Grief - an experience for us all
Grief is a natural response to loss, and it can manifest itself in many different ways. It isn’t always about someone dying, but can also be about losing something that’s stable in your life. There are several different stages of the grief process that people can experience in different orders, repeatedly experience, or even get stuck in. It is important that your therapist approaches your grief on an individual basis, as each case can be so different. And of course, each person is individual and will experience grief in their unique way. The therapist must work with you, their client, over time, to help you through your grief, exploring with you your feelings, your emotions, and how to move forward in your own time.
Grief can be extremely strong and completely overwhelming. Whether the grief is from losing a loved one or from losing something that is important to us, the feelings and emotions can actually be identical. Loss is loss, no matter how it occurs. A client may present themselves as feeling numb or feeling removed from their normal life, and left with a lack of motivation to go about their regular business whilst saddled with their sense of loss. This can be extremely challenging and difficult.
Grief is described as a natural reaction to loss and is a personal experience felt by all of us at some time in our lives. Each person experiences grief in their own way, and this can be dependent on the type of loss that they have experienced. A person’s loss could be the death of a loved one, a relationship ending, a loss of a home, a loss of a job or the shock and realisation of something that they have done. The process of grief itself cannot be controlled. The different stages that each person may go through are denial, anger, bargaining, shock, separation, pain, despair, resolution, depression, acceptance, and blame. There is no particular order as to how each person may experience these. You may not experience all and you may experience some of them more than once. Some individuals experience 'getting stuck' in one of these areas, which can be extremely traumatic and even damaging. This may develop into what’s known as 'complex grief'.
An example of complex grief would be if a person stayed in the denial area and could not accept their loss at all. Should this happen, this person would need to seek some professional advice and help to get through the turmoil.
Experiencing grief and loss has no time limit - it can last for months or even years. Everyone has to deal with it in their own time and not rush to 'get over it'.
Most commonly, emotional reactions to grief include anger, sadness, guilt, shock, fear, denial, bargaining, and yearning. Helping the individual to understand and explore their feelings of their grief and/or loss, helping them understand that these feelings are completely normal, and helping them to understand this, is vital.
Some may even experience changes to their sleep patterns. This could include restlessness and changes in eating, either-overeating or under-eating. Some may begin to overindulge with alcohol or cigarettes. These are often described as the 'tools'. Individuals may use these tools to begin to try and cope with what has happened to them. It’s not unusual for people to carry around items that belonged to a loved one to feel close to them still. A person’s cognitive reaction may be different too. Some may find that they are absentminded or appear preoccupied, sometimes even confused. Physical reactions can also occur after grief or loss. This may include feeling empty inside, having low energy, crying, weak muscles, or, if a loved one has died, they may believe/experience the presence of that person. Somebody of a religious nature may even begin to question their beliefs or feel angry at their God! They may feel that their sense of purpose may be in doubt, and they may question why this has happened.
Many strategies can help in counselling sessions. It’s important to remember that it is not the job of the counsellor to 'fix' someone who is struggling with grief. The role of the therapist is to help their client through the process with the client also engaging with the session. It’s simply not possible to fix someone else. As a therapist, I am always there for my clients, paying close attention to what they are telling me at that particular moment.
Sometimes, the story is told more than once as part of the grieving process, and that’s perfectly fine. I listen carefully and allow them to take their time. Exploring their memories, expressing the grief, even if that grief is showing anger. This can be explored in a safe manner and in the safety of the therapy room. No judgment is given.
People who are grieving also often have dreams that they may or may not want to share. It’s often helpful to discuss this even if the meaning is not discovered. It’s not really part of the counsellor’s practice to interpret a client’s dreams, but it is often useful for the client to discuss them.
It is also useful for the therapist to be aware of anniversaries relating to the grief and be sensitive towards the client when discussing this. The memory of the loss and related grief often re-emerge around the date of the loss of another important date such as a birthday or anniversary.
The therapist can use a variety of methods to explore the thoughts and feelings of their client. Examples of this could be drawing, guided imagery, relaxation techniques, or meditation.
Different types of loss can influence the grieving process in a number of different ways. An example of this is having a romantic relationship end. If one person had an affair, this would be very different from a situation where both people decided they wanted to end the relationship due to having grown apart.
Experiencing the loss of a limb is also a very different experience, and if it is amputated as a result of injury, perhaps fighting in a war, this would also be different from someone who was born this way.
How people work through the grieving process is unique to them. There is no hard and fast rule, and someone’s personality has a big influence. An example of this may be that people who are quiet don’t often talk much about their loss, while people who get angry easily can often react the same way when they are grieving. Having suffered previously with loss can also impact on how we deal with loss. Coping strategies can be repeated, and the support given in the past may be used to help cope with the grief.
How long should someone grieve for?
Again, this is unique to the individual; it could be weeks, months, or years. It’s ok for someone to take a long time, as long as it’s in line with the loss. E.g. If a lady split up with her boyfriend and 15 years later she was still grieving for him, this would not be healthy. This may be complex grief, and there are several factors that affect the process that must be taken into account and will have a profound effect on the way grief curves from an individual. Getting the right support at the right time is vital to a healthy recovery.
Grief and loss are universal. We all experience them at some point in our lives, whether it be death, separation, divorce, loss of employment, or loss of a limb. Grief is a natural human condition and comes in multiple forms. No one is immune, but at the time of loss we can be unsure of what we should do or how to ask for help. Values, religion, and culture also influence how much and what kind of support is provided from others during times of grief and loss.
We are unique as human beings, and this is no different during grief and loss. We all need time, support, and a little help from time to time. There’s no shame in grieving for a loved one or the loss of something important. We do though have to deal with it at some point, and not let the feelings fester for too long.