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What is grief?


The Grieving Process

We suffer bereavement when someone close to us dies. The acute sense of loss and overwhelming sadness together with other associated emotions are collectively called grief. Grief is very normal and is nature’s way of allowing us to come to terms with the death of a loved one.

How Long does it Take?

Grief can take many forms and many emotions will be felt by people during the various stages that make up the grieving process. The length of the grieving process (or mourning) will vary enormously but it is generally accepted that it can take two years to recover from the loss of someone very close.

Forms of Grief

There are many stages in the grieving process and each person’s experience will be different. However, as a general rule there are three distinct steps in the process of coming to terms with the death of a loved one.

Early stages – Numbness and shock

The immediate reaction to the death of a loved one is numbness and shock. This is a natural reaction by the body to allow a person to cope with the devastating news, particularly if the death is sudden or unexpected. You will also feel a sense of disbelief. People often find it impossible to accept that the person has died and will find that they question the situation over and over again, as their mind battles with the reality of death.

At the same time, it is likely you will feel physically crushed almost as if you have suffered a blow to your body. It is also very normal to cry a lot and feel like you are unable to cope. This feeling of debilitation may be compounded by lack of sleep resulting in a cycle of ongoing exhaustion.

A period of intense emotion follows the death of a loved one. This often takes the form of a deep yearning to see them, to talk to them and to keep their memory alive. It is not uncommon at this stage to have visual and auditory hallucinations. Difficulties with concentration and difficulties making of decisions are also very common.

Middle stages – Sadness, loneliness, regret

After a period of time, the raw emotions experienced in the early stages of grief will give way to a time of sadness, loneliness and regret. This is the second step of grief. In these middle stages, people often experience waves of grief. One moment you are coping well, the next you are very tearful and sad. You might also experience a variety of other emotions including anger, fear, helplessness and guilt.

Anger – this is a very normal reaction to the death of a loved one. You may feel angry with yourself, for what you did or failed to do. With other people and their lack of concern or indeed with the person who has died. It is also common to feel anger with the doctors and the hospital staff. With anger can come a general sense of agitation and impatience with people who do not understand what you are going through.

Fear and helplessness – you may also feel fearful. Many things may be changing with the death of a loved one particularly if the person was your partner. Any change in financial security, accommodation or even family dynamics can be difficult to deal with and make you feel very helpless.

Guilt – a very natural reaction is to experience feelings of guilt. You may feel guilty for a variety of reasons such as: being the one still alive, not helping out more, not being sufficiently solicitous, or not appreciating how ill your loved one was. It is also natural to think back and ponder on any hurtful comments that you might have made. Very often people regret the things they wished they had said before it was too late.

Recovery stages – Sense of normality and relief

The final step in recovering from the death of a loved one is to feel that a sense of normality is returning to your life. When you begin to take a little pleasure in normal day to day life you are on the final road to recovery. Whilst, you will continue to have bouts of sadness and loneliness, these feelings will be increasingly less acute and overwhelming.

At this stage, in the grieving process it is normal to feel a sense of relief particularly if your loved one died after an extended period of ill health.

The feelings of acute sadness and desolation that you felt in the early stages should lessen over an extended period of time. In some cases some people might have a harder time coping, it is important to talk to your GP or Declan Brady, Counselling in Donegal who will be able to help them with the tasks of grieving.

The tasks of grieving

William Worden taught that there were 4 tasks to be completed in the grieving process

1. Accept the Reality of the Loss. After the numb and shock of the early stages there is a need for the griever to accept the painful reality and finality of the death. Are you acting as if the deceased is still living? Do you avoid: visiting the grave? Looking at photos? Having contact with the person’s personal belongings? Places or activities associated with the deceased?

2. Process the pain of grief through telling the story of the grief: the day of the death, the funeral period, the grieving of the next few months/years. All the various emotions: the emotional pain (sadness, fear, guilt, anger etc) and the positive feelings, evoked through the happy memories, are gradually integrated resulting often in a bittersweet acceptance.

3. Adjust to the world without the deceased. While working through the emotions, the secondary losses associated with the death should be attended to: dealing with the legal and practical consequences of the death; doing new things and developing a new identity in tandem with grief work. This task is about reconstructing a new life of meaning through working on goals and aspirations that has been challenged by the loss. It’s as if we have to make a new jigsaw out of the different pieces of our life. Nobody ‘gets over’ a significant loss. In a sense the grieving process is never completed but it can be transformed.

4. Find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life. The deceased can continue to be a soothing presence to the bereaved through pictures, mementoes, visits to the grave, anniversary rituals and celebrations and the relocation of the deceased for example to an afterlife. “Death ends a life not a relationship.”