For many, the idea of grief and loss relates primarily to the death of a loved one. This is often considered one of the most difficult adjustments anyone will ever have to make, and having lost three of the four most important people in my world, I can certainly concur with this notion.
However, grief and particularly loss can apply to many other aspects of our world, and these losses also need and deserve the time and care of understanding the impact they have on our daily functioning.
For this reason, I thought it prudent to address them separately as there are many similarities but also some differences.
The loss of a loved one:
Words seem inadequate to express the pain that such a loss causes. Whether the death has been sudden or the result of a long illness, those left behind usually find themselves asking many questions and trying to bargain with the ‘powers that be’ to do a deal and bring the person back. The fact is that life is never the same after losing someone precious: but that doesn’t mean you will or should be sad forever.
There is a distinct need for processing and recovery – and it takes time! In this scenario I found time to be a real bummer – it seemed to take forever! The journey of grief is like climbing a steep mountain. It is also a journey of a few steps forward and a couple of steps back, but I found that when I re-traced the steps where I had slipped back, it was a little easier the second time around.
There is no time limit for working your way through grief, but be prepared; many people have noticed that after the 6-12 week mark, assuming you are managing to throw some clothes on, and have probably gone back to work or your normal routine, people tend to think you are ‘doing well’! That is what the outside may say – but on the inside it may well be a different story!
There are many stages, thoughts, emotions and behaviours that we experience throughout the journey of grief, and what makes it even more difficult and frustrating is that these rarely occur in a smooth progression. Rather than traversing a smooth curve climbing up the hill and down the other side, it is more like a jagged mish-mash of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. This is uncomfortable, but to my mind completely normal: as I like to explain it – ‘normal in an abnormal situation’!
Whilst everyone has their own, unique journey through grief, there are several common responses that many people experience:
Shock: I think of shock as an emotional anaesthetic: we are numb to the reality of what has happened, and shock numbs our emotional pain. To this end it helps us to ‘get through’ this difficult time, and whilst we still feel the emotional impact of the death, shock helps to put our functioning on auto-pilot enabling us to do what has to be done. It provides a layer of protection around our emotions enabling the intensity of this pain to be temporarily reduced.
Shock wears off over time however, and for many, the emotional pain can be re-experienced in its raw form. For this reason, it is important to be mindful that people dealing with grief might appear to be managing, but then might seem to slip backwards. This is part of the journey. It is also relevant in the workplace; people are usually supportive early on but can appear to lose their patience if a grieving team member starts to recover and then slips backwards. Some might even perceive this as attention-seeking!
Having seen my husband die suddenly, shock was huge for me, and I wondered whether this made coming to terms with his death more difficult. However, when my mother died from a terminal illness, it reinforced that there was no easy way to deal with such loss! In this case shock first kicked in at the diagnosis. Although she was ill, there was still shock when she actually passed – there was nothing more anyone could do. The notion of ‘at least having time to say goodbye’ was cold comfort, as I felt that early goodbyes were tantamount to giving up on her, and therefore not an option.
Denial: it is understandable that we don’t want to accept that our loved one has passed – just in case it isn’t true! The day my husband died his boat license renewal arrived, which I defiantly renewed – I knew it was irrational but I needed to hold the door open – just in case!
Anxiety: a difficult life event often leads to ‘what if’ thinking. This is a classic sign of anxiety, which is also likely to move into the realm of ‘how will I manage without them’, and potential thoughts of impending doom. This is understandable in the early phase of bereavement, for in addition to losing someone dear, the thought of continuing your life and routine without them can be totally overwhelming.
Guilt: some people feel they could/should have done more to prevent the death, and in their mind try to bargain for better outcomes. Even if we did all that we could for our loved one, in the aftermath of a significant loss we are still likely to expect even more from ourselves!
Depression: without this important person in your life, it is understandable to feel down, flat and miserable. Some people feel as if life is not worth living, and struggle to engage in their daily routine. To feel depressed after the loss of a loved is totally normal – after all, this is no joyous occasion!
Life continues to be good: whilst life is never the same after the death of a loved one, it can still be good, and I believe that is what our loved ones would want. It is important to allow yourself time to grieve, but it is also important to allow yourself to continue living a satisfying and fulfilling life.
I am sure your loved one would want that!