Whatever the cause may be – separation or divorce, the death of a loved one, or a significant traumatic event – grief, stress and depression are often part of the package! It is a natural emotional response to loss or change of any kind, and everyone handles it in their own unique way!

Depressed woman

Understanding Grief

When we think of grief, more often than not we think of it in relation to the death of a loved one – but the reality is that grief is also felt in other situations such as the breakdown of a relationship, separation and divorce. It can also affect a parent when there are child custody issues. Grief is a natural response to any kind of loss – not just in death.

Grief can affect our thoughts, feelings, behaviours, beliefs, physical health and relationships with others. Many people experience feelings of sadness, anger, 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 or significant event (such as the date of the death or funeral, Christmas or the birthday of the person who has died) or when memories are triggered (such as 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.

“Loss is forever, but acute grief is not – a distinction that frequently gets blurred.”

Grief Experiences

Grief is something that everyone experiences differently, and there can be many factors that influence a person’s experience of grief, including:

  • the age of the person who is grieving (child, adolescent, parent or older adult)
  • the type of relationship with the person who has passed away or left the relationship (for example, spouse, parent or friend)
  • the nature of the relationship with the deceased person (for example, close, loving, remote, difficult or troubled)
  • the circumstances surround the death or loss -eg after a long illness, sudden death or suicide, a sudden/unexpected loss of a marriage/relationship or even a job/career
  • religious or spiritual beliefs
  • cultural practices
  • availability of support from family, friends and community
  • associated stresses (for example, financial difficulties, job loss, relationship breakdown).

Grief is Not Predictable

We now know that grief includes a wide range of emotions, thoughts and behaviours and that 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 and each individual may experience it very differently.

Believing that grief follows predictable stages can lead to the expectation that a bereaved person will put the experience behind them within a certain time-frame. This is NOT necessarily the case! In reality, grief doesn’t have a timeline, and most of us will continue to grieve in subtle ways for the rest of our lives – even if we seem to be getting on with life.

There are 5 Stages of Grief and we each spend different lengths of time working through each step and express each stage with different levels of intensity. The five stages do not necessarily occur in any specific order and sometimes we bounce back and forth between stages as we often try to move on before achieving a more peaceful acceptance of death.

The 5 Stages of Grief & Loss

1. Denial and Isolation

The first reaction to learning of terminal illness or death of a cherished loved one is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.

2. Anger

As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear, reality and its pain re-emerge. We are not ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. Anger may be directed at our dying or deceased loved one. Rationally, we know the person is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the person for causing us pain or for leaving us. We feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us more angry.

Remember, grieving is a personal process that has no time limit, nor one “right” way to do it. The doctor who diagnosed the illness and was unable to cure the disease might become a convenient target. Health professionals deal with death and dying every day. That does not make them immune to the suffering of their patients or to those who grieve for them.

3. Bargaining

The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control–

  • If only we had sought medical attention sooner…
  • If only we got a second opinion from another doctor…
  • If only we had tried to be a better person toward them…

Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality.

4. Depression

Two types of depression are associated with mourning. The first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss. Sadness and regret predominate this type of depression. We worry about the costs and burial. We worry that, in our grief, we have spent less time with others that depend on us. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. We may need a bit of helpful cooperation and a few kind words. The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell. Sometimes all we really need is a hug.

5. Acceptance

Reaching this stage of mourning is a gift not afforded to everyone. Death may be sudden and unexpected or we may never see beyond our anger or denial. It is not necessarily a mark of bravery to resist the inevitable and to deny ourselves the opportunity to make our peace. This phase is marked by withdrawal and calm. This is not a period of happiness and must be distinguished from depression.

When Grief Gives Way to Acute or Post Traumatic Grief

Although grief can be very painful, most people find that with the support of their family and friends and their own resources, they gradually find ways to learn to live with their loss and do not need to seek professional help.

Sometimes however, the circumstances of a death may have been particularly distressing, such as a traumatic or sudden death, or there may be circumstances in your life which make your grief particularly acute or complicated. 

Find out more about Post Traumatic Grief here>>