In 1981 on a Wednesday afternoon I was walking through Wolverhampton town centre with my then girlfriend when a friend from school come out of one of the shops he was working in, to talk to us. I could tell from the look on his face that there was something wrong! He asked me if I had heard the news about my best friend Wayne, I said no and explained that we were supposed to meet the night before for training at the karate club but he had not turned up. This friend then proceeded to tell me that by best friend, Wayne had died the night before. I remember my girlfriend crying, me putting my hands on my knees in disbelief and saying that it can’t be true. I don’t recall how I got home and have very little memory of the following days and weeks but this was my first but not my last experience with loss.
Sooner or later most of us will suffer the death of someone we love, yet in our everyday life we think and talk about death rarely. When we have to face someone’s death (especially for the first time), we can feel inexperienced in coping with this traumatic event and its aftermath. If you have recently lost a loved one or a close friend, then you will know what it feels like.
It is common in our grief to feel our experience is unlike anyone else’s – to feel abnormal, silly, overemotional or as though we are losing our grip on life. When we lose someone we dearly love, our minds can react and respond in so many unexpected and disturbing ways. You need to know that these responses/reactions are temporary and they will pass or fade in time.
There are stages that we must go through when we are grieving a loss and what is important to understand is that we need to allow ourselves to go through this process to reconcile with the loss. There is no set time that we will experience all or any one of these stages – it can happen quickly or it can take months or in some cases years to move through these stages. In my experience from working with my clients’ grief and from my own experience, theses stages are not consecutive as they tend to hit us in waves. They can loop back round a few times before they start to fade as we come to terms with our loss.
The chart below shows the commonly accepted stages of grief:
The first reaction to learning of terminal illness or death of a cherished loved one is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This is what happened to me when I heard about my friend’s death, I could not believe that such a young healthy person could die. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain. This can also manifest itself in keeping yourself busy, organizing things and helping everyone else around you so that you don’t have to face the reality of our loss.
As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear, reality and its pain re-emerge. We are not ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. Anger may be directed at our dying or deceased loved one. Rationally, we know the person is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the person for causing us pain or for leaving us.
The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control–
- If only we had sought medical attention sooner…
- If only we got a second opinion from another doctor…
- If only we had tried to be a better person toward them…
- Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone or change what has happened
In this stage we can often punish ourselves by second guessing what we did or did not do or for not doing enough.
Two main types of depression are associated with mourning.
- The first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss. Sadness and regret predominate this type of depression. We worry about the costs and burial, we worry that in our grief, we have spent less time with others that depend on us. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. We may need a bit of helpful cooperation and a few kind words.
- The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell. Sometimes all we really need is a hug.
The experience of “depression” is what leads to “acceptance”. Many people mistakenly believe that “acceptance” means we are “cured” or “all right” with the loss. But this isn’t the case at all. The loss will forever be a part of us, though we will feel it more sometimes than others. Acceptance simply means we are ready to try and move on and we can make sense of how life was and process how we want life now to be.
Sometimes we get stuck
It is possible to get stuck in any of these stages over a long period of time, this is sometimes referred to as ‘complicated grief’, People with complicated grief know their loved one is gone, but they still can’t believe it. This happened to me when my Father who had raised my brother and I by himself died at the age of 66. Again I was not expecting this, it was a shock when my sister in law called me one evening to tell me. I remember going to the funeral home to see him, helping to organise and speaking at the wake. I also helped my brother and his wife clear his apartment. I seemed to have coped relatively well doing all of this. Nine months to year later I was leaving work and driving home, I could not tell you if I had had a good day or a bad day but by reflex I dialed my dad on my hands free to tell him about my day. At that moment the realisation that he was gone and I would never be able to tell him about my day kicked me in the stomach. I had to pull my car over for about an hour, I cried and went through all the stages of grief in that time. I did not realise that I had been stuck in denial until that moment but I needed to face the truth.
How do you cope?
Recognising your emotions
Lots of the emotions you might feel when you are grieving have physical symptoms. If you are feeling stressed, your heart beat may be faster. If you are angry, you might clench your jaw. Sometimes those physical symptoms might be a way of helping you to recognise your own emotions. When you notice them, you just need to make space at that time to feel those emotions, which can help you to cope with them.
Letting others grieve in their own way
Sometimes different family members may have different ways of grieving. Perhaps one person wants to talk about and share their feelings, but another person prefers to busy themselves with activities.
You may find that people’s different ways of coping can create tensions and strains within the family. You need to try to find a way to be sensitive to each other’s needs, while coping with your feelings in your own way.
Coping with your home
Living in a home you shared together can be particularly hard. All around you are likely to be reminders of the person, which may trigger your feelings of grief. The home you shared together may feel like a sanctuary. Or you may find you prefer to spend as little time as possible at home, because it feels empty. You may like to keep your home exactly the same, or you may prefer to rearrange it.
It is quite common that when a parent dies grown-up children no longer want to visit. The house often brings back so many memories and feelings of grief for them. These are all normal feelings, and you need to do what works best for you.
Get support from family and friends
When you are ready, it helps if you’ve got support within your own family and friends, as well as from others such as a support group. This is because friends and family are the people who will be there for you in the long term.
Getting out of the house
Not only does getting out of the house give you some physical exercise, but it can help you to think differently. Sometimes, particularly if you are feeling lonely, it can be good to see other people out and about, even if you’re not ready to engage with them.
Looking after your physical health
Getting enough sleep and eating properly can help you deal with the different emotions you are feeling.
Talking through your feelings
It may be enough to talk with family or close friends. Or you may find it helpful to get dedicated bereavement support, either one-to-one or in a group.
Getting help when you need it is sensible, not a sign you have failed. You may feel that you can’t cope, but you may surprise yourself with what you can actually handle. However, if you feel you are not coping, or you know that the way you are coping is not good for you – for example if you are drinking alcohol heavily – you should try to think about what help you might need.
Working with an effective counselling professional one-on-one can often be helpful If you would like more information: