>> Grief Counseling
COPING WITH GRIEF AND LOSS:
Losing someone or something you love is very painful
— and it’s something that almost everyone
will experience at some point in their lives. Loss
that goes unacknowledged or unattended can result
in disability. But grief that is expressed and experienced
has a potential for healing that eventually can strengthen
and enrich life. There is no right or wrong way to
grieve — but there are ways to make your grieving
more complete and more positive.
WHAT IS GRIEF?
The definition of grief includes: emotions and sensations
that accompany the loss of someone or something dear
to you. The English word comes from the Old French
grève, meaning a heavy burden. This makes sense
when you consider that grief often weighs you down
with sorrow and other emotions that can have both
psychological and physical consequences.
When someone close to you dies, you don’t just
lose that person on the physical level, you also face
the loss of what might have been. Your pain can involve
missing that person’s presence: sleeping in
a bed that’s half empty, craving a scent or
an embrace. But knowing that your loved one will miss
all of the milestones in your life often lasts longer
than the pain of the physical absence. This may include
the children that were never born, the trips not taken,
colleges not attended, weddings not danced at —
every life marker can be a reminder and an occasion
for renewed grief.
ARE THERE STAGES OF GRIEF?
|How You Respond to a Particular
|How the person died
||Your response to an unanticipated death —
a sudden heart attack, an accident, an act of
violence — may be very different from
the grief you feel when someone you love dies
after a long illness. In the latter case, you
may experience anticipatory grief, which occurs
before the person’s death. You’re
just as devastated when the death happens, but
because you started grieving earlier, you may
be able to recover sooner.
|Your relationship with the person
||The closeness of the relationship —
spouse, parent, sibling, child — plays
a role, of course. In the case of a blood relative,
another factor is whether the person was a daily
or regular presence in your life. Then there’s
the psychological nature of the relationship:
was it smooth or rocky? If you had unfinished
emotional business with the person you lost,
if your last interaction was angry or otherwise
fraught, that can intensify your experience
|Your personality and coping style
||If you’re a normally resilient person,
you may feel just as much pain over a loss as
someone whose normal state is depressive or
emotionally vulnerable, but you may find it
easier to recover your equilibrium and to enjoy
life again. People who have trouble coping with
the setbacks of daily life will have a more
difficult time recovering from a serious personal
|Your life experience
||What you’ve learned about loss from
other people and from your own experience can
inform how you handle the loss of someone you
|Support from others
||As you’ll see below, it’s essential
that you have people in your life who will help
sustain you emotionally as you grieve. It’s
also important that your friends and family
take your loss as seriously as you do. If you
lose a cousin or friend who was more like a
sibling, your grief shouldn’t be dismissed
as less important than that of an immediate
relative. Many people downplay miscarriage,
even if, to the parents, it represents the death
of a baby. Nor does it matter how old the person
was who died, or how sick. You lost someone
you love, it hurts, and you need the support
of people who care about you.
In 1969, based on her years of working with terminal
cancer patients, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
introduced what became known as the “five stages
of grief.” While these stages represented the
feelings of people who were themselves facing death,
many people now apply them to experiencing other negative
life changes (a break-up, loss of a job) and to people
facing death or experiencing the death of loved ones.
Kübler-Ross proposed these stages of grief:
- Denial: “This
can’t be happening to me.”
- Anger: “Why is
this happening? Who is to blame?”
- Bargaining: “Make
this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
- Depression: “I’m
too sad to do anything.”
- Acceptance: “I’m
at peace with what is going to happen/has
However, Kübler-Ross herself never intended for
these stages to be a rigid framework that applies
to everyone who mourns. In her last book before her
death in 2004, she said of the five stages, “They
were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into
neat packages. They are responses to loss that many
people have, but there is not a typical response
to loss, as there is no typical loss.
grieving is as individual as our lives.”
There is no timetable for grieving.
While the sense of loss and the intermittent sadness
may never go away completely, people experience the
cycle of grief differently. Some find that within
a few weeks or months the period between waves of
distress lengthens, and they are able to feel peace,
renewed hope, and enjoy life more and more of the
time. Others may face years of being hit with what
feels like relentless waves of grief.
Mourning often involves a culturally appropriate process
to help people pass through their grief. While many
cultures mourn differently, the mourning processes
usually have common ideals: acknowledging and accepting
the death, saying farewell, grieving for a specific
time period, and some means for continuing to honor
the deceased. And finally, mourners are encouraged
to move beyond their loss and form new attachments.
Different cultures often define what is appropriate
behavior for various family members, as well as the
role of children during the mourning process.
COPING WITH GRIEF AND LOSS
The single most important factor in healing from loss
is having the support of other people. Even if you
aren’t comfortable talking about your feelings
under normal circumstances, it is important to talk
about them when you’re grieving. Knowing that
others know and understand your grieving will make
you feel better, less alone with your pain, and will
help you heal.
Support can come from a number of different sources:
|Finding Support After
||Let people who care about you take care of
you, even if you take pride in being strong
and self-sufficient. Especially when you live
away from family, true friends can offer shoulders
for you to cry on until you begin to recover.
||The death of a relative can create a path
for reunion, and even reconciliation, among
surviving relatives. (It can also tear families
apart, especially in the case of a sudden or
violent death, so it’s important to be
sensitive to one another’s approaches
to grief and to refrain from accusation.) Sharing
your loss can make the burden of grief easier
to carry. Reminiscing about the person all of
you lost may help everyone recover. If you’ve
lost a friend or spouse, family members can
form a caring community.
|Your faith community
||If you follow a religious tradition, embrace
the comfort its mourning rituals can provide.
