The process of grieving is a normal and natural response to loss. The process helps us to adjust to the huge changes that have taken place in our life when someone important to us dies.
While this article focuses on the experience of grieving following a bereavement, the same feelings can be experienced after any significant loss even ones that don’t involve the death of a loved one. For example, the loss of a relationship through separation or divorce, physical losses through serious illness or accident, and major life events such as job loss, loss of home, and immigration (which often involves multiple losses – home, culture, community, family, freedom, self-image, etc).
Grieving, no matter what the cause, can feel overwhelmingly difficult and painful at times. We can feel confused, shocked, guilty, lonely, numb, hopeless, angry, despairing and intensely sad. We may also experience the grief physically and experience insomnia, changes in appetite, a lack of concentration, or a loss of memory, for example.
The stages of bereavement
You may have heard of the ‘stages’ of bereavement. A number of researchers have tried to name the process of grieving that we experience when we go through a major loss. Most people will experience these ‘stages’, but not necessarily in the order given and the movement through the stages may not be straight-forward. It is perfectly normal to go back-and-forth or to jump stages completely. Some people may also become stuck and find it difficult to move on.
Broadly the main ‘stages’ of bereavement are:
- Accepting that the loss has really happened
- Experiencing the painful feelings that come with grief
- Adjusting to life without the loved one
- Emotionally relocating the person who has died, and memorialising them
Other terms are used to describe the grief process and the journey through the process from the initial shock to the place where the bereaved may feel they can move on with their life. This ‘change curve’ describes different feelings over the course of time (see diagram below).
The process of grieving is an evolving process, that happens at its own pace. Most people will find themselves able to return to a place of emotional balance, especially if they have some good support networks. While grief is a fairly universal experience, each person grieves in a way that is unique to them, so these stages are really only a guide.
Some people get worried about the idea of ‘accepting’ the death of a loved one, or that the idea of ‘moving on’ means forgetting about the person who has died. But really ‘resolving’ grief is not about detaching ourselves from the person who has died; it is more about relocating them to a place in our lives that allows us to move forward with living. We may always experience a sense of missing the person who has died, but we can find an acceptance of the change that has happened to us as a result of our bereavement.
Complicated, or complex, grief is the term used to describe what happens when the process of grieving becomes ‘stuck’, or if thoughts of the deceased become preoccupied or obsessive, or when grief turns into depression. For most people, a bereavement also contains within it the emotional experiences of past losses and bereavements, and this may increase the complexity of the grieving process. The key difference between grief and depression is that grief is something we experience ‘in waves’, whereas depression tends to be more constant and pervasive.
Grief known as ‘disenfranchised grief’ can be particularly difficult. Disenfranchised grief is grief which is not readily acknowledged or validated by others, and which make public grieving and getting support harder to do. This might include the death of an ex-spouse/partner, a still-born child, a pregnancy termination, the death of a companion pet, even the death of a celebrity that was dear to us. The golden rule is that it is the strength of our feeling and bond with the deceased that is important, not necessarily the nature of the relationship, that determines the depth of our grief.
A catalyst for growth
Finally, bereavement is not something we ‘recover’ from or ‘get over’. Once bereaved we cannot go back to being the person we were before the loss of the person we cared about. The experience of being bereaved changes us, but this can be experienced as a time of personal growth rather than depletion. The experience can be a catalyst for change for many, deepening relationships, discovering personal strengths, finding a deeper compassion for self and others, finding new possibilities in life.