The Grief Journey

“Grief is not a disorder, a disease, or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
Earl Grollman

A close bereavement is one of the most distressing life events that can happen to a person, with the potential to have a considerable impact upon their physical and mental health.

Once the initial shock of the death has passed, many people feel abandoned to their grief as life moves on without them. If we didn’t love and care so much we wouldn’t hurt so much when a special person dies. Grief is the price we pay for loving. Death happens to us all, it part of the cycle of life. Though your grief is unique to you there are common stages which everyone goes through when they are bereaved, as shown here.

The 5 Aspects of Grief

This aspect of grieving helps us to survive the loss of a loved one. When experiencing denial, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock. 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 to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It 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. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.

This is a necessary part of the healing process. Often this aspect is difficult to cope with, producing strong emotions. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal.

There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. The truth is that anger has no limits. It can extend not only to your friends, the doctors, your family, yourself and your loved one who died, but also to God. You may ask, “Where is God in this?” Underneath anger is pain, your pain. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned, but we live in a society that fears anger.

Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss. At first, grief can feel like being lost at sea with no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone, maybe a person who didn’t attend the funeral, maybe a person who isn’t around, maybe a person who is different now your loved one has died. Suddenly, you have a structure – your anger toward them. The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing. We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.

Bargaining encompasses the hope that an individual can somehow undo, or avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. In essence, the person cannot totally move into acceptance, but acknowledges the fact that what has happened cannot be undone.

After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others? Perhaps then I can wake up and realise 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 what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumour sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, 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 what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.

People often think of these aspects of grief will lasting weeks or months. They forget these aspects of grief are responses to feelings which can last for minutes, or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual aspect in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one.

“I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?” During this aspect of grief, the grieving person begins to understand the certainty of death. Things begin to lose meaning to the griever. This can cause the individual to become silent, refuse visitors, spending much of the time crying and sullen. This process allows the grieving person to disconnect from things of love and affection, possibly in an attempt to avoid further trauma.

Depression can be referred to as the dress rehearsal for the aftermath. It is a kind of acceptance with emotional attachment. It is natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty when going through depression. Feeling those emotions shows the person has begun to accept the situation. Oftentimes, this is the ideal path to take, to find closure and make their ways to the fifth aspect of grief: acceptance.

After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, 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 is important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, perhaps wondering if there is any point in going on alone. Why go on at all?

Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural. A state to be fixed, or something to snap out of. The first question to ask yourself is whether, or not, the situation you’re in is actually depressing. The loss of a loved one is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal and appropriate response. To not experience depression after a loved one dies would be unusual. When a loss fully settles in your soul – the realization your loved one didn’t get better this time, and is not coming back – is understandably depressing. If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way.

This is often confused with the notion of being ‘alright’, or ‘okay’, with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel okay, or alright about the loss of a loved one. Acceptance is coming to terms with the reality our loved one is physically gone; and recognizing this new reality is permanent. We will never like this reality or make it okay, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. We must now try to live in a world where our loved one is missing. In resisting this new norm, at first many people want to maintain life as it was before a loved one died.

However, in time – through bits and pieces of acceptance – we will realise we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust. We must learn to reorganize roles, re-assign them to others, or take them on ourselves. Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones.

As we begin to live and enjoy our life again, we can often feel we are betraying our loved one. We can never replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections, new meaningful relationships, and new inter-dependencies. Instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve. We may start to reach out to others and become involved in their lives. We invest in our friendships and in our relationship with ourselves. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief its time.

However, we should be mindful that grief is not a process with a beginning, a middle and an end. In our grief we can move back and forwards between these aspects. We can encounter these aspects at different times. If we understand these feelings are normal, perhaps it will help us know that what is happening to us is normal. We aren’t going mad, or not dealing well with our grief. What we need is time to adjust to our new world without that special person.

“Grief is the last act of love we have to give to those we loved. Where there is deep grief, there was great love”
Author unknown

“The only people who think there’s a time limit for grief have never lost a piece of their heart. Take all the time you need.”
Author unknown

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