Grief and Loss – Supporting Yourself and Others

We all experience grief and loss in our lives. We mostly consider this in terms of the loss of a loved one, however other forms of loss such as losing a job, moving school/home/area and divorce can also be difficult experiences that might cause us to go through a grieving process and this process is not a linear one. We do not move from one emotion to another and come out the other side and we don’t ‘move on’ in a clinical way.

A Swiss-American Psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, defined the grieving process in terms of 5 stages;

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

However, these stages may be visited in a different order and may be re-visited many times, often over years. There are no set processes for how we grieve and what time we need, and this can be dependent on many factors. Generally, it is thought that we might grieve for anything from 6 months to 2 years but this is not a minimum or a maximum.

In the case of losing the loved one, the way in which we lose them can have as much importance as the relationship we had with the person. Even when death is expected, we still feel the sense of shock when they have died. The age of the person and whether it was sudden or traumatic will also influence the way in which we are able to cope in the aftermath. The important thing to recognise if that, however you feel or grieve, there is no right or wrong way. Often, people experience feelings of guilt, regret, sadness and yearning. These emotions can feel overwhelming and can come in waves that wash over us and then leave us for a while. Children particularly can be immersed in their emotions, thoughts and deep feelings of sadness and then pop out to play – this is all normal.

There are said to be two patterns of grieving styles. (Martin, Doka):

  1. Intuitive grieving – heightened emotional response and focus on the loss of relationship, questioning life and your own sense of mortality.
  2. Instrumental grieving – problem solving, feeling detached from emotions and trying to maintain control.

Whichever way we grieve, we must remember that these are just different ways to cope and just because someone is more instrumental in the way that they grieve, does not mean they don’t care.

Bereavement might be seen as the time we begin to adjust to our loss and find the new ‘normal’.

Four stages of bereavement/mourning: (Worden)

  1. Experiencing the pain of loss and grief
  2. Acceptance that the loss did happen
  3. Adjusting to life without the person
  4. Starting a new life, though still maintaining connection with the person

Bereavement in Children

Children are very attuned to emotional disturbance and changed mood. The concept of death is incredibly complex and difficult for children to comprehend. Age and previous experience of death will make a difference to their understanding (for example if the child has experienced the loss of a pet).

Children may have questions which seem irrelevant to you, however it is important that you answer them as honestly as possible as sometimes unanswered questions leave children more likely to ‘fill in the gaps’ or fantasize their own narratives, which can be worse than the facts or be completely unhelpful to them.

Clear language is also very important for children, as using terms such as ‘they fell asleep’ or ‘we have lost them’ can lead children to believe that the person will return one day.

It is important to maintain the child’s routine as this will help them to feel ‘safe’ and ensure to give them the time and space to explore and express their feelings.

Bereavement in Teenagers

Teenagers can sometimes engage in more risky behaviours and can experience eating and sleeping difficulties when experiencing grief and loss. They may also feel lonely, anxious and withdrawn, lacking focus and struggling with school.

They may hold some sense of responsibility, guilt and blame when a person close to them dies, as well as potentially experiencing deep fears around their own survival.

In order to best support them, ensure to create a safe space for them to process their emotions and help to validate their feelings, listening to their fears and worries.

Bereavement in Adults

Adults may have other concerns which impact how they experience and cope with loss. For example, they may have financial considerations due to the loss of the main earner or main child-carer. Where there were joint responsibilities or specific job roles, the remaining partner may feel a great sense of overwhelm or indeed anger that the person ‘left them’ to manage. Such feelings are then difficult to cope with along with the profound loss and sadness.

Grief is so complex in nature. if the loss is of someone who had a negative impact on a person’s life for example, there may be a sense of relief, followed by guilt for feeling that way.

For others, their support network may be minimal as they may not have any extended family or a circle of friends to help them, meaning the sense of loneliness can be compounded. It can sometimes be the case that people ‘avoid’ contact with a bereaved person as they don’t know how to respond to others’ grief.

If you are experiencing loss and loneliness, having some background TV or radio can help, as well as ensuring to keep talking about your feelings, maintaining a good diet, exercise and sleep schedule and expressing your anger in healthy ways that do not result in harm, such as by kicking water, hitting a pillow, shouting (out of earshot of others) or writing it down can also be very useful.

Other types of loss, such as divorce or job loss, can also provide serious challenges for us as whilst loss is part of the road of life, it can be difficult to move forward when we find ourselves on an unexpected detour. Blocks placed in our paths mean that the route we anticipated, the hopes and expectations we carried are now changed as we find ourselves perhaps feeling vulnerable and fearful. It is important to accept that your feelings are valid. Reframe your negative thoughts and self-beliefs, re-evaluate what’s important to you now, what do you want from your life and the people in it? Try to ensure to have compassion for yourself, being mindful to ensure you are looking after yourself and meeting your needs. Even though some losses are not always understood to be a type of grieving, they can be an opportunity for change to something equally as good and if not better.

We can cope with change – it’s just a new ‘normal’ once we have had time to process, grieve and accept the change.

Written by Karen Allin, Integrative Counsellor and Psychotherapist


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