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Utah Behavioral Health Solutions LLC

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Grief is our response to loss, particularly in relation to the death of a loved one. Grief can affect our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, beliefs and relationships with others. Many people experience feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear and numbness.

The experience of grief can sometimes feel like a storm. A person may feel that the storm has passed, but then be surprised when the next storm strikes. These sudden temporary upsurges in the grief storm can be particularly strong when there is an anniversary of the death (such as the date of the death or funeral) or when memories are triggered (for example, by a piece of music or a particular smell).

It is important to recognise that grief is a normal experience and that the process of grieving does require experiencing the pain that accompanies the loss of a loved one. Grief is a process, not an event. It is a journey, not a destination.

Different experiences of grief

Grief is something that each person experiences in a different way.

There are many factors that influence a person’s experience of grief, including:

  • The age of the person who is grieving – for example, child or adult
  • The type of relationship with the deceased person – for example, spouse, parent or friend
  • The nature of the relationship with the deceased person – for example, close and loving, or remote and troubled
  • The way the person died – for example, long illness, sudden death or suicide
  • The grieving person’s religious or spiritual beliefs
  • Cultural practices – for example, the ways in which the grieving person’s culture expresses grief
  • Availability of support from family, friends and community
  • Associated stresses – for example, financial difficulties, job loss or the breakdown of a relationship.


Different grieving styles

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Normal emotions associated with grief include anger, anxiety, confusion, sadness, depression, fear, guilt, shock and relief. Ways of coping may include looking after your physical health, spending time with family or time alone, counselling, meditation and memorials to a loved one.

Generally, there are two broad styles of grieving, but most people experience a combination of both. They are:

  • The intuitive approach – people seek out social support and tend to focus on the emotional aspects of their loss and managing their feelings
  • The instrumental approach – people tend to focus on the cognitive (thinking) aspects of their loss. They may grieve through activities and problem solving. This style tends to be more solitary and private, focusing on managing the thoughts that arise.

Misunderstandings about the grieving process can make the bereaved person question their feelings and sanity. Understanding what grief can be like, finding ways to safely express strong emotions and coming up with coping strategies can help you endure the pain that accompanies grief.

Grief is not predictable

There used to be a widely held belief that a person progresses through various stages of grief such as denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. We now know that grief includes a wide range of emotions, thoughts and behaviours. It doesn’t help to think that grief will always happen in a predictable and orderly way – everyone moves through grief in their own unique way.

If you believe that grief will follow predictable stages, you are likely to expect a bereaved person to put the experience behind them within a certain time. The reality is that most of us will continue to grieve in subtle ways for the rest of our lives, even when we seem to be getting on with life.

A wide range of reactions to grief

Grief includes a wide range of emotions, thoughts and behaviours. You may experience some or all of the following reactions, as well as many that aren’t included in the list.

Some of the many reactions associated with grief are:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Change in world view
  • Change of values and beliefs
  • Confusion
  • Sadness
  • Depression
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Inability to cope
  • Guilt and remorse
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Loneliness
  • Relief
  • Shock and disbelief.


Children and teenagers and grief

Children and teenagers typically use different ways of coping with loss from those used by adults.

Children may look to the adults around them to learn how to respond to the experience. A child needs timely, clear and direct information. They should also be allowed to ask questions. The funeral and an opportunity to view the body are important rituals. You should encourage and support, but not force, a child to participate in these.

Teenagers’ ways of coping sometimes create tension with adults. For example, a teenager might play music and spend more time with their friends. The typical adolescent is dealing with the normal issues of independence and separation from parents. These developmental tasks can make it harder for them to accept support from the adults around them.

Grief and physical illness

Research shows there are clear links between the experience of grief and ill health. Grief can disturb our immune system. Health effects can range from colds, influenza, anxiety, depression, and sleeping and eating difficulties, through to thoughts of suicide and an increased risk of acquiring various forms of disease.

Coping strategies for grief

You may need to experiment to find out which strategies are most helpful for you. Suggestions include:

  • Crying – some people feel that crying isn’t appropriate. They are afraid that once they start crying, the tears won’t stop. If you feel the need to cry, go ahead and do it. Crying is a normal human response to intense feelings. However, if there are no tears, it does not mean there is no grief. If possible, cry with someone, but many people prefer to cry alone, perhaps in the car or in the shower
  • Time alone – if you feel the need, schedule some time alone each day to focus on your feelings and express them in whichever way feels natural to you. For example, you may choose to pray, cry, look through photographs of your loved one or write a diary
  • Activity – sometimes, people engage in physical activity as a way of releasing tension and distracting themselves from the intensity of grief
  • Time with your family – schedule time to grieve as a family. This could include talking about the deceased person, crying together and sharing your feelings
  • Pampering – include activities in your daily or weekly schedule that you enjoy. Choose the activity, if you can, that brings the greatest comfort
  • Support team – actively seek out support. This could include friends, workmates, doctors, community health centres, bereavement support groups or professional counsellors. However, don’t judge yourself if you don’t feel like being around others
  • Memorial – you may want to write letters to the deceased person, plant a memorial tree, put together a special photo album or commemorate their life in whichever ways feel meaningful to you and those close to you
  • Professional help – see your doctor for help and referral if you feel unsafe: for example, if you are distressed enough to want to hurt yourself or someone else.


Philosophical and spiritual questions for grief

Grief can raise important philosophical and spiritual questions and may prompt us to ponder our faith and the meaning of life. Our experience of loss may destroy many of the assumptions that we have held about the world, such as ‘the world is a safe place’, ‘the old die before the young’ or ‘bad things don’t happen to good people’. These beliefs are often shattered in the wake of a profound experience of loss and grief.

The experience for many grieving people has been described as ‘re-learning the world’. Many people also discover a deepening of their spiritual beliefs and can identify how they have grown as a result of their grief experience.

Moving on with life during grief

There is an expectation that accepting the death of a loved one means letting go of them and their memory. The reality is that many bereaved people continue to have a relationship with their loved one for the rest of their lives, through remembering them. Death ends a life, but it does not necessarily end a relationship.

You may like to talk about your loved one in general conversation or commemorate special events like their birthday. Keeping your relationship with the deceased person ‘alive’ is a healthy, normal response. On the other hand, you may choose to keep your memories to yourself and grieve privately – and that can be healthy and normal too.

Looking after yourself when you are grieving

Losing a loved one is a shattering event that can affect you emotionally, physically and spiritually. Try to look after yourself. You should consider:

  • Diet and exercise – grief affects the body and can cause symptoms such as sleeplessness, anxiety and a range of physical symptoms. Take care of yourself by paying attention to diet and getting regular exercise. Make sure that you receive good medical care and try to develop a good relationship with your doctor
  • Relaxation and sleep – schedule time every day to wind down, using whichever method works for you. Meditation, tai chi, taking a bath, playing sport, reading, doing hobbies, listening to music or watching your favourite television program may all help. Try to get enough sleep – grief can exhaust you
  • Care with drugs – try to avoid using drugs such as cigarettes and alcohol to help you manage your grief. They may temporarily dull your pain, but cause other health and behavioural difficulties. If you feel that you need medication, consult your doctor
  • Be realistic – be kind and gentle to yourself. Accept that you need to grieve in ways that feel natural to you. Don’t judge or criticise yourself for not coping as well as you or others think you should.


Professional help for grief

It is important not to try to ‘speed up’ the grieving process. Coming to terms with a significant death can take months and sometimes years. It cannot be done in days or weeks. Most people simply need the loving, supportive presence of other people, permission to talk about the deceased person and encouragement to use their own coping strategies to deal with their bereavement.

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