Grief is a shocking and bewildering experience, and not something to be ‘got over’ in a matter of weeks or months. Grief is a long and individual process, and no two people ever experience it in the same way.
Grief itself isn’t an illness. It’s normal for a bereaved person not to feel normal. He or she will frequently become sad, relieved, angry, forgetful, calm, bad-tempered, cheerful, despairing, anxious and exhausted … possibly all on the same day.
Although people are individuals and mourn in different ways at different times, there are some recognised expressions of grief. These have been called the “stages of grief” but be careful of seeing them as the sequential symptoms of an illness, which follow a regular order. Not everyone will experience all these expressions of grief, but the following are the aspects that people have most commonly reported. They do not necessarily come in the order listed below, and they often overlap.
In bereavement, the cause of shock is obvious. What is not so obvious is how shock manifests itself. It may be expressed as denial of the reality of the death, numbness or a feeling of impassively ‘going through the motions’ during the events that follow a death. Shock also brings with it feelings that we more normally associate with fear, such ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, loss of appetite or edginess. This is because when we feel threatened or alarmed about anything, our bodies release certain chemicals, meant to help us to escape or fight an aggressor. These adrenaline surges can make us feel panicky and breathless.
Other physical symptoms of shock include insomnia, loss of weight, headaches, heartburn, a susceptibility to infection, clumsiness and lack of concentration.
The “searching” aspect of bereavement is a strong urge to look for the person who has died, pining because they cannot be found. Though the rational mind knows there is no point in searching, the desire to keep on looking is irrepressible.
This searching instinct can lead the bereaved to see the face of the loved one in crowds or supermarkets or on trains. Some people touch and feel clothes of the person who has died because the smell or the visual memory makes them seem closer. Quite often people will talk of ‘seeing’ the departed in the house, or ‘hearing’ them or even ‘smelling’ them. Such glimpses can be frightening, but they are a normal reaction to loss. Sometimes the searching is evident in repeated visits to the cemetery, in the hope of finding the person again.
Anger and resentment are common expressions of grief. The anger is a need to find someone to blame for the loss. The doctors may become targets, or a solicitor or bank manager. The bereaved will often blame themselves for some perceived failure.
Death disrupts the lives that we struggle to build and snatches away our sense of security by taking someone we love. As a result the world now feels cruel and unsafe to the bereaved, who for some time may react with fear, anger and irritability to trivial happenings.
Depression is the normal human reaction to loss of any sort. Bereavement is such a large loss that it is not surprising that feelings of depression or sadness can last for a long time. Earlier experiences of shock, searching and anger are all initial reactions to a death. They occur because parts of us cannot yet believe or accept what has happened. Depression, however, comes when we accept the reality of the loss, and react to it.
Depression may take the form of crying bouts, tiredness, disturbance of normal sleep rhythms, loss of interest in things around us, or loss of concentration. One person described it as the world losing colour.
Despite any well-intentioned advice to “snap out of it”, depression is not something that people can just shake off. It is a physical and mental condition, which takes time to heal. Sometimes those suffering depression due to loss of a loved one need professional help from doctors or counsellors.
This is the point when the bereaved come to terms with, accept and adapt to the loss. They may still feel pangs of grief prompted by a photograph or a particular memory, but can begin to enjoy good memories too. In no sense is the loved one now forgotten, but the pain has lessened.
Bereavement is not as tidy as these steps suggest, because the reactions of human beings are complex. But one thing is certain: if we were newly bereaved and went to sleep for two years, we wouldn’t wake up to find ourselves in the resolution “stage” without having passed through the pain of the others. Time by itself isn’t the great healer, but the passing of time brings the opportunity to grieve and come through the ordeal.
How to help the bereaved
Spending time with a bereaved person can be a great source of comfort. The simple fact of your presence may be enough to help. However, it is just as important to give the bereaved person space to be alone if they desire. It is also important that a bereaved person is able to talk to and cry with someone without being told to ‘pull it together.’ People sometimes find it hard to understand why the bereaved often talk and become distressed about the same feelings and events over and over again. But this is an important part of the healing process that should be encouraged.
The key to rebuilding a life after dealing with a death is to realise that life will never be as it was before. There has been an irrevocable change, and the journey through grief engendered by that loss will end in adapting to the change, not in trying to pretend that the change has not happened.
(With grateful acknowledgements to The Bereavement Centre for the guidance on which this is based)