When a loved one dies, people naturally respond to the loss of life with grief. Grief is commonly described as feelings of hurt, loneliness, sadness, helplessness or brokenness. Not only does it cause mental anguish or emotional pain, but it in some cases it also causes physical pain.
That’s because a part of the brain called anterior cingulate cortex, which processes physical pain, also takes in emotional pain, as revealed by scans done by scientists at the University of California. Everyone deals with grief in different ways, so it’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to deal with the loss of your loved one. So how do we deal with the loss of a loved one and what can we expect when grieving?
First, we need to consider what type of loss we have experienced. There are many different types of loss, from losing a family pet to losing a parent, and each form of loss brings unique challenges and risk factors to those who are grieving. Some forms of death, such as suicide or the death of a child, are more distressing than others, but all types of loss are extremely difficult. The main types of loss include:
Death of a child: this can occur in infancy due to miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal disease or SIDS, or it can occur in later years with the death of an older child.
Suicide: suicide is a growing epidemic around the world, with experts predicting a further rise in numbers of suicides as the impact of rising unemployment and other economic factors continue to take their toll on individuals.
Death of a spouse: the death of a spouse is particularly powerful as many couples have a sense of a shared identity or interdependence, which can cause the surviving spouse to feel isolated and lonely, like they’ve lost their other half.
Death of a parent: the death of a parent is particularly difficult for children, as the surviving parent or carer can often be so overwhelmed with their own grief that they are unable to properly support the children in their grieving process.
Death of a sibling: the passing of a sibling is a devastating life event, because, for most people, the relationship between you and your sibling is the longest and most significant relationship in your life.
In every case, this loss will be a life-changing event, so it’s important to allow yourself time to mourn for your loss. Grief is not just about coping with loss, it’s also about coping with change - and this can take a long time.
Although grieving is different for everyone, the psychological processes of mourning and grief are universal. The ‘Five Stages of Grief’ were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book ‘On Death and Dying,’ in which she breaks up the bereavement process into five distinct stages. Following on from this, Dr Kübler-Ross refined her approach to incorporate a further two stages which now makes it the 'seven stages of grief'. We go through these 7 stages below.
The initial stage is shock, where the grieving person experiences a form of paralysis and a sense of numbed disbelief. People starting at this stage may not yet realize how deeply affected they are by the loss and it takes time to sink in. This is the body protecting itself and they may need to hear the news of the loss several times before it starts to truly sink in.
Once the news starts to sink in, it is natural for someone to move into a state of denial where they refuse to believe that it has happened to them. This is another defence mechanism we use to numb the shock and temporarily mask the pain.
As shock and denial wear off, reality sets in and we start to feel the pain of our loss, which can feel almost unbearable. In order to cope we turn our pain into anger, directing it towards inanimate objects, friends and family, and even at the loved one we have lost. We also can question our beliefs and spirituality and wonder what we did to deserve this.
Anger eventually fades and is replaced by feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. We may try to counteract this and attempt to regain control, through bargaining with ourselves or a higher power. It’s common to find yourself saying things like, ‘if only we had gotten medical attention sooner,’ ‘if only I was there to prevent it,’ ‘if only I had visited him/her more.’ This bargaining is another defence mechanism to delay the inevitable stage of accepting reality.
After the bargaining stage has passed it’s common to move into depression. We may experience sadness and anxiety about the practical implications of the loss, for example, costs, funeral proceedings, the burial and so on, and we may also experience a quiet depression in which we prepare ourselves to bid farewell to our loved one.
From the deep pits of depression, we realise that we can't live life like this forever so we seek to remedy the situations by testing different changes in behaviour to get us back to living our lives again. As we find ways that help us to find some resolve, we crawl out of the state of depression and finally moving on with our lives.
The final stage of grief is characterised by withdrawal and calm and eventually leads to us accepting the death of our loved one, and learning how to adapt to life without them.
You may identify with some of these stages, or even all of them, but it’s important to remember that the grieving process is not linear. It may help to think about grief as less like a staircase, and more like a rollercoaster. During your grieving period, you may experience ups and downs that don’t occur in predictable ways or last for set periods of time.
During your grieving period you might wake up one day and feel better, then the next day you might suddenly feel much worse - and that’s okay. It’s normal to have an uneven and unpredictable grieving process, so try not to suppress your grief - allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes, and enable the natural process of healing that is occurring.
