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Grief is a misunderstood and neglected process that is a part of life, just as much as life and death. Everyone at some point in life will experience some type of loss which will lead them to the grieving process.
A loss is defined as the experience of losing something. While, grief is the normal process of reacting to a loss that includes emotional, physical, cognitive, behavioral and social aspects.
Bereavement is a period after a loss when a person experiences grief. This time frame is different for each person and can usually range from one month to a year. A person going through a grieving period is referred as the bereaved.
Our society has many misunderstandings on grief and how to process it effectively. Common misunderstandings include:
- You should only show emotions at funeral
- You should be over the loss in 6 months
- Telling someone who is suffering to “move on with life”
- Telling someone “you shouldn’t feel that way”
The grieving process is caused by a loss. This loss does not have to be a death although this is what most grief is associated with. This can be a loss of anything: a job, a lot of money, divorce, a decline in health, a disability, your identity or even a breakup.
As a hospice nurse, I see people who experience loss and grief on a daily basis. I thought I had a good handle on grief until about two years ago. Several factors changed in my personal life and I experienced another form of grief. I had some health issues that had changed me from an active person to a person who could hardly get out of bed. When I would get up and go I would fade fast and I could hardly breathe. I had changed from being a single person to getting married and becoming a wife. I lost my job. My last child officially moved out of the house. I had always prided myself on being a great mother and a hard-working employee, Now with the changes in my life, I felt lost and unknown.
My children still needed me but not 24/7 the way I was used to (they grew up and went to college). I lost my job (I was still a nurse but felt robbed, like I did not do an excellent job, although this was not the case). I did not know who I was anymore or my purpose, on top of unknown health issues. As time went by, I slowly improved with my health (still the issues are unknown, and I am still healing but I can work and breath), I got back to work in hospice and after much thought, I found a new purpose…teaching people how to care for others.
Responding to a loss is often awkward and frightening for both those experiencing it and those wanting to help those who are suffering. There have been many studies over the years that continue today about the grieving process, but one thing remains the same: it is a process that is different and unique to each person.
It does not follow a pattern nor is it predictable since every person is individual, their experience will be just as an individual. This is based on culture, faith, personality, and surroundings.
In 1917 Sigmund Freud wrote the first published article on grief and how it related to death. Then in 1973, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote one of the best-known models of the stages of grief:
While Elizabeth Kubler-Ross believed that one should work through each phase completely before moving on to the next phase other research has proven that a grieving person will experience the stages of grief in any order, often repeating stages before the bereavement period is complete.
Despite personal differences in grieving, there are numerous similarities that occur in the grieving process:
- Emotional responses: anxiety, relief, shock, depression, sadness, sorrow and fatigue
- Physical responses: trouble breathing, chest tightness, dizzy, headaches, constipation, muscle weakness, general decline in physical strength
- Cognitive responses: disbelief, confusion, hallucinations, decrease self-esteem, difficulty concentrating
- Behavioral responses: insomnia, appetite changes (increase or decrease), restless or withdrawn, immobile, forgetful, crying or isolation
You might see any of the emotional, physical, cognitive or behavioral response in someone who is grieving. The person grieving must work through their responses over time. Having support from others makes this process much smoother.
Sometimes in life, we can anticipate grief, such as someone living with a terminal health issue and we can start preparing ourselves especially as caregivers for what lies ahead.
How you can help those grieving.
Here are some tips that you can use to help someone who is grieving or prepare yourself for your upcoming grief:
- Don’t let fear or the unknown get in your way of being a friend. Many times, we hear that someone has cancer and there is nothing more medically that can be done and out of fear we no longer visit that person. We might fear not knowing what to say or how to act when in reality they are still the person you have always known, and your love and friendship is what they need.
- Provide practical help not just words of “it will get better”. While these words are common comforting words they are also just words, maybe you could help with daily tasks or a listening ear.
- Be accepting. You must only listen and accept the feelings being expressed by the bereaved. You must not pass on your own judgments. We often think we know how a person should feel or act but until you walk in their shoes, you have no idea.
- Be a good listener: Often times people just need someone to express their thoughts, feelings, and stress with. You do not have to offer a solution instead just listen
- Exercise patience. Allow a person to grieve as long as they need. Although you may have moved on it does not mean they have.
- Encourage self-care. The bereaved needs time to grieve. Often in their grieving, they might forget to take care of themselves. You might need to remind them of self-care.
- Support: They may need your support or presence to help them get back into the world. Isolation can occur easily especially if an elderly person is caring for their spouse for a long time. It is often easier to get out in public with a buddy.
- Encourage group support/therapy: There are many grief groups for people suffering from a loss. These might be general grief group or in larger populated areas they can be specific to a loss, such as dementia or loss of a child. Some people might not find support in a group but prefer one on one counseling.
The best thing you can do is just continue being the family member or friend that you have always been and allowing the bereaved to grieve as they need. Most people will grieve and continue with life in a healthy way but there are times that people are not able to progress and if you feel this is the case for yourself or your loved one please seek medical help.
Click here for a great book on grief that I recommend.
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Please share ways people have helped you process through grief.