“When will I stop feeling like this?”
So many of my patients have asked me when they will stop feeling the pain associated with grief. Grief, by definition, is the emotion associated with loss. This could be due to the loss of a relationship, a job, a home, or more often, the feeling of loss is related to death of a person or pet.
Some of the most recognized symptoms of grief include:
Sadness-one of the most common symptoms and most intensely felt at the onset of a loss. Feeling like you could cry at any moment, or unsure of how you will handle regular activities without breaking down. Many patients report being unable to stop feeling sad initially but with time are able to find joy in life’s activities.
Shock– when a loss is sudden, many experience a state of shock where it is difficult to process the loss. One may have difficulty believing that they will never see or speak to the person they have lost, or struggle with the pending reality of change.
Guilt– many patients report feeling guilty that they missed an opportunity to clear the air or express their feelings of love and appreciation for a person, or note that they wished their last interaction had been better/more positive. In reference to pet loss, some pet owners feel guilt over having to put their pet down, wondering if they had made the right decision.
Anger-some patients experience bouts of anger related to the loss. With death, many people feel abandoned and with suicide those left behind may need to find someone/something to blame to excuse the act of a person taking their own life. If it was a relational loss or job loss, many report anger that they were wronged by another and feel powerless to change what happened.
Fear– some patients have noted fear of their own mortality after a death, while others note fear of going it alone without the support of the one who has died. Others may experience anxiety/fear related to the uncertainty of their future including financial concerns.
Physical conditions– during the grieving process, our emotions can also affect our bodies. Patients report feeling tired, distracted, interrupted sleep and eating patterns as well as nausea and somatic complaints.
While grief is experienced individually, with no definite timeline or group of symptoms, there is a widely held framework of processing based on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief.
Five Stages of Grief
1. Denial-denying that the event is actually happening.
2. Anger-realizing that this the event is happening and seeking someone to blame or be angry with.
3. Bargaining-trying to make deals to stop the painful event from occurring.
4. Depression-feeling overcome with feelings of sadness, feeling powerless to manage those feelings.
5. Acceptance-coming to terms with the event and working toward moving forward, dealing with one’s emotions.
Not everyone will go through these stages in order, or complete all of them, but it may be a helpful guideline if you are trying to understand what someone else is going through.
Supporting Someone Who Is Grieving
How a person manages their grief may be influenced by many factors, including personality and coping style, life experience, faith, and the nature of the loss. There is no concrete timeline for the process but as time passes, symptoms of grief should lessen in frequency and intensity. There will be times when grief returns, based on triggers that remind the person of the loss. This could include significant dates associated with the loss or physical reminders that bring back the pain of the loss. It is important to be patient with these feelings and allow yourself or the person grieving to share those feelings openly without judgment. By validating the feelings and allowing the person to vent, the pain is legitimized and can be processed instead of hidden which will help the person to move forward.
First and foremost it is important to acknowledge that someone is suffering and ask them how you can help. All too often, people are unsure of what to say so they say nothing, leaving the grieving person alone without support.
“I know you must be hurting, how can I help?”
In addition to offering your support, you can also suggest that the grieving person identify other supports that they feel comfortable reaching out to. This could include friends and family, faith based communities, support groups, and professional counselors. Keep an eye on self-care and suggest following routines to help get through each day. If you or someone you know is experiencing intense symptoms of grief for an extended period of time which are getting in the way of daily life, it is important to seek professional assistance to work through these feelings.