Grief is the natural process of adapting to the loss of someone – or something – important to you.
Unfortunately, most of us aren’t taught how to prepare for, or deal with, the wide range of feelings that can be experienced after a loss. At such a difficult time, it can be helpful to understand the different ways that we grieve, and how best to look after yourself when grieving.
Types of Loss
When we think about loss, the first thing that often comes to mind is the grief associated with the death of a loved one. Particularly when this occurs suddenly, or unexpectedly, bereavement is one of the most profoundly painful events that anyone will be faced with. But even when a bereavement is expected, we often find that nothing prepares us for the complex – and exhausting – range of emotions that follow.
Much of the following refers to the symptoms that people may experience following bereavement. However, it’s important to remember that we can experience grief in response to many types of loss.
Sometimes, this is hard to acknowledge. Because we tend to associate grief with bereavement, people can feel that they don’t have a ‘right’ to grieve, or ask for support, in any other circumstances. In fact, grief can occur after the loss of anything that you value, or you have seen as central to your life. That could include:
Loss of job role: When someone loses their job, they lose a lot more than an income; there are also changes in their ability to provide for the family, to be productive, and feel valued in the community. When the work that you do is an important part of how you see yourself (e.g. “I’m a police officer”), it can be difficult to adapt to life without that role. This can occur at any stage of life, and often accompanies retirement.
Loss of a relationship: Loss of a loved one doesn’t just happen in the case of a bereavement; separation from a close friend or family member – for any reason – reduces our sense of connection and value.
Loss of belief: Our beliefs and expectations are crucial to the way that we see ourselves, and the world around us, and are often what keep us going when times are tough. To lose faith, or belief in something important – for example, a sense of safety and trust in others, or the expectation of justice - can be devastating.
Experiences and Symptoms of Grief
We often talk about the ‘stages’ of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Sadness, and Acceptance. However, this isn’t always helpful, as not everyone experiences each of these stages, or moves through them one by one. More often, people feel a range of emotions, and while some find that their mood and reactions fluctuate rapidly, others can feel ‘stuck’ in a particular mood, or way of thinking, for long periods of time. The most important thing to remember is that grief happens in its own time and fashion.
Some of the emotions that may be experienced when grieving:
Shock and disbelief is often felt immediately after a loss. It may be difficult to make sense or comprehend what has happened. You may feel physically or emotionally numb.
Anger at God, the doctors, yourself, or another person, especially when you feel abandoned. You may feel the need to blame someone, feel angry at family members and their behaviour or at the many responsibilities that now need your attention.
Sadness is perhaps the most common symptom identified with grief. You may feel you can’t stop crying or can’t cry. You may have feelings of emptiness or despair.
Relief especially if you have been faced with a period of uncertainty, or after the loss of someone who has been in pain and/or suffering from a chronic illness.
Guilt for feeling relieved, or about something that you did – or didn’t – say or do.
Preoccupation with what it is that you’ve lost. In the case of losing a loved one, you might find yourself thinking a lot about the way they died or with material objects or possessions that remind you of them.
Fear of how you’ll cope, about your own mortality, of life without that person.
Grief is not just an emotional process. People who are grieving may also experience the following physical and behavioural symptoms:
- Weight loss or gain
- Changes in sleep pattern
- Lack of energy
- Aches and pains
- Stomach upsets
- Headaches / migraines
- Feeling hollow or empty in the stomach
- Sensitivity to light and noise
- Social withdrawal or isolation
- Being over-protective of others
- Changes in diet
- Change in exercise routine
- Reduced self-care
- Increase in alcohol intake
- Drug / prescription misuse
- Risk taking
Looking after yourself after a loss
Grieving can be physically and emotionally exhausting, to the point of interfering with your capacity to cope with the demands of daily life, and manage your health and wellbeing. Looking after yourself is vital, even though some days you might really struggle with the energy and motivation to do so.
As much as possible, try to stick to regular routines around diet, exercise, sleep, and social contact:
Eat: Grief causes stress on the body so nutritious meals to replenish your body are important.
Sleep: may be disturbed by grief. Try and keep to normal sleep routines: for example, a winding down, pre-sleep routine and regular bedtime and wake times. Have routines or remedies available for when sleep is interrupted
Exercise: assists the body to process stress and can offer you some time out mentally (remember, time out from grieving does not equate to lack of love, regard, or care for what you have lost).
Social contact: you may feel little interest in social engagements and/or feel threatened by having to be sociable, but social contact will provide opportunities for support and distraction from the pain, both of which may reduce the isolation frequently experienced in grief.
Actively reduce stress: Anxiety – about the future, about how you will manage – often increases when we grieve. Even if you find it difficult to relax, or that your thoughts are racing, set aside time each day for activities that help you focus on the present, rather than the future, or reduce the tension in your body
Relaxing and enjoyable activities: again, a ‘rest’ or distraction away from the pain of grieving is healthy for the body and mind.
Treat yourself gently:
- There is no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s different for everyone.
- There is no set timeframe for grief. Grief is a deeply personal experience that may continue at different intensity levels and at different times. Many symptoms of grieving may diminish over a period of months. You may need to consider additional support if you feel you are not coping, or the strong feelings and associated behaviours have not eased sufficiently for you to cope with day to day living.
- There are many situations that may trigger powerful reminders and emotions. For example, birthdays, anniversaries, family gatherings, photos, favourite foods, places or music. These situations can be difficult to manage. Plan to have appropriate support (e.g. the company of loved ones) to help you manage these occasions.
- Grief can be so profound and unpredictable that many people think that they are losing control and going mad. It can feel like it at times. Know that this is normal; know that with adjustments to your daily, weekly, monthly schedule, you will cope. If you feel you aren’t, or you don’t have family and friends to lean on, there are options for additional advice and support.
- Don’t expect to be your normal capable and competent self; reduce your expectations about what you can achieve in a day, a month, a year. Remember that grieving takes both time and energy and adjust accordingly.
- Avoid making important life decisions, especially those decisions that can’t be reversed such as changing jobs, moving house, selling/disposing of belongings.
- Avoid reliance on caffeine, drugs and alcohol. They may provide short-term relief, but may have adverse consequences for sleep quality, daily functioning, relationships and physical health.
- Share your feelings and experiences with people you trust. Talking can help.
- Allow yourself time and space for thinking and feeling about the loss.
When to seek help
You can arrange to speak with a counsellor at any stage about your grief. Some of the experiences which might prompt you to seek counselling are:
- You are concerned or distressed by your grief, or your reactions feel unmanageable
- There is no-one that you feel comfortable talking to
- Your reactions are significantly impacting on your daily life and functioning
- You are unable to carry out your normal roles e.g. as a parent or at work
- You are feeling hopeless, despairing or that you can’t go on*
- You are thinking or have thought about self-harm, suicide or harming others*
* If you are experiencing these symptoms you should seek help immediately
There different support options available that you can access for yourself or a loved one who is experiencing difficulties with grief and loss. You can speak to your GP, Victoria Police Wellbeing Services, your local health service, call a helpline such as the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement or contacting Griefline.