“Grief” is defined by a typical dictionary as follows: “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow.” When you lose a loved one, there are predictable emotions that arise shortly after, and over the course of time, that can pose immense challenges if not properly navigated. If you do not navigate the emotions of grief, you may experience debilitating depression, anxiety, or fear that could keep you feeling hopelessly stuck.
In the field of bereavement counseling, it has been long recognized that there are important aspects of the grieving process that come up after the loss of a loved one. These stages of grief allow the individual to navigate the difficult emotions and achieve some sense of healing despite the fact that loss is permanent. That being said, it is important to note that different cultures, different families, and different individuals will all have somewhat varied responses to the loss of a loved one. It is most important for friends of survivors to know how to meet a grieving individual where they are (and not where we think they should be).
Elizabeth Kubler Ross defined 5 basic stages of grief that can help us understand the inevitable wave of emotions that will be experienced by survivors. Each individual will go through the stages differently and even at different times. Some people will cycle through the stages several different times, with varying degrees of intensity.
1. The first stage of grief is described as denial and isolation. Quite often the initial reaction to news about the loss of a loved one is to refuse to believe that they are really gone. You may block out the words and hide from the facts as a temporary way to buffer the shock. It is normal to deny the facts and/or to isolate from others at first in an attempt to survive the overwhelming emotions.
2. The second stage of grief involves feeling anger. As shock and denial wear off, you may experience anger in an effort to deflect the intense emotions from your core. You could express anger at inanimate objects, people, or at the loved one who “left”. This is all normal and can play an important role in navigating grief.
3. The third stage of grief is known as bargaining where we may try to make deals with God and use “if only” statements. “If only I had gotten them to the doctor more quickly,” or “if only I had been a better person toward them.” The bargaining stage is a normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability.
4. Depression may occur during the fourth stage of grief. You may feel sadness and regret in reaction to the loss. Another type of depression during this phase may involve a more subtle and private way to quietly prepare to bid farewell to your loved one. During this more subtle phase, all you may need is a hug from someone who is kind and caring.
5. Acceptance marks the fifth stage which is a gift that is not afforded to everyone. Some individuals may never be able to move beyond denial and anger, while others will go on to accept the “new normal” of living with the hole that is left by the departed loved one. The best thing you can do for yourself is to give yourself permission to feel the emotions that come over you. Resisting the feelings will only prolong the natural process of healing.
Some things you can do within the first 30 days after the loss of your loved one are as follows:
1. Set aside time to grieve and feel your feelings.
2. Accept help from others. Ask for help with meals, help in protecting your schedule from too many intrusions, or ask them to simply sit with you when you are lonely. Feel free to tell them what is helpful to you and what may not be as helpful to you. People need to know what works for you since every individual’s needs are different and your loved ones cannot read your mind.
3. Take care of yourself. Be sure to eat nourishing foods at regular intervals, drink water, make time for sleep. The stress of grieving can cause some individuals to forget some of these basics.
4. Read a book, watch a video, or join a group that contains people who are going through the same thing you are going through. This helps you feel less alone in the grief and it gives you valuable information during a very stressful time.
5. Remember the good times. Look at old photographs, watch videos, tell stories about your deceased loved one.
One thing I found to be helpful for me during this recent loss of my Grandma, was to go to her home and look at all the photographs on her walls – photographs of all of us (her grandkids, children, great-grandchildren). I had the privilege of taking a few moments by myself to stand in her room and say goodbye to her amidst all her earthly belongings.