The pain of a relationship breakdown can be so intense that many of us imagine we are going crazy. Grief is painful. Few of us have real understanding of the grief process. Grief is a natural response to loss. Any loss can cause grief. Grief needs to be expressed and experienced. There is no right or wrong way of expressing or experiencing grief. Many of us coming to grief for the first time will expect more from ourselves, beat ourselves up because we are not dealing with this better. This sense that we should be doing better or coping better than we are, can in turn be fuelled by the remarks of well meaning , often equally impatient friends and relatives. How often do we hear “ pull yourself together”, “ you have to get on with it” and other such sentiments. These only contribute to our sense of misery and hopelessness. I remember a friend of mine some time ago criticising a relative of the deceased at a funeral because she was crying and saying that you would think she would keep it together for the sake of the deceased. I expect the deceased was beyond caring and as for others, their feelings of discomfort are for them to reflect upon. The truth is that grief can take many forms. Some of us will cry and some of us will not and it is okay either way as long as we keep in touch with ourselves and others, express the feelings and allow ourselves to experience what is happening to us. Repressed feelings will out and sometimes in very unhealthy ways. Crying does not mean we are weak, it is just a way of coping. I have found in my practice that when people gain an insight into what grief is like, they manage a lot better. Knowing what to expect is half the battle.
In the 1960s, Dr Kubler Ross wrote a ground breaking book about the stages of grief. Like all great insights, it has been carried too far and taken too literally by many. Her 5 stages were:
Denial – This is not really happening.
Anger – Why me, what did I ever do to deserve this?
Bargaining – Come back to me and I will……..
Depression – I am too sad to do anything
Acceptance – I am ok with this now.
The use of the term “stages” has confused people into thinking that we can travel through this process like a well worn path from beginning to end. They ask themselves – what stage am I at now and if the answer is not what they expect, they retreat into thinking there is something wrong with them. However, grief does not tend to be experienced in stages, rather it is experienced like waves and like waves it can move back and forth as it gather momentum and then ebbs. So, sometimes we will seem to be pulling out of it and then find ourselves right back at the beginning again. It is ok and it is perfectly normal for this to happen. The important thing is to know that it can happen and that while you can move back and forth through the various stages, the peaks and troughs will get less intense as time passes. At the end of her life, Dr Kubler Ross talking about the five stages said “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives”. So while there are elements in all grief that are recognizable – how we deal with those elements is as individual as we are.
Not everyone who grieves will experience denial or their experience of it may be very short indeed. Some will experience this stage more as a kind of numbness rather than an active denial. They will feel like they are acting in a movie of their life rather than actually experiencing it. Things will take on a dream like quality. There can be a nagging sense of unreality, an experience of emotional distance from those around us. For those who do experience denial it can often manifest in refusal to change things in the home because of an often unexpressed belief that the lost one would be upset if you were to do so and correspondingly, the unexpressed belief that he or she will return. The anger can be frightening and overwhelming and can seem irrational for example, what is the point of being angry with someone for dying but people are all the time and again it is important to realise that this is normal. In the midst of this maelstrom of emotions, there is very often guilt. Guilt at things I should have done, things I said that I should not have, things I did not say and so on. Most of us raised in Catholic households no matter where we stand now, will recognize bargaining! It can be exceedingly disconcerting for the confirmed atheist to find herself in full-scale bargaining with the Almighty in the midst of grief. Bargaining can take many forms but usually consists of promising to do something in exchange for the return of that which is lost. Sometimes we can bargain with the departing partner, or sometimes with the Almighty, it depends in each case on the loss involved. The Depression stage is experienced as an energy sapping sadness, a feeling of despair and hopelessness which crashes over us in waves and it is extremely debilitating. This is the time that no matter what stimulus came along, we would not feel like stirring ourselves. It is normal to feel this. Don’t try and hurry it along. Don’t fight it. Just experience it. We need to let it happen. Finally there is the Acceptance or Resolution when we don’t stop feeling but we are simply at peace, out the other end so to speak.
We often think of grief as an emotional process but many of us who have experienced profound grief have felt it as physical at times. Grief can actually manifest as a physical pain in the form of stomach aches, sleeplessness, choking feeling, shortness of breath, panic attack, loss of energy, weight gain or weight loss. Some of these symptoms can ambush us at the most inconvenient time, when we are driving, at work meetings and so forth. Sometimes not realising what is wrong with us, we will rush to the doctor to medicate us out of our pain. No medication will take away this pain. It will only suspend it. In order to heal you have to deal with the pain, not by repressing it rather by letting it be, acknowledging it. If you avoid the feelings then you will probably prolong the process. Unresolved grief can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and health problems or all of these. The best advice is:
Face your feelings
Express your feelings – take support wherever you find it.
Look after your health – exercise and diet
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel
Plan ahead for “triggers”.
“Triggers” may be birthdays, anniversaries, family occasions. You cannot plan for the things that will suddenly overcome you , like a smell, a forgotten photo in a book, etc. It is normal even after much recovery for significant dates, holidays or other reminders to trigger feelings related to the loss. Remember there is an upside to all this, by experiencing deep emotion and accepting it, you will grow in warmth, depth, understanding and wisdom.