Losing a loved one is an incredibly devastating experience that opens up a place of deep, emotional suffering. This pain of loss can feel overwhelming, causing a disruption to your physical and mental health. The many thoughts and feelings that flood through your mind and body following a loss are all a part of the natural process of grieving.
Not only are we different from one another, but we differ in the way our losses are processed too. With this, the grieving journey is a unique and individual reaction to loss in that none of us experience it the same way. While some of us feel numb to the pain, others admit to experiencing very strong emotions and responses.
Throughout the duration of your grieving, it’s very important to understand that there is no timeframe to get back to “normal”, and that “normal” may look different following a loss. The journey might take you to an emotional depth you’ve never experienced before, and that’s okay. It’s important to keep in mind that you are not alone in this process.
Grief is a response we commonly experience after the loss of a loved one. While many people associate grief with an emotional feeling, such as sadness or sorrow, it also includes physical, cognitive, behavioural, and social impacts as well.
For some, the heartache of losing a loved one can translate directly into physical pain in the chest. No matter your reaction or experiences, it’s important to remember that there is no such thing as grieving for too long.
Grief can be experienced on a tremendous level following the loss of a loved one. Although no two people experience grief in the same way, it’s typically seen to display some similar characteristics. Here, we have captured the 5 stages of grief and how unique it may be expressed from one person to the next.
The sudden loss of a loved one can come as an intense shock to many of us. This is especially true when experiencing an unexpected loss. The initial stage of grief can overwhelm someone so much so that they often act like nothing happened at all.
The reason we experience denial following a tragic event is to give ourselves more time to slowly absorb and digest the news before we begin to process it. As a common defence mechanism, it can be a barrier to the pain by numbing our emotions entirely. You’ll know that this stage is reaching an end when you find yourself confronted with feelings of sorrow and intense sadness — both of which were previously denied from entering into your consciousness.
Anger is the next stage to take over your grieving process. While denial may help you to cope, it’s only a temporary bandage to this experience. Once this subsides, anger can seep in to mask the depths of your pain.
Anger, bitterness or resentment may be directed to the people around you, and other times, it’s directed to the person who passed away. It’s important to note that this anger is a very normal response and it is not focused on actually blaming anyone for the pain you’re masking. Instead, anger is expressed when your feelings in that moment are too intense for you to comprehend.
While not everyone will go through this stage in their journey with grief, those that do may linger here for a while or eventually go on to rationalize their true emotions.
Either following the first or second stages in the grieving process, you may enter into a bargaining stage. As feelings of vulnerability and helplessness seep in, it’s common to look for ways in which you can regain some control in your life. In the bargaining stage, you’re likely to be creating scenarios in your head starting with statements of “what if…” or “if only…”.
For many people, bargaining is another defence mechanism against the true emotions of grief. Rather than feeling sadness, confusion, hurt, or sorrow, you make the conscious effort to postpone it all.
Once the attempt to distance yourself from all your feelings has ended, depression may run its course. As the fourth stage of the grieving process, depression is the first time your mind is ‘quiet’ and you’re able to truly embrace the emotions to come.
This stage is very unique to many people. Some people choose to cope with their depressive thoughts and feelings with other close companions while others prefer to isolate themselves and work through their loss alone. It can bring about an array of overwhelming emotions during this time, causing you to feel foggy, heavy and even confused.
Compared to the previous stages of grief, depression tends to be a longer lasting phase. Without knowing how to move forward in a healthy and productive way, many people remain in this stage for months and sometimes even years. Speaking with a trusted loved one or a mental health counsellor are both beneficial avenues to help guide you towards the final stage of grieving.
Finally, we have acceptance. This stage is not necessarily meant to be a resolution, but instead more of an overall understanding of what the loss means in your life right now. Acceptance is a milestone in your journey to coping. It in no way means that you’ve moved past the grief of your loss. In fact, it’s not uncommon to slip back into the other stages after reaching acceptance.
Your process is a journey and it is yours to experience however you feel is right. Acceptance is the act of embracing the process for what it is — both the good and the bad. It’s important to understand that it may not be a straight path ahead and some days may feel worse than others. The key is to continue to feel and allow your emotions to be a part of the journey.
There are many reasons that cause us to cope with the loss of a loved one in a different way. In the efforts to better understand your personal journey through grief and bereavement and the different emotions that follow, there are a few factors to take into consideration.
First is the relationship you shared with the individual who has passed. It’s only natural that the more significant this person is to you, the more intense you will experience grief from their loss. Having your parents, spouse, or child pass will elicit emotional pain that takes a great deal of time to process.
Next, the circumstances surrounding the loss of a loved one can play a major role in your experience of grief. Having a loved one pass unexpectedly in a car accident can significantly alter your emotional grieving when compared to having them pass slowly from a diagnosed terminal illness. Of course, while one instance is no less devastating than the other, the unexpected loss of a loved one can come as a different kind of shock. This can play into how you process the situation and navigate through the 5 steps of grieving.
Lastly, your previous experiences of loss can make a considerable difference in how you grieve now. While no one should have to go through this sort of excruciating heartache, having the experience of loss in your past may alter your resilience, coping strategies, and grieving process quite significantly.
As you navigate through the days and weeks ahead, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re not alone in this journey. Finding support in your community can be a beneficial strategy to help you cope with your loss. Support can come in many forms including personal (self-care practices), professional (counselling services), or spiritual (attending church or meditation).
At On Your Mind Counselling, we are prepared to lend support to you once you are ready and willing to receive it. Our team of trained professionals have years of experience in the area of grief and bereavement. We work closely with you to encourage conversation around the loss of your loved one in the efforts to help you process your grief.
At the end of the day, while grief is a very natural reaction to the loss of a loved one, it’s also an incredibly complicated process. There is no right or wrong way to go through grief so long as it feels helpful for you. Whichever stage of grief you’re currently in, it may be beneficial to begin considering the support outlets available in your community.
Coming soon: Grief and Bereavement Part 2: Anticipatory Grief and Unexpected Loss
Written by Laura Anderson BA, MA, MSW, RSW.