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Grief is what we feel when we experience loss in our lives. For many of us, grief arises as a result of major, life-changing events. We all grieve when someone close to us dies. Many of us also experience feelings of loss or mourning when we lose a job, end a relationship, suffer from serious injury or illness, or suffer through other challenging or traumatic experiences. Oftentimes, big life changes, like moving to a new home or entering retirement, can also trigger feelings of bereavement.
Coping with grief can be one of life’s greatest challenges. While grieving, you may be overwhelmed with uncomfortable emotions, ranging from rage and disbelief to sorrow and depression. You might struggle with day-to-day tasks, struggling to eat, sleep, and engage in proper self-care.
What are the stages of grief? What does the grieving process look like? How can we learn to process our emotions and find a sense of acceptance following loss? The following suggestions may help you better process grief the next time you experience loss in your life.
Grief: Truths and Falsehoods
Grief is a complicated process. The truth is, many of the misconceptions we have about grief make us feel as though the way we process our feelings is abnormal.
Some people believe you should simply move on from grief as quickly as possible. This, however, is hardly a successful long-term solution. By suppressing your feelings of grief, you’ll be more likely to struggle with complicated emotions for a longer period of time. Instead of “staying strong,” accept that feeling sad, lonely, and hurt are normal and healthy reactions to loss. Show your true feelings, and accept them for what they are.Realize that there is no “right” way to grieve, and no proper time-frame for processing loss. Some people may cry constantly, whereas others may feel deep grief without ever shedding a tear. Some people may be overwhelmed with emotions, whereas others may feel numbed by the experience. One person may feel better after a few days of grieving, whereas others might still be struggling with complicated emotions for a year or more. All of these reactions are normal. What is most important is to experience the emotions caused by grief and work through them, rather than avoiding them.
Some people cling to grief because they feel that moving on with their lives means forgetting about their loss. If you’ve grieved the loss of a spouse or partner, however, you shouldn’t feel guilty about entering into a new relationship if you find yourself falling in love again. Moving on means you’ve accepted your loss; this doesn’t mean that you’ve forgotten the past, or that you’re disrespecting the memories of what happened before. There is a life after grief. Don’t feel guilty about finally feeling better. Moving forward is a good thing.
Symptoms of Grief
Grief can affect us in a number of different ways. You may find that you experience different grief symptoms in different situations. A number of emotional symptoms are particularly common. Shortly after a startling loss, you may experience a sense of shock and disbelief. Losing something or someone that has been a major part of your life can be very hard to comprehend at first. You may also experience feelings of guilt. All of us know that we could have done things differently in life. We may feel that if we had said something else, acted differently, or responded sooner, we wouldn’t have experienced this loss. Though some feelings of guilt may be valid, we often feel guilty even when there was little that we could have done. No matter how we behave, loss is sometimes inevitable.
Anger is a very common emotion during the grieving process. Even if the loss appears to have been no one’s fault, we may be bitter and resentful for having to experience such pain. We may blame ourselves, God, or others. Anger is our way of seeking to attribute blame in the face of loss. This is a normal response, even if our feelings of anger are misdirected.
Fear is another common response to grief. A significant loss can make us feel powerless and insecure. You may experience flashbacks, panic attacks, or worried thoughts about the future.
Sadness is perhaps the most universal symptom of grief. You may feel empty, lonely, and despairing. You’ll likely feel upset, and may cry or feel sensitive and emotionally volatile. Naturally, these feelings are to be expected when working through the grieving process.
Pay attention to your physical health while grieving, too. You may experience a change in appetite, nausea, weight loss or weight gain, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, aches and pains, or other related symptoms. Though experiencing such symptoms is normal, more serious and prolonged symptoms may be a sign of other issues, such as clinical anxiety or major depression, which may develop after particularly significant losses. If you feel that your symptoms are prolonged and are beginning to significantly affect your quality of life, consult a healthcare professional to develop a plan for further treatment.
The Stages of Grief
Researchers have identified five common stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Across cultures, individuals experiencing grief often cycle through these emotional stages. Though not all individuals experience these emotions in this exact order, many progress through this emotional cycle in a similar manner. Once we’ve recovered from the shock immediately following a loss, we cycle into anger and frustration. Then, bargaining occurs. Bargaining is defined by “what if…” statements. We think that if we had acted differently in the past, things might have happened differently. Depression may be the most prolonged stage of grief, as we struggle to process the emptiness following our loss. Ultimately, we reach a state of acceptance. We may not be “all right,” and may never be happy with our new reality, but we have accepted that our life must go on. Grief experts now argue that it may be beneficial to add a sixth stage of grief, meaning, to the existing model. By honoring our loved ones and our past and moving forward in a way that helps us find greater meaning following a loss, we can lead more peaceful, purposeful lives.
Processing Grief & Engaging in Self-Care
Dealing with grief can be challenging. Even so, it is important to work through your feelings. Accept your feelings, and strive to process them in a way that works for you. Journal about your feelings, or post in a grief forum online. If you’re processing a death, perhaps make a scrapbook or print out your favorite photos of your loved one. Consider writing a letter to someone you’ve lost, expressing the things you never had a chance to say. Simply the act of writing out your feelings can be therapeutic and healing.
Take care of yourself, both mentally and physically. Eat well, sleep enough, and engage in healthy physical activities like aerobic exercise, walking, and yoga. Get back into your routine, and stick to the hobbies you enjoy.
Reach out to others, too. Instead of isolating yourself, strive to connect with those you care about. Turn to close friends and family members. Know that some people may not know how to comfort you; finding the “right thing” to say to those who are grieving can be difficult. If you’re religious, consider investing more time and energy in your spiritual practice. Perhaps reach out to leaders in your religious community for advice, guidance, and support. If you’re in need of more targeted assistance, consider talking to a grief counselor or therapist. Look for grief support groups in your area if you think you could benefit from discussing your loss with others. Even if you’ve gone through something you perceive as a “minor” loss, it is important to acknowledge your grief for what it is. By taking care of yourself, verbalizing your emotions, and reconnecting with others, you can process your pain and eventually heal from your loss.
Remember, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. It is possible for grief to last longer than you expect it to. If, however, the pain of your loss continues to be severe for a longer period of time, it is important to consider whether or not you may be experiencing another form of psychological pain tied to your loss. “Complicated grief,” which may involve more severe and lasting symptoms of grief, can manifest as a form of trauma, such as PTSD. Severe grief may also trigger or worsen mental illness, making individuals more prone to developing anxiety or depression.
Though antidepressants aren’t recommended for those who are experiencing normal grief, it can be important to talk to a mental health professional if your grief is continuing to significantly impact your quality of life. Treatment can help alleviate the symptoms of complicated grief and depression. If you are feeling as though your life is no longer worth living, or are experiencing symptoms of major depression, such as constant feelings of guilt, emotional numbness, or an inability to perform daily tasks, it is important to talk to a grief counselor or professional therapist. By getting the help that you need, you’ll be able to recover, allowing you to move beyond your grief and into a life of greater purpose and meaning.
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