If you’ve suffered a death or other loss in your life, feelings of grief are part of the normal human response.
However these feelings can be so overwhelming, many people can’t help but wonder: “Is my grief normal? Should I be feeling better by now? How can I get through this?”.
What is Grief?
Grief is the emotional suffering we experience when something – or someone – we care about, is taken away. Generally, the more significant the loss the more intense the grief.
However, there is no right or wrong way to feel grief. While it is a normal human response, it is not the same for all humans. It takes as long as it takes and can be experienced in stages; it can feel like waves, or that you are on a roller-coaster of different emotions.
What is important to keep in mind is that the experience of loss is real, painful and emotionally disorganising and that feeling this way does not make you “crazy”.
Is My Grief Normal?
If you have been wondering if what you have been experiencing is “normal”, these feelings are quite common:
- A mixture of strong emotions, including intense sadness, anger, guilt, horror, injustice, betrayal, etc;
- Crying a lot – or, feeling that you can’t cry;
- Feeling confused about feeling relief if the circumstances surrounding the death were long and painful;
- Feeling numb and/or like you are just “going through the motions”;
- Feeling detached from the whole situation;
- Needing to tell the story of the death again and again – or, not being able to talk about the death at all;
- Wanting to avoid all reminders of the death and person who died;
- Feeling hopeless and powerless;
- Changes to sleep – sleeping more or less, finding it hard to get to sleep, being scared to go to sleep;
- Dreaming about the death, having nightmares regarding the person who died and the details of the death;
- Experiencing more headaches or stomach aches than usual;
- Being quick to anger and finding yourself fighting with others more than usual;
- Not wanting to stay home alone, or being afraid to be alone;
- Not wanting to go out, withdrawing from friends;
- Finding it hard to concentrate;
- Worrying about who might die next;
- Wanting to be with the person who died;
- Feeling distressed that the pain, sadness and grief aren’t going away;
- Wondering if how you are feeling is “normal”.
Talking openly to someone who can give appropriate support and help you through the whole emotional process (such as a grief and loss counsellor) can be beneficial. This gives you the opportunity to talk freely about the death, the person who died and the emotions that you are feeling.
Looking after yourself should include creating structure in areas of your life that you can control, such as keeping mealtimes and bedtime regular, and scheduling regular exercise; and seeking social support from loved ones, friends, support groups and community groups, to help you feel connected to others.
Maintaining or re-discovering a positive outlook on life, and finding meaning in life, can help; as can being prepared for anniversaries, birthdays and special days that you know may be a trigger for your grief.
In contrast, there are a number of things that won’t help you, such as:
- Not getting the opportunity to express your feelings, especially working through feelings of guilt and self-condemnation;.
- Social isolation;
- Losing a sustaining philosophy of life;
- Condemning yourself for “being weak” in the face of your emotion, thus trying to push those emotions away to be “strong”;
- Ignoring the pain – it doesn’t make it go way;
- Putting a time limit on your grieving process.
Worried about Someone who is Grieving?
Perhaps you are worried about someone who is grieving. The sadness of losing a loved one never completely goes away, but an improvement should be notable over time.
When there is no improvement and perhaps even a worsening of symptoms, a visit to a mental health professional should be encouraged immediately. Signs to look out for include:
- Withdrawing from all regular contacts and activities;
- Expressing a feeling that life is empty or meaningless;
- Expressing an intense and pervasive sense of guilt;
- Expressing thoughts of suicide or an intense preoccupation with death;
- Inability to function in the usual way or manage basic self-care.
As the experience of grief is so personal and confusing, it can be difficult to find someone in your social circle willing to listen objectively, and help you with processing your feelings about the loss. After all, they may also be grieving! This is where a qualified mental health professional or grief and loss counsellor can be of assistance.
Author: Greta Neilsen, BA (Hons), M Psych (Clin), Grad Dip Soc Sc (Psych), MAPS.
Greta Neilsen is a Loganholme Psychologist providing professional grief and loss counselling. She has a wealth of experience in the treatment of depression and anxiety in adults of all ages, and endeavours to provide her clients with a safe space to understand the challenges they face, and develop ways to overcome their difficulties.