The process of grieving in response to a significant loss
Grief is a normal and natural, though often deeply painful, response to loss. The death of a loved one is the most common way we think of loss, but many other significant changes in one’s life can involve loss and therefore grief. Everyone experiences loss and grief at some time. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief is likely to be. Each individual experiences and expresses grief differently. For example, one person may withdraw and feel helpless, while another might be angry and want to take some action. No matter what the reaction, the grieving person needs the support of others. A helper needs to anticipate the possibility of a wide range of emotions and behaviours, accept the grieving person’s reactions, and respond accordingly. Therefore, it is often useful for the person in grief and for the helper to have information about the grieving process.
The process of grieving in response to a significant loss requires time, patience, courage, and support. The grieving person will likely experience many changes throughout the process. These changes begin with an experience of shock, followed by a long process of suffering, and finally a process of recovery.
Shock is often the initial reaction to loss. Shock is the person’s emotional protection from being too suddenly overwhelmed by the loss. The grieving person may feel stunned, numb, or in disbelief concerning the loss. While in shock the person may not be able to make even simple decisions. Friends and family may need to simply sit, listen, and assist with the person’s basic daily needs. Shock may last a matter of minutes, hours, or (in severely traumatic losses) days.
Suffering is the long period of grief during which the person gradually comes to terms with the reality of the loss. The suffering process typically involves a wide range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, as well as an overall sense of life seeming chaotic and disorganized. The duration of the suffering process differs with each person, partly depending on the nature of the loss experienced. Some common features of suffering include:
- Sadness is perhaps the most common feeling found in grief. It is often but not necessarily manifested in crying. Sadness is often triggered by reminders of the loss and its permanence. Sadness may become quite intense and be experienced as emptiness or despair.
- Anger can be one of the most confusing feelings for the grieving person. Anger is a frequent response to feeling powerless, frustrated, or even abandoned. Anger is also a common response to feeling threatened; a significant loss can threaten a person’s basic beliefs about self and about life in general. Consequently, anger may be directed at self, at God, at life in general for the injustice of the loss, for others involved, or, in the case of death, at the deceased for dying.
- Guilt and less extreme self-reproach are common reactions to things the griever did or failed to do before the loss. For example, a griever may reproach him/herself for hurtful things said, loving things left unsaid, not having been kind enough when the chance was available, actions not taken that might have prevented the loss, etc.
- Anxiety can range from mild insecurity to strong panic attacks; it can also be fleeting or persistent. Often, grievers become anxious about their ability to take care of themselves following a loss. Also they may become concerned about the well-being of other loved ones.
- Physical, behavioral and cognitive symptoms. Often, grief is accompanied by periods of fatigue, loss of motivation or desire for things that were once enjoyable, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, confusion, preoccupation, and loss of concentration.
Suffering is often the most painful and protracted stage for the griever, but it is still necessary. For most people, these many emotional and physical reactions are common symptoms that will stabilize and diminish with time as the person moves through the grieving process. If these symptoms persist, it may be important to seek professional help.
Recovery, the goal of grieving, is not the elimination of all the pain or the memories of the loss. Instead, the goal is to reorganize one’s life so that the loss is one important part of life rather than the center of one’s life. As recovery takes place, the individual is better able and to reinvest time, attention, energy and emotion into other parts of his/her life. The loss is still felt, but the loss has become part of the griever’s more typical feelings and experiences.
“In shock your actions are mechanical. You do what you have to do. In suffering your actions are forced by convention or by your own restlessness. But in recovery, your actions are by your own free choice.”