A Rollercoaster of Emotions… You Can Survive It and Move Forward
“Grief is the price we pay for Love.” – Queen Elizabeth II
Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief will be. You may associate grief with the death of a loved one, which is often the cause of the most intense type of grief; however, any loss can cause grief, including:
- a relationship breakup/divorce,
- the death of a pet,
- a miscarriage/stillbirth,
- loss of a job,
- loss of a friendship,
- a loved one’s serious illness,
- diagnosis of your own serious illness, or
- the selling of the family home.
It is widely known and accepted that there are five stages of grief:
- Denial: ‘There’s no way this is happening to me’.
- Anger: ‘Why is this happening? Who is to blame?’.
- Bargaining: ‘Make this not happen, and in return I will __________’.
- Depression: ‘I’m too sad to do anything’.
- Acceptance: ‘I’m at peace with what happened because I am unable to change it’.
We often think of grief as only an emotional process, but grief often involves physical symptoms, including fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss/gain, aches and pains and insomnia.
Denial is the first of the five stages of grief. It helps us survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on… if we can go on… why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day.
Denial and shock help us cope and make survival possible. Denial is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle. As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. As a result, you become stronger, the denial begins to fade and then all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.
Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger even though it may seem never ending. The more you truly feel this emotion, the more it will begin to lessen and the more you will heal. You may find that anger has no limits. It can extend not only to your friends, your family, the doctors and your loved one who died but also to God. You may ask, ‘Why would God let this happen?’
Underneath anger is pain, your pain. Anger can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the emptiness of loss. At first grief feels like being lost in the desert with no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone, maybe a person who didn’t go the hospital to visit your loved one before they died or someone who didn’t attend the funeral. Suddenly you have structure and a connection – your anger toward them. It is something to hold onto, and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing/emptiness. Anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.
Before an imminent loss, it seems like you will do anything if only your loved one would be spared. ‘Please God’, you may bargain, ‘I will never argue with my mum again if you’ll just let her live.’ After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. ‘What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others? Then can I wake up and realize this has all been a bad dream.’ We become lost in a maze of ‘If only… ’ or ‘What if…’ statements. We want life returned to the way it was; we want our loved one back with us. We want to go back in time: Find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, encourage them to stop smoking sooner, stop the accident from happening – if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion.
The ‘if onlys’ cause us to find fault in ourselves and to think we could have done something differently. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt. People often think of the stages of grief as lasting weeks or months. They don’t realize that the stages are responses to thoughts and feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we go from one stage to another and back again. We don’t go through each stage in a neat, sequential order, so don’t worry about what you ‘should’ be feeling or which stage you’re supposed to be in. We may feel one, then another and go back again to the first one.
After bargaining, when we come to terms with the reality of the situation where we are not in control of the outcome and cannot reverse what has happened, our attention is brought back to the present. Empty feelings arise, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. Rather, it is ‘an appropriate’ response to a great loss. In this stage, many people wonder if there is any point in going on without their loved one.
Depression (prolonged feelings of sadness) after a loss is too often seen as unhealthy and something ‘to snap out of’. The loss of a loved one is a very depressing situation, and depression is therefore a normal and appropriate response. To not experience depression to some extent after a loved one dies would be unusual. When you really come to terms with a loss, the realization that your loved one isn’t coming back is understandably depressing. If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps you need to go through to fully recover from the loss.
Acceptance is often confused with the misconception that you are ‘all right’ or ‘OK’ with what happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone, and unfortunately there’s nothing we can do about it. We will never like this reality or feel as though it’s OK, but eventually we learn to accept it. We learn to live with it as we don’t have the power to change it. We now must try to live in a world without our loved one. In resisting this new reality, many people at first want to maintain life as it was before their loved one died. In time, however, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed, and therefore we must adjust.
Finding acceptance may be simply about having more good days than bad ones. As we begin to live again and enjoy our life, we often feel that in doing so, we are betraying our loved one and then we may feel guilty. We can never replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections and new meaningful relationships. Instead of denying our feelings, we should listen to our needs. We move on, we change, we grow and we continue to evolve. Often we are inspired to do something to make the loved one that we lost proud of us. We may start to reach out to others and become more involved in their lives. We invest more in our friendships and in our relationships with our family. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until the grief has truly run its course.
The single most important factor in healing from loss is having the support of others. Even if you aren’t comfortable talking about your feelings normally, it’s important to express them when you’re grieving. Sharing your loss makes the burden of grief easier to carry. Wherever the support comes from, accept it and do not grieve alone. Lean on the people who care about you, even if you take pride in being strong and self-sufficient. Don’t push loved ones away or avoid them; instead, accept the assistance that’s offered. Often, people want to help but don’t know how, so tell them what it is that you need.
When you’re grieving, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself and not neglect your physical and emotional needs as the stress of a major loss can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves.
If your grief feels overwhelming, contact a mental health professional with experience in grief counselling (despite what you may ‘perceive’ about counselors and even if you thought that you’re ‘not the kind of person who would go to a counselor’). An experienced therapist can really help you work through intense emotions and give you techniques to assist you in overcoming obstacles to your grieving. Many workplaces even have a wellness program available for staff to seek confidential counselling at the employer’s cost.
Losing someone or something you love or care deeply about is extremely painful. You may experience all kinds of difficult emotions, and it may feel like the pain and sadness you’re feeling will never go away. These are normal reactions to a significant loss. While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain that, in time, can renew you and permit you to move on.
Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality, your life experience, your faith and the nature of the loss. The grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually, and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ period of time for grieving as factors about the loss can vary and how long the grieving takes differs from person to person. Some people start to heal in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process takes years. When grieving, be patient with yourself and allow the process of grief to naturally take its course.
Have you experienced grief? How did you get through it? Comment below to share.