By Helen Preston, counsellor
Grief manifests itself in many ways but is not necessarily a very easy thing to describe. According to the dictionary definition, it consists of:
“Intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death. ‘She was overcome with grief.’ Sorrow, misery, sadness, anguish, pain, distress, agony, torment, affliction, suffering, heartache, heartbreak, broken-heartedness, heaviness of heart, woe, desolation, despondency, dejection, despair, angst, mortification.”
Grief can also express itself in a number of ways. It can take the form of an emotional, physical, behavioural or cognitive response. For example, at an emotional level, a grieving person may feel shock, yearning, helplessness, relief or guilt.
Common physical sensations include a hollowness in the stomach, tightness in the throat, breathlessness or lack of energy. In behavioural terms, grief may manifest itself in the form of disturbed sleep, crying, absent-mindedness, a feeling of searching or reliance on drugs or alcohol. Cognitive responses could include feelings of disbelief, confusion, general preoccupation and even hallucinations.
But it is worth bearing in mind that death is not the only cause of grief. Other situations that also spark this emotion include divorce, the ending of important relationships, losing a job, moving away from the place you grew up, leaving a school in which you were happy, becoming disabled or losing your home.
Most people are able to process their grief naturally and, while they may experience intense bouts of sadness, they can still feel hope and will eventually find happiness again. That said, there is no right way to grieve. Even though rifts are created in some families because members make judgements over others on what grieving should look like, in reality, each individual has to find their own path and what works best for them.
It is common to hear of the five stages of grief first identified by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler Ross in her ground-breaking book, ‘On Death and Dying’, which was published in 1969. These stages consist of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Author and expert David Kessler also discussed the possibility of a sixth stage – that of ‘meaning’. But it is important to recognise that not everyone will experience all of these stages, and they can appear in no particular order, maybe more than once.
How counselling can help
Experiencing grief can be a confusing and emotional time. It often feels isolating and scary, but speaking to someone else about how you feel can help you process your emotions. It can also help to reassure you that what you are going through is ‘normal’ and you are not you going mad.
In particular, if you continue to experience grief over a long period of time, you might benefit from support to help you process the emotion in a healthier way. Maybe you did not have the time or opportunity to process it when your loss took place, but it may still be affecting you in some way. You may feel depressed or stuck.
Immediately following a loss, there are generally lots of distractions and plenty of support. But then the dust settles, people go back to their busy lives and presume you are fine. You do not want to ‘burden’ your friends with your sad feelings and so say you feel OK when you do not.
It is here that counselling comes in. Counsellors are trained to listen without judgment, to empathise rather than sympathise. Moreover, speaking your feelings out loud may help you to make sense of them.
There are many instances when a grieving person may need support to find a way through the dark times and discover meaning in life again – and grief related to suicide is one of those. There are so many additional emotions and complications that are linked to this situation, not least the social judgments that are all too often made.
It can be hard for friends to support this type of grief and to realise that the grieving person needs a voice rather than to feel silenced by the discomfort of others. In Western culture, we find talking about death tricky at the best of times. But when someone choses to end their own life, we tend to draw conclusions that only serve to perpetuate the myths, while failing to help the sufferer get any closer to the often unanswerable question of ‘why’?
Other circumstances that can have a particular impact on grievers include losing a child or young person or suffering a sudden and unexpected loss or death.
Learning to heal and grow
To sum up, here are some apt but poignant words that have been adapted by a member of Compassionate Friends USA:
If you think you are going mad – that’s normal
If all you do is cry – that’s normal
If you have trouble with most minor decisions – that’s normal
If you can’t taste your food or have no appetite – that’s normal
If you feel rage, denial, depression – that’s normal
If you find yourself enjoying a funny moment and then feel guilty – that’s normal
If you feel angry when someone says “it was God’s will” – that’s normal
If you can’t talk about it but can smash dishes and kick the dustbin – that’s normal
If you can share your story with an understanding listener – that’s a beginning
If you can get a glimpse of the person’s life rather than their death – that’s wonderful
If you can remember with a smile – that’s healing
If you find your mirrors have become windows and you can reach out to another bereaved person – that’s growing.
Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate.
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