It’s normal to experience a confusing range of emotions when dealing with bereavement. Here are some suggestions for dealing with the grieving process.
As far back as human memory stretches, bereavement has been a fundamental part of the human experience, one that all people across time and throughout the world have in common. The myriad cultural and religious traditions for dealing with the death of loved ones and honouring their memory is testament to this.
Our understanding of death may exceed that of our ancient ancestors, yet facing it is no less of a challenge. That said, here are some of the insights that modern psychological understanding of the grieving process has granted us.
The reaction to grief
There may have been a time when people were expected to react a certain way to the death of a loved one, but modern psychology assures us that there is no “normal” reaction to bereavement. People may experience a confusing range of emotions.
There is also no official time-frame in which grief is expected to pass. It varies from one person to another, and can last days, weeks, months or even years, depending on the circumstance.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the “five stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) in 1969, but later wrote that the five stages were “never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages”. Not everyone will experience all of the “five stages of grief”, and they certainly won’t experience emotions in some kind of linear and ordered fashion.
Everyone deals with the process in their own way, and no one should have to concern themselves with whether or not they are reacting in the “correct” manner.
According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, common reactions to bereavement include:
- Guilt: It’s normal to feel regret over the things you didn’t say or do, or to feel guilt if you believe you’re not reacting to the loss in the way you should. If the deceased was suffering from a long illness, one may even feel relief at their passing, and in turn guilt for feeling that way.
- Anger: You may be angry with yourself, the doctors, the world, or even the person who passed for leaving you behind.
- Sadness: This may manifest as a sense of despair, emptiness or loneliness.
- Fear: The death of a loved one may prompt fears of having to face certain responsibilities alone. The death of people we know also reminds us of our own mortality.
- Shock: A sense of numbness and disbelief are common reactions to bereavement.
- Physical symptoms: The emotional turmoil can manifest in physical symptoms, including aches and pains, fatigue and nausea. The immune system may be lowered, leading to other ailments; and insomnia also commonly occurs in conjunction with grief.
Dealing with grief
Suggestions for people dealing with the grief of losing a loved one include:
Expressing the grief
Different people express themselves in different ways. For some people, talking about their loss helps; for others, writing about it is a better outlet. Some prefer being alone to mourn, while others want to be around other people. The important thing to express the grief and acknowledge the pain, rather than keep it bottled up.
Many people approach the grieving process with the belief that the goal is to find “closure”. This is a common misconception. Jennifer Soos, a professional trauma counsellor, told Jen Kim on Psychology Today that “closure isn’t really the thing that people think it is,” and ““the belief it exists and ought to be a ‘goal’ of grief is simply not helpful.”
She advises her support groups to work toward integration rather than closure. In other words, “figuring out how to integrate the experience into who we are and what that will look moving forward.”
Taking care of yourself
It’s possible to be so overcome with grief that one falls into a depression, in which they lose the will to keep up a healthy lifestyle. This is understandable, but it’s important to try and maintain a healthy diet and regular workout routine, not least because this will actually help alleviate the stress caused by the grieving process.
Finding a routine
Keeping a daily routine up helps you take your mind off the loss, and reminds you that life goes on. The NHS suggests that even “simple things like doing the housework can help.”
Helping someone else deal with grief
It’s difficult to know the right thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one. Donna Henes, a spiritual counsellor and certified funeral celebrant, tells Psychology Today that platitudes such as “time heals all wounds” or “they are in a better place” are not helpful, and can actually be annoying. She says: “The kindest thing to do is to listen, to ask questions and share memories.”
Jennifer Kelman, a clinical social worker and professional coach, agrees with this, suggesting that the best approach is to do regular check-ins, and let the mourner know that you are there for them if they need anything.
Seeking professional help
The NHS advises to seek professional help if you or someone you know is struggling to cope with the grieving process; for example, if the mourner is displaying symptoms of depression, or is unable to function normally in day-to-day life. A GP can prescribe anti-depressant medication if need be, and refer you to a counsellor who can help the mourner process the grief and develop coping strategies.
If you’re interested in learning about the work counsellors do in this regard, you can study counselling at SACAP, and gain insight into modern psychological understanding of the grieving process, as well as methods for coping with it. SACAP offers a range of counselling courses, including including part-time and full-time as well as online options. For more information, enquire now.