Coping with grief and loss is a deeply personal experience, and unfortunately nobody can make the pain go away. Despite this, it’s important to reach out for support so others can be there for you, and help comfort you through this painful process. There are many different approaches you can take to help you cope with your grief - some involve introspective behaviour, whilst other approaches require interaction with others – so you can choose the approach/approaches that you feel most comfortable with. Some helpful approaches include:
You may have to be alone for a while to work through your emotions, and this can be a useful internal method to help you understand your grief.
if you’re not comfortable with talking about your feelings, then journaling your feelings can help with the grieving process. Similarly, writing a letter to your dearly departed can provide some relief when grieving.
Talking to a friend or family member can be extremely helpful. Whether you talk to someone who is experiencing the same loss, or you confide in a close friend or relative, the simple act of saying something out loud can be very cathartic and help you begin to move through your stages of grief.
Counselling can be useful if other approaches haven’t helped, or if you find that you are stuck in one stage of the grieving process and simply can’t move on. Seeing a bereavement counsellor, who specialises in dealing with grief, can help you manage your grief and offer strategies to help you heal.
Whatever approach/approaches you use to help you get through, remember to reach out to your friends and family - although they can’t make your pain go away, they can be there to support you and love you, and help you through this difficult time.
If grief creates mental, emotional, and physical suffering, it would be logical to think that losing a loved puts you in a dark, depressing place. Is it really possible to get over the death of a loved one and be done with grieving? Can grieving ever be a positive experience?
Mary Lamia, Ph.D., psychologist, psychoanalyst and author of Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings, Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings, answers the first question and says that getting over a loss is impossible. That’s because it’s also impossible to erase emotional memories associated with a deceased loved one. She further explains that the intensity of the pain or negative emotions associated with death may lessen with time or get buried by new memories, but you will not be able to get over the death of a loved one.
Instead of aiming for closure or getting over the death of a loved one, Dr. Lamia suggests finding out how you’ll respond to emotional memories when they’re triggered. This also confirms that you can do something about grief and you can turn it into something positive.
So can grief be a positive experience? Yes, it can be. Kate O’Neill, widow and author of Surviving Death: What Loss Taught Me About Love, Joy, and Meaning, shares on Quora the complex feelings she experienced when she lost her husband in 2012: “lonely, dark, anguished, broken, and frightened, and yet simultaneously full of expansive gratitude, tentative hope, deepened purpose, and passionate appreciation of the joy and love I have had in my life.”
Notice how Kate mentions positive emotions like gratitude, hope, purpose, and appreciation for what she has in her life. While people experience grief in different ways, Dr. Lamia’s suggestions about dealing with grief and Kate’s feelings about her loss just go to show that grief can be turned into a positive experience, like experiences of joy, hope, gratefulness, and of having a sense of purpose.
Here are ways to help you bring the positive out of grief:
Each time you feel lonely or sad, remember and celebrate the good memories you have of the deceased loved one. A scrapbook, an online memorial book, or a website dedicated to the deceased will help you compile photos, mementos, and life stories honouring the person.
With an online memorial book or website, the deceased’s friends and acquaintances may continually contribute the fond memories they have about the person. They may even continue sending the messages, an expression of the care or love they have for a loved one who has passed away. Immediate family and relatives will find this very comforting and inspiring as they will be able to see how their departed loved one has touched the lives of others.
One way to honour the dead is to support the causes he or she believed in. For example, if the deceased is an advocate of animal rights, then perhaps you can donate or contribute to an animal rights program under the deceased’s name. The contribution doesn’t always have to be monetary—you can also volunteer. Doing so is just like continuing the legacy of a loved one who has passed away. It’s a positive way to remember the life he or she has lived.
Death of a love one gives families and friends a chance to bond. You will find that most people express their care when a friend or a relative goes through a traumatic event like losing a loved one. Appreciate their support and presence. The deeper connection and the time you spend with them will help strengthen relationships.
A death of a loved one or an immediate family brings big changes to one’s life. Think of the changes and adjustments you have to do to cope with a loved one’s death. Channel your negative emotions to something productive, like learning a new skill or starting a new project. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll grow and become more confident as a person.
Death is a natural part of the life cycle, but the living can make the loss of a loved one and grieving a beautiful and meaningful experience. How has the death of a person close to your heart uplifted you? We’d love to hear your story. Comment below.
Towards the end of 2018, a young author named Nora McNerny wrote and spoke about the loss of her husband. An important point she made is that we don't simply get over the loss of someone and it is easy for other people to say you must forget about it and move on, but the people that say this don't often understand. Here's her Tedx talk below which highlights her experience and how she has learnt to live with the loss of her husband.