Grief is a universal human emotion triggered by the loss of someone or something that one holds dear. The feeling of grief is also very personal – people grieve in different ways, for various causes and varying durations.
Everyone has experienced grief in one way or another during their lifetime. And yet, many of us do not understand grieving and how to handle the ensuing emotional turmoil that accompanies grief. Here’s a brief explanation of the grieving process and some tips to help cope with grief and loss.
What is Grief?
Grief is a complex emotion that boils down to the deep pain of losing something or someone you love. In this context, the word ‘pain’ represents intense sadness and a mixture of other unexpected emotions such as anger, nostalgia, shock and disbelief. It’s a normal psychological reaction to significant loss that affects people of all ages and walks of life.
Any loss can cause grief, even the loss of seemingly meaningless items. Today, many people across the world are dealing with grief following the loss of their loved ones to COVID-19. But death is not the only cause of distress. You may experience grief due to:
- Sudden unemployment
- Divorce, breakup or heartbreak
- Loss of money
- End of a friendship
- Empathy for a friend or family member
- Death of a pet
- Losing a cherished or sentimental item such as a home, car, land, etc.
- Moving to a new location
- Hopelessness in achieving a dream or life goal
The point is, it doesn’t matter what you’ve lost – the more emotionally attached you are to the loss, the more intense the grief. Some people grieve for months over their favourite team losing a championship or the end of a movie franchise.
The Five Stages of Grief
In her 1969 book titled ‘On Death and Dying,‘ Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross explains that grief can be divided into five distinct stages. This is how the human mind processes grief and loss:
The first stage of grief puts you in a state of shock and disbelief. Plain facts stop making sense, and the world becomes overwhelmingly meaningless.
For instance, if you are diagnosed with a terminal illness, your mind will first deny the results while trying to convince yourself that the test must be wrong. The feeling of denial may be so strong that physical aches and pains may go away in such a case.
Denying the outcome of loss is, in a way, graceful. Coming to terms with some realities can be a tremendous emotional overload. The mind rejects what it can’t accept. The denial helps slowly ease in strong emotions that would otherwise be overwhelmingly sudden.
After denial comes anger. Reality has finally set in, and you begin desperately looking for someone or something to blame for your loss. Grief-inspired anger is limitless. In case of a loved one’s death, you may feel angry at yourself for not doing enough while the deceased was still alive, angry at doctors for ‘allowing’ the death, or even anger at the deceased for passing away.
This stage is just your mind trying to find reason where there is none as it attempts to make sense of what has happened.
Anger is followed by bargaining. You start bargaining with God, the universe, fate and yourself to restore life as you knew it before the loss. This normally happens when you still have hope that things could still turn around.
Say you’re diagnosed with diabetes. You might plead that changing your eating habits and lifestyle beginning today should somehow take away the illness. You may find yourself looking to a higher power – bringing out a religious or spiritual part of yourself that you maybe never knew existed.
When bargaining doesn’t work, you are faced with reality. That feeling of helplessness really takes a toll on your mental and emotional state. Everything sinks in, and you may slowly descend into intense sadness and depression.
You suddenly become emotionally withdrawn from your surroundings. None of your hobbies, friends or loved ones seems to bring you happiness anymore. This is the most joyless stage of grief. Depression may seem oddly comfortable and can persist indefinitely if left unchecked.
Acceptance does not mean being ‘okay’ with loss but rather recognising that this is the new reality, and nothing can be done to change it. Think of it as being at peace with the loss. Acceptance is about admitting that you have to live in a world where someone or something you loved is missing.
At this point, you may start thinking about the adjustments you have to make in order to fill the hole left behind by your loss. Some try to replace what they’ve lost with something else, perhaps a new pet, hobby or meaningful connections with other people.
The Effects and Symptoms of Grief
The impact of loss and grief varies from person to person. Here are some common symptoms of loss and grief:
- Physical discomfort (aches and pains, fatigue and loss of appetite)
- Anxiety and worry
- Frustration and anger
- Existential dread
- Feelings of detachment
- Abnormal behaviour (change in eating habits, social conduct, lifestyle, etc.)
- Impaired cognition and memory loss
Tips for Coping with Grief and Loss
For the most part, techniques for coping with grief are easier said than practised. But what’s important is going through the mourning process without denying your feelings. Some practices can help initiate and speed up the healing process, such as:
- Allow yourself to experience the pain and emotions of grief.
- Distract yourself through physical activities.
- Find creative outlets to express your feelings.
- Talk to friends and relatives about your loss and how you feel about it.
- Instead of entertaining regret and blame, celebrate what you had and be thankful for past experiences.
- Take care of yourself by grooming, eating healthy, socialising and maintaining an engaging routine.
- Join a support group.
- Allow yourself time to heal.
When to Seek Professional Help
The grieving period can be an overwhelming and difficult time, especially without emotional support from close friends and family. Sometimes, even that is not enough, and you still end up feeling lost and alone. Prolonged grieving often leads to severe depression that keeps one from getting on with their career and responsibilities as a friend, spouse, student, employee or parent. There is a fine line between wellness and uncontrollable emotional distress, and the loss of a loved one can be the critical tipping point.
If you can’t seem to get past your loss, talk to a mental health professional such as a psychologist to help you process your grief and loss. Grief and loss counselling may help you cope.