During our lifetime, we will experience grief many, many times. The grief process can be initiated by many of the situations we face. We can grieve broken relationships, a job loss, and even an addiction to substances. Children and spouses often grieve following a divorce, and persons commonly grieve the loss of their health and vitality when diagnosed with critical or life-threatening medical conditions.
60 million people worldwide and over 2.5 million people die every year in the United States. They each leave behind, on average, between 1 and 5 loved ones. An extremely emotional and upsetting period often follows the loss, particularly for those who are closest to the deceased. Typically, the pain gradually diminishes as the reality of the death is grasped and accepted. Additionally, the experience of losing a loved one is extremely stressful, initially because of the death and, eventually because those left behind are confronted with their own mortality. Trying to cope after a loved one dies will be the primary concern. Mourning and grieving are expected.
What Grief Is
Mourning is the natural process you go through to accept a major loss while grieving is the outward expression of your loss. Mourning may include religious traditions or fellowshipping with family and friends. This process may last for months or even years. Grief is often expressed as physical, emotional, and/or psychological symptoms. For example, a physical expression of grief may be crying, while depression is a common psychological expression of grief.
Physical symptoms often accompany grief. Some symptoms that occur frequently are stomach pains, loss of appetite, intestinal upsets, sleep disturbances and loss of energy, to name a few. Mourning can even affect the immune system, with existing illnesses worsening or with new conditions emerging. Intense emotional reactions are commonly reported, including anxiety attacks, chronic fatigue, depression and suicidal ideation.
Grief, though difficult, is best not avoided or ignored. You will simply be prolonging the inevitable. One day, when least expected, those feelings will resurface, potentially causing debilitating physical or emotional illness.
Stages of Grief
In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described five popular stages of grief. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
- Denial is a common defense mechanism that cushions the initial shock of the loss, numbing our emotions.
- Anger may be directed towards our or deceased loved one even though we may know the person should not be blamed. Persons may feel guilty for being angry, making them more angry.
- After a loss, the resulting feelings of helplessness and vulnerability spark a desire to regain control through by thinking “If only” thoughts or bargaining, for example: “If only we had done those tests earlier.”
- Depression is frequently associated with sadness and regret.
- Finally, acceptance is marked by withdrawal and a sense of calm, but not happiness.
It is important to note that grief does not progress in a linear and predictable fashion.
About 7% of people who are grieving experience complicated grief. Such individuals become preoccupied with thoughts about the circumstances of the death, they become anxious about its consequences, or they may go to extreme lengths to avoid any reminder of the loss. Their inability to understand or accept the finality and consequences of the loss causes them to succumb, helplessly, to overwhelming waves of intense emotion. Persons who have complicated grief will need professional intervention to return to normalcy.
Counseling is a tried-and-true approach to support the grief process. Support groups, bereavement groups, or individual counseling can unearth and resolve any unprocessed grief. Importantly, there is no “cure” for your loss. In fact, counseling provides individuals with coping strategies that help them deal with their grief in a healthy and effective way.
by Karen McGibbon, PhD
Assistant Professor in Clinical Counseling | Practicum & Internship Coordinator