Understanding Grief

Sadly, the acute pain of loss and grief are an inevitable part of being human.  We cannot escape loss and bereavement and are likely to find ourselves experiencing grief of some sort many times throughout our lives.  This blog, the first in a series of 5, offers a consideration of grief and common reactions to loss.  We also consider why it can be so hard to speak about loss and grief. 

We give the name “grief” to the feelings of loss and emptiness we commonly experience after the death of someone we value or love.  Yet, there are multiple forms of loss. It’s normal and natural to also experience grief when faced with the loss of a job, the death of a pet or even when moving home.   Having a friend or family member with a diagnosis of dementia can be a form of grief, as you anticipate the unknown journey ahead.  Perhaps you’ve known the heart-breaking agony of pregnancy loss?  Or the grief that can result after a life-changing health diagnosis?  For many parents, empty nest syndrome also throws us feelings of loss and grief.  Then there are forms of loss which are less tangible – the transitoriness of youth and the loss of our vitality as we age, the loss of hopes and dreams when plans change and the gradual loss of optimism as we become disillusioned with certain relationships or situations. 

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Why is it so hard to speak about grief?

Talking about grief and loss can feel difficult and daunting.  Thoughts, feelings and physical sensations associated with grief can, in themselves, feel very confusing, overwhelming and disorientating.  We might feel like we don’t know which way is up?  Whether we are coming or going?  People grieving often speak of feeling like they are living in a fog, or a daze, or report a numbness where they are just “going through the motions”.  Feeling such confusion can make it difficult to find the words to express your sense of loss, and connect with the pain.  It’s also possible to feel scared and apprehensive about allowing yourself to identify and name your feelings of loss.  For many people who are grieving, there can be a visceral fear that if they allow themselves to speak of the loss they feel, it will be loke opening a floodgate, and that they will be overwhelmed with a Tsunami of loss. 

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Other people’s reaction to our loss.

There’s also other people’s reactions to deal with.  Perhaps you’ve experienced grief, and attempted to open up to others, but felt shut down by their response?  Perhaps you’ve noticed their desire to “cheer you up” by speaking about something else or seen their discomfort when you’ve begun to share the rawness of your pain. Sadly, people who have been bereaved sometimes report that colleagues, or even friends and family members keep their distance, perhaps unsure of exactly what to say.   It may be that you feel a need to protect others who are grieving, and avoid speaking of your pain out of a concern and a care not to upset them further.  Silencing yourself in this way can make dealing with the pain of loss even more difficult.

Disenfranchised grief.

It’s also possible that you feel unable to give voice to your grief, or feel you can’t tell anyone about what you have experienced.  This is something people sometimes say when they have experienced pregnancy loss, or after the death of a lover where the relationship was not public knowledge.  This form of grief is sometimes called “disenfranchised grief”. Here, the cloak of secrecy and silence can feel heavy and cloying. 

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In this series of 5 blogs, we’ll be exploring loss and grief, including:

  • Common reactions to and symptoms of loss and grief.
  • Different ways of understanding grief.
  • Support for the experience of loss and grief. 

Common reactions to and symptoms of loss and grief.

Let’s take a look at the first of these.  Is it possible to speak of common reactions to loss?  Or to identify symptoms of grief?  These are important questions.  Certainly, there is no one “right” way to grieve, and no standard grief process.  Indeed, everyone’s experience of grief and loss is unique, just as we are unique.  How we feel about and respond to a loss is impacted by many, many factors – including our past experience of loss, and the resources and support we have available, including both inner resources, such as resilience and self-compassion, as well as external resources, such as an understanding employer, supportive friends and access to accurate information.  Therefore, everyone’s experience of loss and grief will be different, and may even feel quite different for a person on different days.   

It’s also important to consider whether there are “symptoms” of grief.  The word symptom has overtones of illness and disease.  Grief is not an illness, although it may feel painful – including physically painful, at times.  Therefore, speaking of symptom of grief can lead to people asking if there is a medication or a solution to “take away” their grief.   Indeed, lots of people will ask for their GP, or another health professional’s input after a bereavement or other loss, and there is some helpful NHS advice available in relation to feelings of loss and grief following a bereavement.   

So, that said, is there any way we can identify some of the things that are common to many people’s experiences of grief?  Doing so provides some sort of a framework that can help to normalise and make sense of grief. 

Some of the reactions and responses that people who have experienced loss report are:

  • Feelings of shock and numbness.
  • Overwhelming sadness, with lots of crying.  Equally, feelings of guilt because there are no tears, despite your sadness. 
  • Tiredness or exhaustion and difficulty sleeping.
  • Seeing, hearing or sensing someone who has died.  
  • Anger – towards the person you’ve lost, towards yourself, or someone or something else.
  • Guilt – for example, guilt about feeling angry, regrets about something you said or did not say, or not being able to prevent the loss. 
  • Physical pain – grief increases inflammation in our body which can impact existing health problems or lead to new aches and pains, as well decreasing our immunity. 

This list is in no way exhaustive, and many people experience changes and fluctuations in their experience of grief.  There’s plenty more information about the effects of grief on the Cruse (the National Bereavement Charity) website.

Adapting to loss and grief.

Many people report, and research shows that, with good support, they are able – in time – to adapt well to bereavement, and regain a sense of balance after some weeks or months of acute grief, although they still feel a sense of loss for a long time after the bereavement.  

However, we also know that some people can experience chronic or complex grief, sometimes known as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder (PCBD) where grief is having a significant impact upon their functioning for a lengthy period of time post-bereavement.  Rates of prolonged grief tend to be higher after the death of a child or violent traumatic death.  It is really important to seek professional help if you feel that grief is having a significant impact in your functioning for a lengthy period of time post-bereavement. 

Counselling for grief and loss.

Counselling can help you process feelings of loss.

Speaking with a qualified and experienced therapist can be helpful in managing feelings of grief and loss, whatever the cause.  Many people seek therapy in the first few months after a loss.  Others seek support years and even decades after a loss.  Psychotherapy can be a great support to help with feelings of loss and grief, our relationship to that loss, and chance to feel our feelings in a non-judgemental space. 

So – grief may be a normal and natural part of life.  It’s also painful and raw.  In this blog, we’ve considered some of the forms grief can take, as well as the impact and effects of loss for many people.  In the second blog in this series, we’ll consider some of the many different models and ways of making sense of the grief process.

If you have been impacted by any of the themes or topics in this blog, please reach out for support.  One of the ways you can do this is by speaking to a bereavement counsellor via the free webchat service provided by Cruse.   

Published by Claire Law

Qualified Preston-based Counsellor and Psychotherapist offering space for you to find freedom from what holds you back.

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