How grieving can help with bereavement
The process of grieving is a normal and natural response to loss. It is a process that helps us to adjust to the huge changes that have taken place in our life when someone important to us dies. It is, of course, a very difficult and painful process. In this article we will see how the pain of grieving, despite its awfulness, is a necessary and strangely helpful road to recovery and emotional equilibrium.
Grieving is important for any loss
This article focuses on the experience of grieving following a bereavement. However, 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.).
Feelings of grief
Grieving, no matter what the cause, can feel overwhelmingly difficult and painful at times. You may feel utterly confused, in deep shock, and guilty that you didn’t ‘do more’ or ‘do something differently’. You are also likely to feel lonely, numb and hopeless. At times you may feel intensely angry or despairing. Overall you are very likely to be feeling intensely sad and weepy. You are likely to experience grief physically as well – for example, through disrupted sleep patterns and insomnia, changes in appetite, a lack of concentration, obsessive thoughts about your loss, or a loss of memory, for example.
Stages of grief
Grief is a topic that has been studied in-depth over many years. You may have heard of the ‘stages’ of grief. This was a concept developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in research she undertook initially amongst people who themselves were going through the process of dying. It was later used to describe the process of grieving.
In the Kubler-Ross model there are five stages of grieving:
The conscious or unconscious refusal to accept the reality of the loss. Summed up by the phrase ‘I can’t believe this has happened’. It is a natural defence against the enormity of the loss that has been experienced.
Feeling angry at yourself or others for ‘failings’ in the process of the death or its aftermath. You might feel angry at the doctors for not diagnosing soon enough, or the friends who did not attend the funeral. Or anger may manifest itself as feelings of injustice that the death has occurred at all.
In this phase you may be trying to ‘make deals with God’ or anyone else to try to reverse the death experience. Statements such as ‘if only…’ or ‘what if…’ are typical of the bargaining phase of grief.
In this phase of the grief process we emotionally arrive in the present, and experience feelings of emptiness, loneliness, sadness and loss at a level never before experienced. If you are in this phase it is wise to remember that you are responding to a profound loss, and that your feelings are to be expected. You are not going mad; you are experiencing feelings that are natural given the loss you have had.
Despite the wording, this phase is not about ‘accepting’ the loss necessarily. It is about accepting the reality of the loss. In this phase you will begin to understand and accept that your loss has really happened. Alongside this you will come to accept that you are forever changed because of the loss you have experienced. You cannot go back to being the person you were before the loss happened. In this phase you can begin to take care of your needs again, to move forward with your life, and to live a full life again despite the loss you have experienced.
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.
Tasks of bereavement
An alternative to the Kubler-Ross model is that offered by William Worden, who described four main ‘tasks’ of bereavement. There are some similarities to the Kubler-Ross model:
- 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
Important in Worden’s model is that we allow ourselves to experience the awful pain of grief rather than seek to hide it. Also that it is the ‘relocation’ of the deceased person to a position in our lives that allows our life to move on and forward that is a characteristic of healthy grieving. We never lose our connection with the deceased person, we just move them to a place that allows living to continue.
Worden’s model also allows for the importance of ‘memorialising’ the deceased, that is finding rituals or other means to remain connected with, and to remember, the deceased. There is no one way to do this, it depends what works for you. Traditionally it takes the form of a funeral or the scattering of ashes. However, it might also mean having ‘a wake’ or other ceremony, creating a memory box, planting a tree, having a tattoo, writing a poem, dedicating a bench, and so on.
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.
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 in a culture, and which makes 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.
An example of disenfranchised grief: Pet Loss
Pets are regarded as important members of the family, and the attachment bonds between us and our beloved pets is openly acknowledged. Anyone who has ever owned a pet, or watched TV programmes such as The Supervet, will know that the bond between human and animal is rather special. Pets can be devoted companions, honest with their feelings towards us, and provide constant and unconditional love in a way that many may find hard to find amongst human friends and family.
There are many well-documented positive emotional, psychological and physical benefits that come from having a companion pet in our lives. Blood pressure levels, survival rates after heart attack, mental health issues, exercise rates, levels of loneliness, and much more, are positively attributed to us humans sharing our lives with a pet.
So it should come as no surprise that we might feel utterly bereft and devastated when our pet dies. If you have just said goodbye to a pet who has been with you for several years then that is time where you have spent every day considering the needs of your pet within your daily routine, and interacting with them in many positive ways. You are of course going to be grieving their loss.
What can be particularly difficult for pet owners is the reaction of others. Hopefully you have people in your life that acknowledge and value your grief. However, you may also know people who take the view that ‘it’s only a dog/cat/hamster/rabbit/etc.; you can get another’. Pet bereavement is now understood to be ‘disenfranchised grief’ which is grief which is not readily acknowledged or validated by others, and which can make public grieving and getting support harder to do.
Grief in the bereavement process
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 for some people 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.
There will be times when seeking help from a therapist can be helpful in understanding the feelings that you are experiencing, to have someone compassionate who can bear witness to your memories of your loved one, or when grief has become complex or prolonged. While grief is something only the individual can bear and experience, it does not mean that you have to be alone with it.