sense of what is happening and to adapt to a new normal. Our systems don’t like considerable and sudden change. It takes them time to come to terms with changes and adapt accordingly. They need time to process and accommodate, and whilst they are doing their best to sort everything out, we experience the fallout in the form of symptoms. The following are completely normal symptoms of grief and grieving:
Butterflies in the stomach
Inability to concentrate
Difficulty processing information
Loss of appetite
Avoidance behaviours (of people, places and triggers)
Maladaptive coping strategies
If someone we know is grieving it can be hard to know what to do. We often want to fix things, to help ease the pain, and to make things better. When it comes to grief, the most important first step in supporting someone is to recognise that we can’t fix, ease, or solve.
Read our blog on supporting someone with grief.
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