If you have experienced the death of someone who was very important to you, you might be finding it very difficult to adjust to the immense changes happening in your life right now. Grief can shake everything up - your beliefs, your personality, and even your sense of reality.
Bereavement is the time we spend adjusting to loss. There is no standard time limit and there is no right or wrong way to feel during the bereavement period - everyone must learn to cope in their own way.
Grief, although normal, can manifest in a huge range of unexpected ways. Some people get angry, some people withdraw further into themselves and some people become completely numb. Sometimes, grief can turn into something more serious - like depression.
Bereavement counselling may be able to provide support during these very difficult times. Talking about the loss often allows a person to adjust to their new life with all its changes - good and bad. Keeping things bottled up or denying the sadness could prolong the pain. Any loss has to be acknowledged for us to move forward. Bereavement counselling tries to help clients find a place for their loss so they can carry on with life and eventually find acceptance.
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What is bereavement?
The word 'bereavement' comes from the ancient German for 'seize by violence'. Sometimes when someone dies, it can feel just like that - like that person has been forcibly taken away. Today the word 'bereavement' is used to describe the period of grief and mourning we go through after someone close to us dies.
When someone you care about suddenly leaves your life, it's not a case of taking time out to recover. 'Recovery' suggests that you will emerge exactly the same as you were before. In reality, all of your experiences shape the person you are, and experiencing the death of someone you care about often has the biggest impact. Bereavement is about trying to accept what happened, learning to adjust to life without that person and finding a place to keep their memory alive while you try to get along as best you can.
Stages of bereavement
During bereavement, it is important to find ways to mourn our loss and express our grief.
The bereavement period can be a confusing time involving a lot of very powerful emotions. These emotions can grow, fade and shift as we move across the different stages of bereavement. Not everyone experiences the same stages of bereavement at the same time or in the same order. However, most people generally go through the following four stages at some point:
- accepting that your loss really happened
- experiencing the pain that comes with grief
- trying to adjust to life without the person who died
- putting less emotional energy into your grief and finding a new place to put it i.e. moving on.
Most people go through all of these stages, but not everyone moves between them smoothly. Sometimes, people get stuck on one stage and find it difficult to move on.
1. Accepting that your loss really happened
Nothing prepares us for the loss of a loved one. Even when a person is ill and we see their death coming for a long time.
Most people experience severe shock when they're told a loved one has died. It takes time to really believe that that person, who only recently seemed so real and tangible, no longer exists.
For a while after a loss, you might find yourself looking out for that person in crowds. You might wake up in the morning and forget momentarily that they have gone. A part of you might hope that everyone was wrong, and the person will return to you somehow.
Accepting that your loss really happened is an essential part of the bereavement process. Without acceptance, you may find it hard to really grieve for your loved one.
2. Experiencing the pain that comes with grief
Grief is the agony you feel inside when you realise that you have lost somebody. Grief is complex. It comes in a million different forms - some people cry for days, some people get angry and lash out, other people withdraw from the world and grieve in their own private way. Different emotions associated with grief include:
- longing (to see them again)
What you feel after a person has died will depend on the relationship you had with that person and the nature of their death. Of course, there is no telling what form your grief will take, and everyone's experience is unique.
As painful as it feels, it is important to let yourself grieve for your loss. Some people lock their emotions inside and try to get on with life as usual. Denying yourself the time to grieve properly could result in complications that prevent you from getting on with life.
3. Trying to adjust to life without them
Once you have accepted your loss and spent time understanding and releasing your emotions, you may eventually find yourself adjusting to a new kind of life. How you cope with this stage will again depend on what kind of relationship you had with the person who died. If you shared your daily life with them, then the changes to your life are likely to be bigger than if you only saw that person once in a while.
When a big gap opens up in your life very suddenly, it can throw everything into complete turmoil. Suddenly, everything can seem different. You may even feel like you've shifted into a different dimension, where nothing is real. The realisation that everyday life goes on even though your own life has been ripped apart can feel like a massive blow. With time however, your feet will hit solid ground again and you will start to adjust to life without them.
4. Moving on
One day you will probably get to a point where life begins to take you on a new route. You may always remember the person who died, and you may continue to grieve for their loss forever - but naturally you will begin to 'move on'. This is not a bad thing. It does not mean you are heartless, or that you are somehow being a traitor to your loved one. It simply means you have found a way to channel your emotions into new things. In other words - you have found a way to cope.
The importance of mourning
Mourning is an important part of bereavement. Mourning involves rituals like funerals, wakes and anniversary celebrations, which help to add structure to an otherwise chaotic and confusing time.
