It is common to experience a range of emotional reactions in the wake of a significant loss; they are all part of the stages of the grief process.
Stages of Grief
- If a loss is perceived as significant, most people feel a sense of shock and disorientation immediately following the loss.
- A brief (or prolonged) period of denial can sometimes occur at the same time (“they’re not really dead”, “I keep expecting to wake up beside them”). This is an attempt to avoid admitting that the loss has occurred, in order to prevent the pain and sadness associated with it.
- Sometimes people attempt to diminish the loss in order to cope better – e.g. “I’ll be fine”, “They’re in a better place now”, “It’s not a big deal”. It is possible for this to present as the bereaved person shutting off all emotions, and acting as though they are on auto-pilot whilst making funeral arrangements, taking care of the family etc. They can describe feeling numb inside and untouched by what is occurring around them; they may not be able to cry, and their faces may be devoid of emotion.
- Once the reality of a loss is admitted, people commonly become very angry towards others – such as people who were directly involved in the loss, as well as friends/family who have made unhelpful or insensitive comments. Sometimes, the bereaved person may have secretly felt anger towards the person who died because they left them, and often there is guilt/shame as a result of having felt that way.
- Angry feelings often lead into feelings of despair and depression, and at this stage, the bereaved person may shy away from social contact (either physically or emotionally). These low feelings related to the major loss can mean that your ability to tolerate everyday problems is lessened (such as other drivers cutting you off in traffic).
These stages are not necessarily experienced in the order presented above. It is important to remember that society’s concept of how long it should take to overcome a tragic loss is often quite different to that experienced by individuals, and there is no set timeframe for this to occur in.
Whilst often the stages of grief are progressed through naturally, difficulties may be encountered if one gets stuck in one of the stages above and is unable to allow healing, acceptance, and resolution of the loss to occur. For example, if a bereaved person refuses to accept that their loved one has passed away by continuing to set a place at the dinner table, or refusing to change their bedroom in any way.
Grief can lead to the bereaved person being reluctant to begin to enjoy their life again, because they feel this means letting go of their loss, and it can feel as though they are betraying the memory of that which was lost.
Forgiveness and Acceptance
You may be holding onto some feelings that you have been unable to forgive yourself for, or feelings of being unable to forgive others who may have been involved in the loss. Try to think of forgiveness not as being about excusing an action or behaviour or erasing these from your memory; rather, think about forgiveness as permission for you to move forward a little, into the present.
It’s not that you are forgetting what happened, but instead you are accepting that it did happen.
Allow yourself to experience life today as a bit more free from the past.
Even people who are well on their way to resolving their grief over a loss, can be extremely unsettled by an upcoming anniversary associated with the loss.
This distress may come as a surprise, particularly if you feel that you had “dealt with” your grief. It may be unexpected to suddenly find yourself feeling depressed, agitated, unable to concentrate, or having bad dreams. Our subconscious seems to be able to mark time, though, and sets out to remind us when it is close to the anniversary date. This does not signal that you are “not dealing with” the trauma and it is not a backward step in your recovery. Instead, this is a natural step in your recovery.
These anniversary reactions can be lessened by planning a symbolic ritual that will be personally meaningful to you, to assist you with marking the occasion. This can help to reduce the impact of the emotional distress being experienced. These rituals could be as simple as lighting a candle at a certain time of day, taking a moment’s silence (alone or with others), making a donation (of money or even of your time with a volunteer organisation) to a particular cause, attending a church service, taking a walk in the park or in the bush, etc.
This action, no matter how small, allows you to acknowledge what has happened, and pay tribute to the person that has been lost. You are also honouring yourself in a way too, for how far you have come along in your grief recovery.
Remember, however long it takes you, the most important point is that you allow yourself to recover in your own time, and don’t feel pushed by the expectations or advice of others.
Author: Lauren Burrow, B Psych (Hons), Grad Cert Health Promotion.
Lauren Burrow is a Brisbane Psychologist, endeavouring to provide her clients with a welcoming, reassuring and non-judgmental experience. She assists her clients to identify helpful strategies to overcome their issues, to broaden their existing skills in coping and functioning, and provides them with psycho-education to assist with understanding and managing the symptoms they are struggling with.
To make an appointment with Registered Psychologist Lauren Burrow, freecall 1800 877 924 or try online booking – Mt Gravatt.