At some point in our lives we will all experience grief and loss. Significant losses often change who we are, the way we think, the way we evaluate and reflect on our lives and the way others perceive us. Significant losses can make us question the meaning of life, relationships and how we make sense of our world. Significant losses become part of our life journey and inevitably part of our life story. Loss and grief can define for us, who we were and who we are now.
When we talk about loss and grief, we are not necessarily talking about death. We can face loss and grief in a variety of circumstances: relationship breakdown; unemployment; abuse; when a child leaves home; illness or moving house. This list is by no means exhaustive. Loss and grief are very personal issues and only the individual can define what constitutes loss and grief for them.
So what do we mean by loss and grief?
- Loss can be described as that sense that all is not well. Loss occurs when an event is perceived to be negative by the individuals involved, and results in long-term changes to one’s social situations, relationships, or cognitions (Miller & Omarzu, 1998).
- is the reaction to loss;
- is the emotional response to loss including sadness, anger, helplessness, guilt, despair (Raphael,1984);
- is a result of any change that requires a person to give up or let go of what they have enjoyed or loved or found meaningful (Miller and Golden p5).
- the reaction to the loss of a close relationship (Raphael 1984);
- Bereavement in its origin means “the state of being deprived”. Bereavement deprives us of the living presence of someone we love or care about (Attig 2000, p36).
For the purpose of this article we will discuss loss and grief as it relates to death, however much of what is covered could apply to any situation of loss and grief.
The Journey of Grief
While grief is a normal and natural response to any loss, the journey of grief is often a very painful and lonely experience. No two people will experience the same feelings, emotions and thoughts in grief even if they are siblings or parents with the same loss. Each person’s journey of grief is unique to them, although there may be similarities. How our journey of grief unfolds can be greatly effected by many variables including our personality, cultural background, our family’s way of coping with grief, gender, the support available to us and any other difficulties being experienced at the time.
The journey of grief is exceptionally hard work. When we lose something or someone we love, we embark on a difficult journey of the heart (Attig 2000). This new journey is hard work because every day the bereaved are confronted with painful reminders that the person is dead and missing physically from their life. Smells, touch, music, places and habits can all be harsh reminders that the world we previously knew is not the world we now live in. We enter a new world which is unknown and frightening. In the words of the great C. S. Lewis “no one told me grief was so much like fear”. The bereaved fear that they will always be this crippled by grief, that they will never love and laugh again, that the colour has simply gone from their lives.
The journey of grief is one of relearning. When we grieve we must relearn the world we once knew (Attig 2000). We agonise and suffer for the world that we once had but can no longer return too. This pain, confusion and relearning can affect us physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually or socially. Almost any reaction can and should be expected from those who grieve. Here are some common experiences of people on the journey of grief:
- Shock, Confusion, Denial and Numbness
- Forgetting the death or Wishing to believe that the bereaved is still alive
- A preoccupation with memories of the dead
- Fears they are “going mad”.
- Anxiety and fearfulness
- Anger and Hostility
- Imitation of the deceased’s behaviour
- Feeling physically ill
- Mental disorganisation
- Altered perspectives: believing that they no longer know what the world is about. Every thing has changed their values, their faith, and their friends.
While some feelings may be frightening and bizarre to the bereaved and their friends it is important to note that these reactions are “normal” and actually may serve a purpose. When the bereaved are shock, numb or have temporarily forgotten the death, this is the body and the brains’ way of giving that person temporary respite from the raw and intense pain of loss.
Kubler-Ross describes the “stages” of grief and is universally the most popular grief theorist. Kubler Ross believed that the bereaved went through stages starting with denial and ending with gradual acceptance. Many theories of grief throughout the 20th century stated that the goal in the journey of grief was to break the attachment and relationship we had with the person who had died and to “accept” the death and move on to a stage where we can love other people and be happy once more. This was seen as “reinvesting” in a world where the dead person no longer existed (Klass 2000). Since the 1980’s people have come to understand that grief is more complex and multidimensional than this and that important and loving relationships can continue even in death (Coyle 1998). While people who are grieving may experience many of the emotions in Kubler-Ross’s “stages” it is important to keep in mind that grief is fluid and particular emotions can come, go and revisit. You may never be “finished” with some of the emotions connected to the loss of someone you love.
Just as we can love someone when they are at school or work, or we can maintain a loving relationship with someone when they live overseas and out of physical contact for months and years, so too can we love and maintain a relationship with someone who has died. It is now acknowledged that bereaved people do not detach from those they love just because the person has died. The new emphasis in bereavement is the concept of “continuing bonds” or continuing love and relationship with those loved ones who have died.