Mourning allows us to say goodbye. Seeing the body, watching the burial, or scattering the ashes is a way of affirming what has happened. As hard as it is, sometimes we need to see evidence that a person really has died before we can truly enter into the grieving process.
Coping with grief
Many people compare their grief to waves rolling onto a beach. Sometimes those waves are calm and gentle, and sometimes they are so big and powerful that they knock you off your feet completely.
Sometimes, the wave of grief can be so powerful that it leads to:
- Not wanting or feeling able to get out of bed.
- Neglecting yourself - not taking care of your hygiene or appearance.
- Not eating properly.
- The feeling that you can't carry on living without the person you've lost.
- Not feeling able to go to work.
- Taking your feelings out on other people.
All of these reactions are normal parts of bereavement - unless they go on for a very long time. If you feel like you are no longer coping with grief very well, you may need some extra help from a bereavement counsellor. Specific reasons for needing professional support include the following:
- You are beginning to drink a lot.
- You are tempted to or starting to take illegal drugs.
- You are having suicidal thoughts.
- You are acting recklessly.
- You are starting to behave violently.
All loss is devastating. However, grief after suicide can be a particularly complex process. Family and friends left behind by a person who dies by suicide often experience an explosion of confusing feelings. Self-directed anger and guilt are natural reactions to suicide. It's easy to start blaming yourself and wondering if you could have done something to help. It's also natural to feel angry at the person themselves. What were they thinking? How could they do this to you? Why didn't they tell you how they were feeling?
Although everyone's grief is different, there are generally thought to be three stages of suicide grief:
1. Numbness or shock - At first you might feel like you've stepped into a slightly different dimension. Everything will feel different and it's possible that you'll even want to distance yourself from others to avoid facing what's happened.
2. Disorganisation - Eventually you will come to a point where you'll be ready to address what's happened. You might feel lonely, depressed and deeply sad at this point. People often have trouble eating, sleeping and functioning normally. It's during this stage that people tend to go over and over the days leading up to their loved one's suicide, agonising over what they could have done and wondering why it happened.
3. Reorganisation - Over time the initial shock and horror of the situation will begin to fade as your loss becomes a part of your life. You will begin to get back into the day-to-day swing of things and soon you will be able to focus on other things in your life.
How to tell if grief has become depression
Unlike depression, grief is not considered a mental disorder. Sorrow, anger, confusion and emptiness are all natural reactions to death. However, when these low feelings last for a very long time, it may be worth seeking additional support. Of course, there is no 'normal' length of time for bereavement. In fact, bereavement never really 'ends'. It's not as if we go through all these stages and then come out the other side all shiny and new and ready to get back on with life. Loss stays under the surface of our lives and continues to permeate long after it first happened. Sometimes all it takes is a certain date, a place, or a song, for all of that grief to come surging back.
So how do you know if grief has become depression? Grief and depression share a number of symptoms, including:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss.
One of the main differences between grief and depression is that grief comes in waves while depression is like a cloud that hangs over everything. Sometimes, a grieving person is able to forget their sadness for certain lengths of time - perhaps when concentrating on something, perhaps when surrounded by people who make them feel happy. Grief is triggered by things - a smell, a sudden memory - while depression is pervasive, cutting through everything.
Signs that grief has turned into depression include:
- feelings of guilt unrelated to your recent loss
- a feeling that you are worthless
- feeling sluggish, drained and confused
- struggle to speak coherently
- difficulty carrying out everyday tasks
If you think you, or someone close to you, is suffering from depression, then it is important to find support as soon as possible.
What is bereavement counselling?
Bereavement counselling is designed to help people cope more effectively with the death of a loved one. Specifically, bereavement counselling can:
- offer an understanding of the mourning process
- explore areas that could potentially prevent you from moving on
- help resolve areas of conflict still remaining
- help you to adjust to a new sense of self
- address possible issues of depression or suicidal thoughts.
You will probably never stop missing the person you lost, but with enough time and the right support, a new life can be pieced together and purpose can be reclaimed.
Bereavement counselling aims to get you to the point where you can function normally - however long it takes. One day, you may be able to find happiness again. By creating a place to keep the person you lost, and finding ways to remember them (like anniversary celebrations, or leaving flowers at a memorial site), you should be able to preserve their memory and honour the impact they had on your life, without letting their absence obscure your own future.
With time, pain does settle.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
Currently there are no official rules or regulations in place that stipulate what level of training a bereavement counsellor needs. However, it is recommended that you check to see if your therapist is experienced in this area.
A Diploma level qualification (or equivalent) in bereavement counselling or a related topic will provide assurance and peace of mind that your counsellor has developed the necessary skills.
Another way to assure they have undergone this type of specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation representing counsellors dealing with bereavement.
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