Loss is an understood part of life, yet losing a loved one can be one of the most intensely devastating experiences. Coping with death and loss is a challenge, and even when expected, it can lead to waves of sadness, depression, and other unexpected emotions. Most individuals are not given the space and understanding to honor their grief. Grief is not an area our society likes to focus on or talk about. It can feel too sensitive and scary to talk about the inevitable--death and loss. In order to honor your grief, it can help to understand grief and loss. The intricacies of losing someone are difficult to manage because it is a unique experience for each individual and the expectation is that grief has a limit or looks a certain way. The reality is that grief is not something we ever get rid of or overcome; it is something we learn to carry with us and something that can strike at any given moment. A smell, a song, a book, a joke someone makes can all be reminders of someone you’ve lost and it can hurt all over again, even when the majority of days are good. While the expectations on how long it is acceptable to grieve and in what way are myths, there are emotions and feelings one can expect to experience after a loss.
We live in a society that is afraid to feel and express emotions that could make others uncomfortable. Talking about death is one of the most uncomfortable subjects to discuss because it is inevitable. American poet, Mark Nepo, wrote, “If we commit to loving, we will inevitably know loss and grief. If we try to avoid loss and grief, we will never truly love.” Because of the unknown that death brings, our culture treats grief as a problem that needs to be solved, a mess to be cleaned up and forgotten about.
Many people believe that grief is just immense sadness, but grief can present itself in different ways. Grief can appear as many different complex emotions psychologically, as well as physical symptoms. Some of the common physical symptoms:
Nausea or digestive problems
Weight loss or gain
Aches and pains
Shortness of breath and lightheadedness
While grief appears in various ways, many people are familiar with the five stages of grief created by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. While Kubler-Ross developed the stages specifically for those who are terminally ill, these are emotions and stages that are often universally experienced. The five stages are as follows:
Each of these stages can appear at any time during the grieving process and do not necessarily follow any particular order. The way these stages manifest is unique to each person, however, there are common feelings and thoughts that can accompany each stage.
Denial is exactly as it sounds. It is a defense mechanism to help numb the reality and intensity of loss and pain. People will often use denial as a way to convince themselves the traumatic event and loss has not actually happened or is not permanent. Denial can also look like denying your own pain or loss, either acting as though it doesn’t bother you or continuing on with daily life as if nothing has changed. This defense delays the pain and can be an integral part of processing.
Anger is one of the most accepted emotions in our society, therefore, it can be safe to feel anger over other emotions. Someone might be angry at the circumstances, angry at the person who died, or angry that nobody understands. This can appear as mood swings, snapping at surrounding people, sudden bursts of rage or screaming. Often, anger can mask other emotions until they become easier to accept. Releasing angry feelings can help relieve tension in the body. Loss can create a sense of powerlessness and releasing tension can help regain control of a situation in the moment. While violence and anger towards undeserving individuals isn’t the best coping skill, screaming into a pillow, singing, dancing, exercising, or other types of movement can be a healthy release.
Bargaining is a line of defense and helps to postpone sadness, confusion, hurt, and helplessness. Often, there are statements of “what if” or “if only.” Bargaining can lead to self-blame and a focus on personal faults or regrets. It is common in this stage for religious individuals to try to make deals with a higher power. This stage can be painful as it forces individuals to bring up different issues that can be difficult to face.
Depression after loss and clinical depression are not the same, however, the symptoms of sadness can affect people in a similar way. Depression can appear in different ways but is often categorized as frequent crying, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, and chronic pain or illness. Generally, grief-related depression subsides eventually with time, but suicidal thoughts and ideations can occur. Suicidal thoughts and ideations don’t always mean one would actually harm themselves, and sometimes the idea of no longer existing can be a form of coping. If you feel you no longer have a reason to live, or are having thoughts of wanting to die or harm yourself, you should immediately contact a mental health professional or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 for free confidential support 24/7.
Acceptance is the stage that occurs when you begin to understand your loss. During acceptance, the reality of the loss takes root and moving forward in life without our loved one becomes bearable and possible. Accepting the loss does not mean the sadness disappears; there will be times sadness is still present but it will no longer affect your day-to-day life and consume you. Acceptance can be a difficult process as it can cause a sense of guilt, that allowing yourself to move forward in life and experience happiness means you’ve forgotten your loved one and loss. Keep in mind that the healing process is not linear and will ebb and flow.
One approach to work through grief and loss is to imagine the loss like a boulder in our path. At first, the boulder is too big for us to move or get around--we are stuck with no way forward. Over time, the boulder becomes smaller and smaller. Some days we are able to climb over the boulder, other days we might feel too tired and stay stuck. The boulder will eventually become the size of a pebble and we can put the pebble in our pocket and carry it with us. Some days, we can touch the pebble when we need to get in touch with our grief and allow ourselves to feel the pain of loss. Other days, we might forget it is in our pocket. The pebble, our grief, will always be with us because the love we have will never disappear.
If your feelings become overwhelming or significantly interfere with your life (can’t go to work, feeling suicidal, panic attacks, etc.), you would likely benefit from seeing a therapist to assist you with the grief process. Please do not hesitate to reach out to The Center for Growth. Call us at (215) 922-5683 x100.