Allow people within your religious community
to give you emotional support. If you’re
estranged from your faith community or have
none, this may be a good time to reconnect or
to explore alternatives.
||There are many support groups for people who
are grieving, including specialized groups (such
as, people who have lost children, survivors
|Therapists and other professionals
||Talking with a psychotherapist or grief counselor
may be a good idea if the intensity of your
grief doesn’t diminish over time —
that is, months go by and you still have physical
symptoms, such as trouble with eating or sleeping;
or your emotional state impairs your ability
to go about your daily routine.
Wherever the support comes from, accept it and do
not grieve alone
. One of the key elements
of healthy grieving is allowing your emotions to surface
in order to work through them. In the long run, trying
to suppress your feelings in the hope that they’ll
fade with time won’t work. Blocking the grieving
process will delay or disable your ability to eventually
If people don’t know what they can do to help,
tell them — whether it’s going with you
to a movie, cooking a meal for you, or just holding
you as you cry. If someone is uncomfortable with your
displays of emotion or your need to talk about the
person you lost, gently let him or her know that talking
out your grief is part of your healing process.
Helping yourself cope with grief and loss
GRIEVING A SUICIDE
- Express your feelings in a tangible
or creative way. Write about your
loved one in a journal, or write the person
a letter saying the things you never got
to say. Create a scrapbook or artwork about
the person; create an appropriate memorial
in his or her honor (for example, if the
person loved flowers, plant or fund a garden);
get involved in a cause or organization
that was important to him or her.
- Take care of yourself physically.
Get enough sleep, eat sensibly, and engage
in regular exercise. Do not use alcohol
or drugs to numb the pain of grief or lift
your mood artificially. (That may even apply
to antidepressants meant to ease the sadness
of grief; because grief, unlike depression,
is not a disorder, masking the pain with
meds may be less productive than working
through the sadness.) Healthy habits will
help you with grieving, but substance use
will impede recovery and can lead to long-term
- Don’t let other people
tell you how to feel, and don’t tell
yourself how to feel either. Your
grief is your own, and no one else can tell
you when it’s time to “move
on” or “get over it.”
At the same time, it’s okay to be
angry at the person who died, to cry every
day if you need to, to yell at the heavens
without being embarrassed. Conversely, it’s
okay to laugh, too. If watching the entire
oeuvre of the Marx Brothers helps you heal,
no one has the right to tell you it’s
- Plan ahead. Anniversaries,
holidays, and milestones in life can be
particularly challenging. Be prepared for
an emotional wallop, and know that it’s
completely normal. If you’re sharing
a holiday or lifecycle event with other
relatives, talk to them ahead of time about
their expectations and agree on strategies
to honor the person you loved.
The suicide of a loved one raises painful questions,
doubts and fears. Some cultures see it as shameful
or an affront to God. Survivors ask themselves: Why
wasn’t my love enough to save this person? What
could I have done? How did I fail? What will people
think? Feelings of failure, shame and blame exacerbate
the sorrow of loss.
It’s important that, in addition to the healing
strategies described above, you do the following if
you lose someone you love to suicide:
between grief and depression
- If you have religious concerns, try to
find a gentle, nonjudgmental member of your
faith, and be open when talking with that
person about what happened, and about your
- Rather than being concerned about the
stigma surrounding suicide, concentrate
on your own healing and survival.
- Confront the word suicide, difficult
as it may be. If you keep the cause of death
a secret, you won’t be able to speak
freely about the person you lost, and you’ll
block a pathway to recovery.
- Talk openly with your family and friends
so that everyone’s grief can be expressed.
- Do something that will benefit others
in your loved one’s name.
If you are grieving, you may experience a number of
depressive symptoms, such as frequent crying, profound
sadness, and depressed mood. However, while major
depression is categorized as a psychological disorder,
grief is not. Grief is a normal and healthy response
to bereavement, not an illness. Its symptoms are painful,
but they serve an adaptive purpose.
The American Psychiatric Association states that,
as a general rule, normal grief does not warrant the
use of antidepressants. While medication may alleviate
some of the symptoms of grief, it cannot treat the
cause, which is the loss itself. Furthermore, by numbing
the pain that must be worked through eventually, antidepressants
delay the mourning process. When grief continues to
be a disruptive and debilitating presence, you may
be suffering from depression. If you have a prior
history of depression or lack social support, you
are particularly at risk.
Symptoms that suggest a bereaved person is
- Intense feelings of guilt.
- Thoughts of suicide or preoccupation
- Feelings of worthlessness.
- Slow speech and body movements.
- Inability to function at work, home,
- Finds no pleasure in previously-enjoyed
- Hallucinations of the deceased.
If you develop major depression following the death
of a loved one, you may benefit from professional
Ellen Jaffe–Gill, M.A., Melinda Smith, M.A.,
and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., contributed to this article.
Last modified on: 12/14/07.
Reprinted with permission from http://www.helpguide.org/.
C 2008 Helpguide.org. All rights reserved.
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