Grief is normal. Everyone does it differently. Part 2 of 4

Dr. Nancy Reeves

Registered Psychologist

Tuesday, May 8 2018

May 7, 2018 to May 13, 2018 is Mental Health Week in Canada. For the month of May, Dr. Reeves will be writing on the theme of grief, loss, and the complicated reactions people have to traumatic situations.

Complicated grief: The first article in this series looked at normal reactions to loss. This will explore some of the reasons some people feel “stuck” in their grief, or that their reactions to loss seem never-ending. Grief is complicated when it continues to be the centre of a person’s life for a long time, and/or when it is incredibly complex. Complicated grief can have a negative impact on a person’s self-esteem.

I feel your pain: In 2010, a research article was published in Pain - Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain. The researchers, Drs. Osborn and Derbyshire of the University of Birmingham, recruited 108 undergraduate psychology students with an average age of 23 years. Participants were shown images and movie clips of people in pain, such as breaking a leg. Immediately after viewing the pictures or movies, they were asked what reactions they experienced. Most participants indicated feeling upset or empathic when they saw the people in pain.

Of the 108 participants, 31 also reported a pain sensation when they saw the images. All 31 described feeling the pain in the same location as that observed in the picture. The most common description of the pain was “tingling.”

A number of participants then underwent MRI scans and these demonstrated that both groups showed increased activity in brain areas associated with emotion, but that the felt-pain group also showed more activity in the area of the brain that processes sensations from the body 

The researchers concluded that a minority of normal subjects “share not just the emotional component of an observed injury, but also the sensory component.” Regions of the brain known to be involved in pain are activated, and, “these regions are not just passively recording injury or threats to tissue, but are actively generating painful experience.” Reactions to loss can be complicated when grievers are so sensitive to their own or others pain or distress, they feel overwhelmed. Some people can’t watch or listen to the news because it distresses them so much. Great sensitivity can be a mixed blessing. Some of our greatest artwork and other creative endeavours come from highly sensitive individuals. Learning to “tone down” our sensitivity in order to deal effectively with stressful situations, and “crank it up” when needed for creativity or times of intimacy, can help highly sensitive individuals heal and grow more easily.

Unhelpful patterns 

Grief can become complicated if a person has a long-term pattern of low self-esteem, depression or anxiety. Any loss may just feel like “too much” and the griever may feel helpless or hopeless about working through it. Similarly, it can feel like a hopeless undertaking to heal when a loss has a very negative personal meaning, such as being responsible for someone’s death due to negligence. In these situations it can be very helpful to engage in counselling or to take a personal growth workshop or course, such as those offered at The Haven. 

Grief can also become complicated if a person has a belief pattern such as, “If you have enough faith you shouldn’t grieve.” 

Jen Turner, Gabriolan counsellor and psychotherapist, commented that, “I find clients really feel helped when they realize that the pain is a normal part of the healing process. I hope these articles help reduce the shame that some people feel at grieving in what they or those around them see as the “wrong” way.”

Absence of support or wrong type of support 

Sometimes grief can become complicated because of how others react to us. An ambiguous loss comes in two types. The first is one in which there is a physical absence and psychological presence, such as a child is missing and it is unknown whether the child has run away, been kidnapped or…The second type is when there is a physical presence and psychological absence, such as dementia. The griever or other people may not “legitimize” the loss, saying, “I’m sure she will come back when she’s ready,” or, “Just be thankful you still have him.” People need support for the real losses - the fact she is not there and the changes in the relationship dementia brings.

Disenfranchised loss is one where either the griever or others (family, friends, the community or religion) view the loss as not legitimate. Alan still grieves for his partner Thomas who died ten years ago. His grief is complicated because Thomas’ family did not accept the relationship and would not let Alan attend the funeral. Sue still grieves for the baby she gave up for adoption fifty years ago and had never been allowed to mention.

Some people have never developed self-care strategies to use during times of high stress or loss. In order to support ourselves through the grieving process it is helpful to have a range of self-care strategies. Some find it helpful to talk about their loss with others: family, friends, counsellors or groups such as the Gabriola Caregiver Support group - for family and friends of people living with dementia (contact Jane Hope 250 734-4170). But it is not always possible to talk with another, so if that is the only way we receive support, there will be times when we won’t get our needs met. 

It can help to understand what type of support we need. For example, if, in my distress, my body feels tight and uncomfortable, exercise or a massage may help me more that talking with someone. Here are some suggestions for holistic self-care:

Physical - exercise, massage or other type of body work, yoga or tai chi, eating comfort food (but not too much), intimate contact with loved ones, bubble baths, snuggling in bed with a hot water bottle, et cetera.

Mental - when thoughts are spinning or you want to focus on something other than the loss - a crossword or jigsaw puzzles, television, books, movies, attending a lecture or doing a project.

Emotional - when your heart is breaking, your emotions feel raw - talking with a trusted friend, journaling, or listening to music.

Spiritual - when faith is shaken, when you question why bad things happen to good people, when you need sustenance for your spirit - meditation, prayer, walking by the sea, reading inspirational books, attending religious or healing services…

Having a wide range of self-care strategies allows us to choose the one that will be most helpful at any one time. 

Sometimes we sense that we may need stimulating strategies; at other times calming ones - and some strategies may be needed daily (such as journaling or meditation). Others are for periodic use - such as dancing, or attending counselling. And others for special circumstances, i.e. a vacation or retreat.

Knowledge is power and I hope that the information in this article gives some knowledge that can help your own or a loved one’s healing journey.

Dr. Reeves is a registered psychologist living on Gabriola. Her workbook, “A Path Through Loss” is available at the library. nancyreeves.ca