Losing someone or something important, and the grief or bereavement process that follows that loss, can deeply affect a person’s life. It can change the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves.
When a loss happens, it is a new experience that the brain has to process and integrate with all of the experiences that already exist there. New ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving are created that include the new experience. It is a difficult job for the brain to do, and often it takes months to years to do it. But it is a normal process and people can usually move through it. Then people resume their normal, satisfying lives, even though their ways of thinking, feeling and behaving are somewhat changed by the loss.
In “normal” grief, certain normal stages of the grief process are to be expected to happen, as the brain integrates the experience of loss. They usually subside over time, and then a person can go on with his/her life. Normal stages of the grieving process include:
- Making new meaning
- Resolution and acceptance
These stages occur differently in different people. And people may go through them in a unique order or sequence, sometimes taking time to go through the various stages more than once.
Initially, following the loss, people tend to experience shock. That is, even if the loss is expected, they tend to experience a numb state of mind where both cognitive and emotional processing of the loss is stalled.
Often a state of denial follows. Denial is a defense mechanism that the mind uses to protect itself from overwhelming emotion. Denial can be experienced as a refusal to believe that the loss has happened, a sense of unreality associated with the loss, or a difficulty in appreciating all of the consequences of the loss. People in denial tend to act as if there is nothing wrong.
Slowly, people begin to deal with the negative emotions that naturally go along with the loss. Sadness is a reaction to loss that is frequent and quite understandable. Missing or longing for the lost person or thing can be part of the process. Crying may or may not happen.
Anger can happen as well, but it is more difficult to understand. For example, people can get angry at a loved one’s death. It may not make sense to be angry at someone who has died, because they usually did not choose to die. But people can get angry, anyway. It is a naturally occurring reaction. That anger can be directed toward the lost person, but it also can be directed elsewhere: toward other people, toward the survivor himself, toward the world at large, and toward God. And the direction it takes does not always make sense. The surviving person just feels angry.
Making new meaning of life can be experienced in various ways: in terms of a revised connection to the deceased person, in terms of new roles to be played by the surviving person, and in terms of of his/her new direction in life.
Sometimes existential questions arise, such as “Why did this happen?” or “What did I do to deserve this?” or “Who am I, now that this happened?” or “How safe can the world be if this can happen?” or “What did God have in mind when He let this happen?” Some of these questions have answers and some do not, but making new meaning allows survivors to make peace with them.
When the loss is grieved sufficiently, people can go on with their lives. It is not as if the loss is forgotten, but it exists in the memory in a new form that is compatible with the rest of the experiences in a person’s life. A new identity or new ways of living that include the loss can be developed. This is called resolution and acceptance.
Individual Differences in Grieving:
Wide individual differences exist in how people process the loss. The different stages may occur in a different order, at different intensities, for different durations, or with different ways of expressing the thoughts and feelings that are involved with them. Some people will be strong, and others will fall apart. Some people will be open with their feelings, and others will prefer to grieve privately. Some people will want a lot of support, and others would rather be alone. Some people will go back to their normal life quickly, and others may need more time. Some people will be angry at God, and others will look to God for support.
The particular experience of the grief process may be influenced by the following factors:
- How the loss happened
- Multiple losses vrs. singular loss
- Traumatic loss vrs. natural loss
- The survivor’s previous experiences of loss/trauma
- The life-circumstances of the survivor
- The personality of the survivor
- Cultural/religious traditions
- The amount of support that is available
Sometimes people get stuck in their grief. They may have trouble in moving from stage to stage. Or the attachment to the lost person may be so deep that the thought of moving on is unthinkable. Sometimes grief is complicated when there are ambivalent feelings toward the lost person. Sometimes there is not enough support for the grieving process. Whatever the underlying circumstances, complicated grief may show up as prolonged grief, absent grief, or grief that significantly interferes with the survivor’s ability to function. In these cases the survivor needs extra help, and he/she may need the help of a therapist to resolve the issues.
Loss and Grief Therapy:
Some people seek out grief counseling or therapy to help the grief process and ease their pain. Group therapy can be very useful, especially in cases of “normal” grief. It can provide a safe, accepting place for the survivor to experience his/her thoughts and feelings, it can provide emotional support, it can provide the feeling of sharing and connectedness, and it can provide practical suggestions for coping.
Some people prefer the group format for therapy, but some prefer to do their grief work in the privacy of individual therapy. They may feel uncomfortable in groups. Sometimes a loss will bring up other personal issues that need special attention.
Complicated grief may be best addressed in the individual therapy format.
There are many resources for group counseling and individual therapy. Helpful organizations that conduct group counseling can be found at hospitals and hospices. And many helpful organizations that do the same are listed on the internet. Individual therapists can be found by consulting physicians, lawyers and other professionals. They are also listed on the internet.