What is Grief?
Grief is a natural response to the experience of loss or tragedy. It may come from the loss of a loved one or a traumatic experience. A grieving person will deal with a myriad of emotions and it can be a difficult, and sometimes, highly charged experience.
The natural process of adapting or accepting a major loss in your life is referred to as mourning or bereavement. Mourning is a personal experience that may also include religious practices and cultural norms associated with grieving.
There is no ