The pain of loss and separation is an inevitable part of human life. There are many causes of grief – marital breakdown, unemployment, emigration, ageing, retirement, loss of good health and death. The loss through death of important members of family or friends is the ultimate cause of grief.
Berevement is a major life crisis, not in the sense that the outcome is necessarily disastrous but a crisis in the sense that life will never be the same again. Although things will be different, it is possible to work through grief and build a new and fulfilling life.
Grief is a normal and natural reaction to the death of a loved one. It has been likened to a raw open wound which will eventually heal but will always leave a scar. Few of us are prepared for the long journey through grief which is sometimes devastating, frightening and almost always lonely.
What is the grieving process?
The grieving process is experiencing the emotional reaction to loss, coming to accept the loss and learning to live again. While it follows certain patterns, it is unique to each individual. Some people will experience almost all the ‘symptoms’ associated with grief while others may experience only a few but at different intensities.
The first reaction to news of a death is usually one of shock, disbelief and numbness – even when the death is expected. These feelings are very normal and are nature’s way of gently sedating us and giving us time to begin to realize what has happened. These feelings may last a few hours or a few days. However, some bereaved continue about daily business accepting the fact that the death has taken place but not realizing it emotionally. It is necessary to talk about the circumstances of the death and, if possible, see the dead person or the coffin, and fully participate in all the rituals of the funeral.
As the numbness wears off the bereaved person experiences the pain of grief with all its physical and emotional symptoms. The extent of this pain will depend on who the person was – i.e. spouse, child, parent etc. , how close or strong the relationship was and how the person died. Whatever the level of grief it is important not to suppress any feelings that may arise. It is quite normal to feel very sad, anxious and fearful even though there is nothing tangible to fear. It may be that the bereaved depended on the deceased and therefore fear that they may not be able to manage alone. They may feel anxious about their own death and it will help to think and talk about it. Feelings of loneliness, helplessness, irritability, apathy and yearning for the dead person may be very strong. There can also be feelings of relief, especially if the death occurred after much suffering or a long period of illness requiring on-going care. If the deceased was overpowering or possessive the bereaved may experience a sense of freedom.
Anger, too, is common during grief and may be so strong and frightening as to make people think that they are losing control. The anger may be directed against medical personnel, God, themselves or even against the person who has died. Suppressed anger can destroy a person.
Regrets and self blame about things left undone or words left unspoken may contribute to feelings of guilt. Usually when these feelings are examined, it is found that everything that could be done was in fact done. However, there are occasions when there is a valid reason for guilt and, in these instances, the bereaved needs to acknowledge the guilt and realize that no one is perfect and accept forgiveness.
There are often physical symptoms, usually temporary, that grieving people experience. Some of the most common are – disturbed appetite and sleep patterns, hollowness in the stomach, nausea, tightness in the chest and throat, over-sensitivity to noise, breathlessness, muscle weakness, lack of energy, dryness of mouth and pain which is often hard to describe. They may find themselves behaving in an absent minded way and may find it difficult to mix with other people. There is often a tremendous sense of confusion, with difficulty in concentrating or putting order to one’s thoughts. Dreaming of the deceased is also very common, and some people have a strong sense of the presence of the deceased. If medical advice is sought at this time, it is wise to tell of the bereavement.
Another phase of grieving is adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is missing – which may mean a change in responsibilities and developing new skills.
“Will I Recover?”
Yes, provided you work through the pain of your grief and accept that there is no fixed time scale. Experience of those working with the bereaved has shown that even those in the greatest depths of despair – those who have truly believed that the sun would never shine again – have, with time and effort, recovered to lead full and rewarding lives.
“What Do I Need To Do?”
Suppressing your grief will not make it go away. Friends and well wishers may seek to distract you from your grief because it is uncomfortable for them. It takes courage to grieve as it is often difficult and painful. You need to be encouraged to talk about your feelings with someone who will listen in a caring and confidential way.