‘Grief’ is the word we use to describe the feelings and reactions that we have when we lose someone we care about or something we value. Grief affects everyone: it is the universal reaction to loss. It is painful and stressful, but also natural, normal and necessary.
This information will focus on the feelings and reactions we are most likely to experience after a death, but feelings of grief and some of the reactions we go onto describe also affect people at the end of an important relationship, or following some other major loss.
Thoughts and Feelings
There are no right or wrong reactions to death. We all need to grieve in our own way and in our own time. For some this might mean crying, for others not. For some this is likely to take months and years, for others not. Reactions and feelings can change from hour to hour, and day to day. Some days are good while others are bad; some days you’ll be up and others down again.
Over time the emotional swings will lessen in intensity as you learn to adapt to your changed circumstances, but to begin with it can be hard.
The following is a summary of the most common feelings
- Shock and disbelief. It can take quite some time for news of the death to sink in. You don’t want to believe it – who would? You can’t believe it, not at first.
- Loss. You’ve lost so much – the person, their love, their friendship, their companionship, intimacy, opportunities, hopes… and accompanying the loss can be a deep sense of sadness.
- Guilt and regret. Maybe you regret having said that hurtful thing or not visiting the previous week as you’d promised. You feel bad for feeling angry. Some will feel “survivor guilt” – to be alive when another is dead. If the death was suicide, feelings of regret and guilt will probably be heightened. You might also feel shame or blame yourself.
- Injustice. Why did s/he have to die so young? Why did this have to happen to me? It’s not fair!
- Envy. You might envy others for having what you don’t have – the friend, lover, mother, father… that you have just lost. You could also envy others their apparently carefree lives.
- Anger. You might feel angry with the world or with people for: –
- causing the death
- not being able to cure the illness
- not understanding your feelings
- making thoughtless remarks
- carrying on with life and having fun.
- You might feel angry with yourself too, for what you did or did not do. But perhaps most difficult of all, you might feel angry with the dead person for dying and abandoning you and for the pain you are suffering as a result of their death.
- Loneliness. Grieving can be a lonely process. You may feel that no-one can possibly understand what you are going through or that no-one cares. And you might have just lost someone who played a big part in your life.
- Depression. Feeling low is a natural part of the mourning process. For a time you could lose interest in life and feel that there’s no point in going on. At worst you might feel despair.
- Relief. You might feel relieved, especially if the death follows a long illness or if the person’s life has been reduced to a shadow of what it once was e.g. through advanced old age.
- And finally you might feel as if these reactions will go on forever, which of course they won’t.
You might wish to avoid such difficult feelings, but for the process of healing to occur (and it will, given half a chance!) the pain of grief has to be experienced and expressed.
Effect on Behaviour
Grief also affects our behaviour and functioning. You may find it affects you in some or all of the following ways:
Sleep disruption. You may find that you can’t get to sleep, or can’t stay asleep, or that you wake early.
Loss of appetite. You might not feel like eating, or you may feel sick when you do.
Restlessness. You may find it hard to relax and ‘switch off’. Your mind goes into overdrive trying to make sense of what has happened, especially when you are alone or in bed at night.
Exhaustion. Grief is stressful, and if you are also not sleeping or eating well, you are bound to feel tired and worn down.
Preoccupation. You might be so preoccupied with thoughts of the dead person that you imagine seeing or hearing her/him. (You are not going mad – this is quite common!)
Anxiety and panic. With so many powerful and unfamiliar feelings aroused, you might become anxious – that you’re going crazy (which you’re not) or that something terrible might happen.
Inability to cope. You might find it difficult to cope with ordinary, everyday things like shopping, cooking, your work.
Loss of interest. Things that were once a source of great pleasure to you now feel meaningless and tiresome.
Irritability. You might find yourself ‘snapping’ even if you are not the sort of person who normally reacts in this way.
Tearfulness. You might cry a lot; in fact, sometimes it’s all you can do. Crying can bring relief as it is an outlet for the emotions, tension and strain that have built up.
