We all experience grief for varying reasons — the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the loss of a pet — but when it involves the death of a loved one, it can be very intense, disorienting and even frightening. While the experience can seem to shake our entire world, it helps to understand that grief is natural — and even healthy — when we find the strength to handle it well.
Grief is commonly thought of as occurring in stages, but it’s not a neat, predictable experience. It’s actually a jumble of feelings and thoughts that can have you flipping back and forth from one stage to another, between emotional highs and lows that can be terrifying at times.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, the stages commonly experienced include:
- Stage I — Numbness or Shock. This can involve a sense of unreality and of being lost, as if you’re living in a bad dream. In the extreme, you may feel as if you’re going crazy.
- Stage II — Disorganization. After the initial shock wears off, you’ll begin to experience a rush of emotions that can include sadness, anger, poor concentration, loss of interest and motivation, fear, guilt, denial, depression, regret and yearning. You may even begin to question your life choices, your religious beliefs, your relationships and your future. This emotional upheaval is normal and necessary in working through your grief.
- Stage III — Reorganization. At this point, the worst parts of your grieving will have greatly diminished and you will be able to begin to adjust to your new life without the person or thing that was lost. You can now focus on your life and enjoy moments of happiness again, even when thinking about your lost loved one.
By working through these stages — at your own pace — you’ll eventually find a new normal for yourself where you can reinvest in new relationships and activities.
But since grief is an ongoing area of study, there are different (and newer) ways of looking at how a person goes through the process of grieving. Two examples are Therese Rando’s Six R’s and William Worden’s Tasks of Mourning — generally, both of these go from recognizing loss to moving on with life while not forgetting the person who died.
The physical signs
In addition to the emotional jumble, you may also experience physical consequences, such as:
- high blood pressure
- increased heart rate
- extreme fatigue
- shortness of breath
- loss of appetite
Remember to pay attention to your body and the symptoms of grieving. And don’t hesitate to speak to your healthcare provider if the symptoms persist or get worse.
Also know that If you’re in the midst of grieving, it may seem like all of this turmoil will never end. But it will and you can help move beyond it.
What you can do
There is no standard timeline for dealing with grief; we’re all different in our reactions and coping abilities. You could be experiencing symptoms of the first two stages for weeks or months, and even years in some cases. But there are things you can do to help manage your grief and lessen the intensity and duration of its more serious effects:
- Express your feelings openly. Cry when you need to. Don’t be embarrassed about how you feel. Even anger can be part of the process and showing anger doesn’t mean you’re not grieving.
- Don’t try to put the loss behind you quickly. Allow yourself time to grieve and to sort through the confusion of emotions and thoughts. You need to go through the process of grieving, and that doesn’t come with a time limit.
- Spend time with your loved ones. Let family and friends help you deal with the loss.
- Accept that things have changed forever. It may be difficult at times, but try to recognize that you ultimately have to adapt to those changes. And while you may never get over the loss completely, you will find a new normal.
- If you’re having trouble expressing yourself to others, start a journal. This can help you deal with pent up feelings and thoughts.
- Pay attention to your health — including your level of stress. Do whatever you can to maintain a healthy diet and some physical activity even if it’s just taking short walks. And be proactive about managing stress.
- Help others who are grieving. Encourage other family members and friends to speak openly about their feelings. By doing so, you can exchange experiences and find support in one another.
- Give yourself time to clear your head. Don’t make any major life decisions in the weeks or even months following your loss.
- Celebrate the life of the person who died. Relive your memories of them privately or even arrange a special family get together once you’re all past the worst part of your grief.
And if you know someone who is going through the grieving process, keep these tips in mind when offering your support. Also remember that everyone grieves differently so help them through their own process by listening to them and supporting them rather than try to “cheer them up” or help them “snap out of it.”
Getting the help you need
You can do it. You can cope and manage and survive the grief associated with the loss of a loved one, but you can’t do it alone—you need family and friends, maybe a support group or therapy. Just remember that it can be tough to tell the difference between “normal” grief and serious depression, so speak to your healthcare provider for guidance.