Grief is normal. Everyone does it differently. Part 1.

Dr. Nancy Reeves

Registered Psychologist

Tuesday, May 1 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.

Is my grief normal?

I must have heard this question a thousand times in the 39 years I have been working in the area of trauma, grief and loss. It comes from teens and elders, young adults, and older ones, in workshops and in my counseling practice. Sometimes I think it would be easier if there were one way to grieve; all grievers would know if they were doing it right or wrong. But then I realize that would mean we would all be the same. Same needs, same interests, same issues. The world is a much more interesting place with diverse peoples, animals, geography, and so on.

Each person has a unique process for healing. There are, however, many common ‘threads’ between grievers so that we can speak of specific physical symptoms or psychological issues and many people will find them familiar.

Grief hurts. It is a holistic process, involving emotional, physical, mental and spiritual dimensions, so pain is felt in all these areas. The purpose of grief is to heal, and the pain, strange as it may sound, is helpful to that healing. We grieve, to some extent, for any loss. A loss is an experience that restricts us in some way, from bereavement to a creative block, and if we do not make some change in attitude, behavior or life-style, after a loss, the restriction will stay and burden us. For example, if we experience the death of the family member who handled the finances, another family member needs to take on that role or bills will not be paid. One woman I knew was in such denial after her husband’s death, that she kept putting bills on his desk, until the bank started to repossess her house!

This is normal. 

This is grief.

Purpose of grief

The grieving process helps us adjust to a loss by showing us what the loss means to us, and we can then decide what we need to do in order to heal. The pain of the grieving process, is present in each of the four dimensions listed above, and keeps us focused on our loss so we will do the “work” necessary for our healing.

Because we grieve for the implications and meaning of a loss, not only for the ‘fact’ of a loss, the grief may last a few weeks or many years. These implications are examples of a few that may be present in your grieving process: Intrapersonal (how the loss affects self-esteem and self-image), interpersonal (how it affects relationships), financial, roles, and status (how does position in family, job, and wider community change because now you are a ‘widow’ or ‘bereaved parent’). 

The number and difficulty of the implications determines the length, depth, and difficulty of our grief. None of us can know how long our grief will last, although experiencing loss due to suicide, murder, the death of a child, etc. will usually take longer to heal.

The grieving process is like a spider web. Every strand is connected, yet we can’t tell beforehand which strand will be more appropriate to travel on. One implication may not be grieved for years. For example, telling a young widow to grieve the fact that her husband will not be present to give his daughter away in marriage makes no sense. Fifteen years later, as she prepares for the wedding, the mom may grieve. If she knows this is normal, the grief can actually feel like a meaningful connection with her child’s natural father. And even though she may have a new partner who has taken on the role of ‘dad’, the bride may wish to honour her first father by including a symbol of him on her special day.

The goal of grief is not to reach a point where we feel nothing about the person or thing we have lost. Healing involves four points:

A shift of energy. Energy that had been used to assist your adjustment to the loss is now freed for survival and life-enhancement needs.

Being able to think about the loss without having to ‘sit’ on emotions to keep them from becoming overwhelming.

Feeling able to live, not just exist.

A change of focus. The loss leaves the center of your awareness or life. Although, at times, some aspects of the loss will need time and energy, most of the time it feels integrated in your life.

The grieving process naturally comes and goes in waves. We move in and out of various implications and symptoms as they become relevant. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed and in the ‘depths’ of grief. At other moments we may experience a sense of peace or just a soft, light sadness. Family members will have different grief experiences. A child’s relationship with mom is very different from the connection mom had with dad. 

By riding the waves, we do not usually stay long in very intense grief. Some people have a problem feeling deeply, though, and try to keep busy or to otherwise divert themselves. Others feel guilty about the normal ‘respite’ periods of little grief, and so they think or feel themselves back to a deep level of pain. Interfering with the natural process by trying to control the depth of grief is exhausting and slows healing.

Some normal symptoms of grief, include:

Emotional – sadness, anger, longing, depression, anxiety or fear, apathy or resignation

Mental – poor concentration, poor memory, difficulty making decisions

Physical – tears, sleep disturbance and/or fatigue, restlessness, weight change, diarrhea or constipation, cardiovascular disturbance, nausea, sexual disturbance

Spiritual – doubting or examining beliefs, sense of distance from God, of Life, difficulty praying or meditating

Knowledge is power

Being ‘informed consumers’ of the grieving process allows us to find the style of grief and healing tools that ‘fit’ our personality and way of living. May you move surely towards healing on the path through loss.

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