The concept of “continuing bonds” challenges the dominant assumption that resolution of grief is achieved through severing bonds with the deceased. (Davies 2004)
There are many ways that we can continue to have a meaningful and loving relationship with those who have died. Many people maintain the relationship by simply talking to the person who has died and keeping the memories of the person who has died central to their every day conversations (Klass 1993). Many of the bereaved find solace though sensing the dead person. An example of this is a couple who have had a passion for gardening and one of them dies. Having shared a love of the garden their whole life together the surviving spouse may in difficult times sense their dead partner is around by smelling the aroma of flowers, being comforted by seeing a picture of a flower and feeling this is their partners’ way of letting them know they are not alone. People who are grieving may surround themselves with objects that have strong links or particular meaning for the person who has died. They may start wearing their mothers’ jumper to feel “surrounded” by her presence or wear their boyfriends cologne as a means of comfort and closeness. Other bereaved people may find comfort and a sense of connection with those who have died through writing, painting, establishing memorials, rituals and prayer (Davies 2004). Grief is such an intimate experience for an individual it is vital that we are respectful and supportive of ANY way they want to maintain the relationship with the person who has died.
In Western culture grief and loss is seen as a private process. Unlike Middle Eastern countries where people are encouraged to scream their pain and anguish, many of us feel uncomfortable and powerless to assist people when they have a huge outpouring of emotion. In our society the bereaved often sense people’s discomfort and feel the need to grieve alone, which increases their sense of loneliness and isolation. Not only has their precious loved one died but the bereaved may now experience a “social death” as friends and colleagues stop calling and inviting them to events. People confronted by loss and grief need friends, support and practical assistance more than anything else. A person’s level of support and network of friends is seen as the most important element in “surviving” the ordeal of loss and grief well. Remember that there really is no normal way to grieve because there is no normal way to love.
Liz Crowe is a Paediatric Social Worker with ten years experience in working with children and families who are experiencing crisis, illness, death, loss and grief situations. She is currently working in private practice with Mandy Tanner undertaking grief and loss education workshops. Liz lives in Manly and is happily married to Michael and the proud mother of two divine little boys Noah (4) and Aiden (1). You can contact Liz at firstname.lastname@example.org
Attig, T (2000) Relearning the World: Making and Finding Meanings in Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
Burnett, P.; Middleton, W.; Raphael, B; Dunne, M; Moylan, A & Martinek, N. (1994) Concepts of Normal Bereavement Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 7, No. 1;
Coyle, B. (1998) Restoring Meaning and Purpose After The Death of a Child: A Qualitative Psychological Study. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences & Engineering. Vol 59(3-B) Sept 1998 1363
Davies, R. (2004) New understandings of parental grief: literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing 46(5): 506-513
Golden, T. & Miller, J.E. (1998) A Man You Know Is Grieving – 12 Ideas for Helping Him Heal from Loss. Indiana: Willow Green Publishing;
Klass, D. (2000) The Inner Representation of the Dead Child in the Psychic and Social Narratives of Bereaved Parents. in Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association;
Raphael, B. (1984) The Anatomy of Bereavement: A Handbook for the Caring Professions. London: Hutchinson;
Rosof, B. D. (1994) The Worst Loss – How Families Heal from the Death of a Child. New York: Henry Holt and Company
Smith, C.A. (1982) Social Work with the Dying and Bereaved. London: Macmillan
Stroebe, M.S., Stroebe, W. & Hansson, R.O. (Eds), (1993) Handbook of Bereavement Research:Theory, Research and Intervention .New York: Cambridge University Press
Please note: This is the first in a four part series on grief and loss. These series will aim to give the reader the basic concepts of loss and grief and how they apply to areas relevant to families. Subsequent articles will focus on Gender and Grief, Miscarriage and Grief and Children and Grief.
How can we support someone who has had a love one die?
- Be a friend and maintain contact.
- Many people are overwhelmed with food, cards and phone calls in the immediate days following a death only to spend many lonely times ahead in the subsequent months. Keep in touch.
- If you are not sure what to say and feel uncomfortable, tell the person that you are at a loss for words but that you are there for them or simply touch them.
- Ask the person what they need most at the moment, it may be the ironing done or someone to have coffee with.
- If people want to be alone don’t take this personally. Drop them a card in a couple of weeks and remind them that they are in your thoughts.
- Remember the birthday and anniversary of the person who has died and contact the family around these important events. The first Christmas, Easter, Fathers Day etc is also particularly hard and a good time to make contact with the family. Remember that often every day is hard especially in the first year.
- Continue to talk about the person who has died, laugh about the things they did, miss things about them to their loved ones.
- Don’t fear other people’s tears. When someone we love dies people cry a lot and that is healthy and normal. These tears may be forever.
- It will be the simple gestures that people remember.
How to look after yourself when someone you love dies:
- Be gentle with yourself and take each day as it comes.
- Remember that people do not intentionally hurt or avoid you, they are probably just uncomfortable and worried about doing the “right” thing.
- Help people to help you. If they ask what it is that you need, give them an honest answer.
- Seek out support if you need it.
- Contact support groups such as Compassionate Friends, Qld Cancer Fund, Leukaemia Foundation etc if you are feeling isolated. Support groups will put you in touch with people who have experienced a similar loss.
- Knowledge can be power. There are a number of great books and websites for people who have experienced significant loss and grief. This may help you to understand that what you are going through is normal and help others in your family.
- Take the time to grieve.
- How ever you are grieving is probably right for you so don’t be influenced by others as to what you “should” be doing.