Unfortunately, grief and loss is something that is a part of most people’s lives at some point. It can be experienced after the death of a loved one. Yet, it can also be experienced after the end of a relationship, job loss, critical disease diagnosis, moving, infertility, or many other experiences that aren’t always thought of in terms of grief and loss. Having the space to acknowledge your emotions can go a long way to honouring what you have lost and finding a way to create a new normal.
After experiencing the death of a loved one, it can be very difficult to imagine finding a way through the emotions you are feeling. Grief is often described as a process, and even though your journey may be different from others, it can be useful to know some of the landmarks along the way.
There are many different models and theories about grief. The one that I like best is the three-stage model. People go through the stages at different rates and can go back and forth between them. It is not always a straight path, sometimes there are curves in the road or detours. The type of death, whether it was sudden, accidental or suicide can greatly effect the grieving process. As well the type of relationship you had with the person while they were alive will affect your feelings. Honour your individual journey.
The first or acute stage of grief is very overwhelming and confusing. Shock and denial are common reactions; the death might not feel real to you or you can’t believe that the person is gone. You may feel conflicting emotions such as sadness, anger or guilt all at the same time. It is normal to be mad at the person for leaving you or feel guilty because you are still alive. Don’t judge these feelings, acknowledge them and express them in a way that is meaningful to you.
The second stage tends to not be as intense as the first stage. In this stage you may go back and forth between tasks of grieving and tasks of figuring out how to live your life after the death. You might feel ready to sort through belongings or deal with estate and financial matters or even think about moving or changing aspects of your life. For some people, these tasks are trigger points and result in moments of sadness, anger and guilt. You can also feel a lot of fear or anxiety. You’re starting to answer the question how do I live without this important person in my life. This is a scary process. Fear can lead to feelings of indecision exhaustion or apathy. When you start to feel like this give yourself a break, you are dealing with something really hard, take it one step at a time.
The third stage is when you start to integrate the loss into your life. The pain may fade or dull, so you don’t think about it every day. There will still be moments of grief, especially on anniversaries or holidays. It can be hard because a holiday is supposed to be a happy time and here you are feeling sad. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Remember the happy memories along with the sad ones. It may be comforting to follow old traditions, or it may be comforting to make new ones. Allow yourself to experiment with what works for you.
In any stage make sure to take care of yourself. Trouble sleeping, headaches, tense muscles, no appetite, eating every comfort food in sight or other behaviours are all possible physical experiences of grief. The most practical advice I can give you is to take care of yourself, take a nap. Especially during the acute stage, you will often be exhausted. There will be many demands on your time, but a quick or long nap will do you a world of good. If you are the person in the family who takes care of everyone else, make sure you are also taking care of yourself. Your grief is just as important as your other family members. You do not have to be strong all the time. It is okay to cry if you want to, tears can be like rain that cleanses our heart.
A lot of times death can feel unfair. People ask why this had to happen to my family. They feel that the universe is unjust or chaotic and irrational. Death is unfair. No matter at what point in life it happens it always robs us of someone we love. Instead of trying to make sense out of the event of death try to make meaning out of the life the person lived. Rejoice and be grateful for the time you had with the person even if it was too short. Remember positive memories and share stories about the person with family and friends.
Sometimes our grief can be complicated by the relationship we had with the person who died. You may have conflicting or unresolved emotions. There can be an expectation that you feel sad because the person died yet you feel angry, hurt or even relieved. Honour your emotions. Just because the person died does not change how they lived their life. If you have things that feel unfinished or unsaid express them, writing a letter or speaking out loud or in prayer can bring a sense of closure. Those who were left behind can sometimes feel survivor’s guilt or want to bargain to trade their life for the person who died, especially if the death was accidental or by suicide.
Going on with your life is not forgetting the person you loved. It is okay to laugh and be happy again. Moving on is not a betrayal. You will always carry your loved one in your heart no matter how much your life changes.
People around you may not know what to say or how to help. Death makes people uncomfortable. You will often have to deal with other people’s grief along with your own. If friends or family offer to help allow them to help in any way possible. A cooked meal or some help around the house is great. Even a hug or an ear to listen can make the world of difference. These offers of help are most frequent right after the death, but you may need support for a longer time. Don’t be afraid to ask a friend for help. This can simply be a request to call or grab a coffee. Some people like to surround themselves with support and others need space and alone time. Do what feels right for you in the moment.
It is okay to ask for help. If you are ever at the point where you feel like you can’t cope, no one understands you or listens to you, you can always ask for help. Counselling by a trained professional can be very helpful. Even a few sessions can help you get back on track. Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed that you are asking for help.
Bereavement is thought of as a period of mourning after a loss and is often associated with an intense feeling of grief or sadness. These intense feelings can be difficult to handle and get in the way of daily life. There is no set timeline for how long bereavement will last, however if you feel like you need help moving through this time, asking for help can be very comforting.
Sometimes after a person dies, the people left behind can feel guilty that they didn’t do more to save the person or wish that they had died instead of the person who died. The term survivor’s guilt came from experiences of war. It has also been linked to traumatic death or suicide. It can leave people asking why this happened. It is very hard to answer the why question. Finding a way to say goodbye without knowing why can be part of the counselling process.
Ambiguous grief is feelings of grief that are felt when the loss is not clear or obvious. Even the feelings of grief can have an ambiguity to them, it is hard to label them as grief because they fall outside the traditional definition of loss. There can be a lack of closure or understanding of the loss as a loss. Your feelings are valid and your experience of loss, even if it is ambiguous, requires the time needed to grieve and mourn.