Other physical symptoms. Palpitations, nausea, dizziness, tightness in the throat and digestive problems – all can be experienced during grieving. If you are concerned, consult an occupational health nurse counsellor or your GP.
These are all normal and understandable reactions to bereavement and a natural part of the mourning process. Given time, support and understanding they will lessen and eventually disappear.
Ways of Coping
Most of us have within ourselves greater reserves of strength than we are aware of. Mostly we don’t need to call upon them, but when we are grieving we do. There may be times when you feel that it is all too much and that you can’t cope – but with the help of friends and these inner resources you will.
The following can also help:
Ask for help. It’s not always easy and it takes courage. Start by accepting that you need help. Ask someone you feel you can trust – eg a friend. It may make sense to seek counselling – many people get help following a bereavement.
Talk about it – “get it off your chest”. It brings relief and helps you clarify and understand what has been going round and round in your head. It also helps counteract feelings of isolation. Again choose someone you feel you can trust. Even talk to a favourite pet.
Express yourself in some other way. If you don’t feel like talking, see whether you can write about your feelings and experience. Choose a form you feel comfortable with – a diary, letter, prose, poetry, song… If you can’t find the words to describe what you’re feeling try “speaking” about your experience through song, painting, Let shape, form, texture, colour, rhythm be your words.
Keep some mementos – some photos or jewellery, a piece of clothing, anything that helps you to remember the person who has died. Remembering can be painful to begin with, but over time painful memories will be replaced by ones that can give you pleasure and comfort.
Get some exercise. This might be the last thing you feel like doing, but it will help. Exercise uses up excess energy and it’s also a way of expressing some of the frustration and aggression you might be feeling.
Listen to music. Many people find music has the power to get through to us in a way that nothing else can. Choose music to suit your mood. At other times you may need to take your mind off the bereavement. Use music to help you escape for a time.
Take good care of yourself. You may feel you can’t be bothered or that there’s no point, but it will help. Eat well, bath or shower regularly and get the sleep and rest that you need. Some people attempt to block out their feelings using alcohol or drugs – but these only bring short-term relief and merely serve to postpone the process of grieving.
Trust yourself. Within reason, follow your feelings and reactions. If you want to be alone, or to go out and be with people, then do that. Remind yourself as often as you need to that ‘it is normal to feel the way I do’ following a bereavement. Acceptance allows your feelings to be expressed and understood – an important part of the healing process.
Go easy on yourself. Don’t expect too much of yourself too soon – grieving takes time. Take each moment or hour as it comes. Concentrate on living through the present and don’t worry too much about tomorrow or next week. Give yourself credit for surviving each day.
Back to the Future
After the initial shock most people begin, albeit slowly, to adjust to living without the person who has died. The time it takes to adjust is different for each person. The change is usually gradual, but over time you will feel less and less overwhelmed and preoccupied by the loss.
To begin with you may think about what happened and about the person who has died almost constantly, but in time you will begin to ‘forget’ – at first just for a few minutes, then for hours and eventually for days at a time. This is not a betrayal and it does not mean that you love them any less. It is perfectly natural to not think about someone – we do it all the time with our living friends and family. People, living or dead, do not cease to exist for you when you stop thinking about them. You will always have your memories and the times you spent with them. Nothing can take that away from you.
In time you will be able to give your attention and emotions to others and begin to get on with the rest of your life.
The goal of the grieving process is to learn to live with loss. As you grieve, life will slowly begin to feel meaningful and enjoyable once more. There will be times, though, when you are taken by surprise – a piece of music or a place may remind you of the person who has died and you will find yourself flooded by grief all over again. This, too, will lessen in time.
Special days or anniversaries, especially the first one or two after the death, can be difficult. Some people find it helpful to plan for these anniversaries and to mark them in some quite personal way. Our counsellors are aware of the issues involved in bereavement and mourning and have considerable experience in this field.
If you would like to speak with one of our counsellors please contact via the occupational health service for details.