What is Grief?
Grief is the emotional suffering we experience when something we care about is taken away. It is a normal human response. Generally, the more significant the loss the more intense the grief. However, there is no right or wrong way to feel grief. While it is a normal human response, it is not the same for all humans. It takes as long as it takes and can be experienced in stages, can feel like waves or feel like you are on a roller-coaster of different emotions. What is important to keep in mind is that the experience of loss is real, painful and emotionally disorganising and that feeling this way does not make you “crazy”.
Is what I am experiencing “normal”?
It can be common to experience;
- A mixture of strong emotions, including intense sadness, anger, guilt, horror, injustice, betrayal, etc.
- Crying a lot or feeling that you can’t cry
- Feeling confused when feeling relief if the circumstances surrounding the death were long and painful
- Feeling numb and/or like you “going through the motions”
- Feeling detached from the whole situation
- Needing to tell the story of the death again and again or not being able to talk about the death at all
- Wanting to avoid all reminders of the death and person who died
- Feeling hopeless and powerless
- Changes to sleep – sleeping more or less, finding it hard to get to sleep, being scared to go to sleep
- Dreaming about the death, having nightmares regarding the person who died and the details of the death
- Experiencing more headaches or stomach aches than usual
- Being quick to anger and finding yourself fighting with others more than usual
- Not wanting to stay home alone, or being afraid to be alone
- Not wanting to go out, withdrawing from friends
- Finding it hard to concentrate
- Worrying about who might die next
- Wanting to be with the person who died
- Feeling distressed that the pain, sadness and grief aren’t going away
- Wondering if how you are feeling is “normal”
- Talking openly to someone who can give appropriate support and help you through the whole emotional process including talking about the death, the person who died and the emotions that you are feeling.
- Feeling connected to others – seeking social support from loved ones, friends, support groups, community groups.
- Maintaining or re-discovering a positive outlook on life – finding meaning in life.
- Creating structure in areas of your life that you can control, such as keeping regular mealtimes and bedtimes and scheduling regular exercise.
- Being prepared for anniversaries, birthdays and special days that you know may be a trigger for your grief.
What doesn’t help?
- Not getting the opportunity to express your feelings, especially working through feelings of guilt and self-condemnation.
- Social isolation.
- Losing a sustaining philosophy of life.
- Condemning yourself for “being weak” in the face of your emotion, thus trying to push those emotions away to be “strong”.
- Ignoring the pain – it doesn’t make it go way.
- Putting a time limit on your grieving process.
When to be worried about someone who is grieving
The sadness of losing someone never completely goes away but an improvement should be notable over time. When there is no improvement and perhaps even a worsening of symptoms a visit to a mental health professional should be encouraged immediately. Signs to look out for include;
- Withdrawing from all regular contacts and activities.
- Expressing a feeling that life is empty or meaningless.
- Expressing an intense and pervasive sense of guilt.
- Expressing thoughts of suicide or an intense preoccupation with death.
- Inability to function in the usual way or manage basic self-care.
As the experience of grief is so personal and confusing, it can be difficult to find someone in your social circle to process your feelings surrounding the loss with. This is where a qualified mental health professional or grief counsellor can be of assistance.
Greta Neilsen is a clinical psychologist working in Brisbane at Bowen Hills Psychology. Greta has a special interest in complex mental health conditions and helping people manage strong emotions like grief and loss. For more information see the main page at;