The Pain of Grief and the Road to Healing

Losing People we Love 

Grief – One of life’s hardest challenges                             

Grief is a very personal journey. There are no wrong or right ways to grieve. Understanding the process of grief can help us support ourselves and others.  There are two certainties in life.  At some point we will die and so will the people we love.  This is a harsh reality that we don’t often think about until we are confronted with it head on.  The loss of a loved one or someone who is close to us is a devastating blow to our personal World.

As a therapist I work with individuals who have experienced the loss of a family member or friend. I have also had the honour to work with individuals who are coping with the knowledge that they have a terminal condition and are going to die.  On a personal level I have lost close family members and friends, feeling the emotional devastation that comes with saying goodbye and negotiating a way forward whilst trying to find a regained sense of normality.

When we talk about the “bereaved” we mainly use this term in relation to those individuals who have lost someone. However, I think it is important to understand that people who are experiencing an illness or condition that is terminal are also dealing with their own bereavement. They are not only dealing with the impact on their own sense of self but also with the feelings of those close to them.

Understanding the process of grief             

The word Grief comes from the Latin words Gravare to make heavy or Gravis which mean weighty. Various theories have been put forward to try to explain the process of grief.  Although useful, it is important to remember that grieving is unique to each of us.  When we experience a loss or bereavement there are particular emotional responses we can feel. Being aware can help to support ourselves and others through a loss.

Key Models

A key model that is used to explain grief is the Five stages of grief by Kubler Ross (1969) and is as follows:

1) Denial – Often we can react with numbness and disbelief.  We might deny the reality of the situation or loss at some level to avoid the pain or fear.

2) Anger – Intense feelings of anger and resentment commonly arise during this stage.  Unwarranted blame may be directed towards other people, systems and organisations.

3) Bargaining – We use bargaining in a psychological effort to avoid the pain, to try to explain in our minds the things that could have been or made a difference.

4) Depression – This phase reflects the reality of the situation and the loss being fully felt, the magnitude of it and it can feel overwhelming.

5) Acceptance – This not about “forgetting” but rather about re–entering reality as it now is.  It involves integrating the new reality and emotions and finding a way forward.

These stages are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with a loved one we have lost. They can be useful in helping to understand and identity our emotions and feelings but it is important to recognise that grief doesn’t follow a linear pattern but rather we go back and forth within our grief journey the time period varies between individuals.

Another way of looking at grief is through completing “tasks in mourning”(Worden).  These tasks include:

1) Accepting the reality of the loss – This task involves us coming to terms with the end of someone’s life or our own.

2) Work through the pain and grief – Grief is emotionally and physically painful. The task here is for us to “deal with” and “experience” the pain that we naturally want to avoid.

3) Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing – This task focuses on the bereaved adjusting to life without their loved one and involves both internal and external adjustments.

4) Find an enduring connection whilst moving forward – This final task is about retaining an emotional connection with the deceased whilst continuing with life.

How our grieving process can be affected               

Our ability to cope with loss is affected by lots of things. It’s very individual. We won’t all experience the same thing as no two loses are the same and neither are relationships. If we can be mindful about this it can greatly help our understanding around our own and others responses to loss.

Factors such as our own personality type, upbringing and culture (family and society) have an impact on how we view and respond to death and dying. The amount of previous losses we have experienced along with how we cope with them will have an impact. The nature of the relationship or attachment is of key importance.  Psychological theory places an importance on the development of healthy attachments in providing resilience.  Other factors that influence our ability to work through grief include our support systems, financial pressures, current personal health issues and social acceptability of the cause of death or the relationship.

Supporting the bereaved

There are many misconceptions about the grieving process. It can also feel difficult in knowing how to support someone going through a loss or bereavement. Below are some pointers to think about that can help:

  • Understand and accept we all deal with grief differently. Don’t pressure the bereaved to “move on” or be judgemental about choices they make afterwards.
  • Listen and encourage the person to talk if they want too. Being able to re tell their story over again helps with processing and the healing process.
  • Offer practical help where you can. This can be particularly helpful at the start when life feels very chaotic.
  • Be accepting that emotions are intense so don’t take things personally. Allow the bereaved to show anger or cry without making a judgment of telling them how to respond.
  • Be aware children grieve too although not necessarily the same as adults. Death can be very confusing for children and they may not cry or show sadness like adults.

Supporting loved ones with a terminal condition

There are some helpful ways in which we can support those we know and love who are coping with terminal conditions.

  • Appreciate they are not only dealing with their own feelings and emotions but are also dealing with the emotions of those around them.
  • Understand that a person’s perspective on life can change dramatically. What was once important or had value may change.
  • Be prepared to talk over wishes and arrangements. Often, this can be a helpful process for all those involved.
  • Creating memory or Keepsafe boxes can help families create enduring memories and help with grief

For more detailed information on grief and supporting the bereaved go to our resources page to access our free download

Niki x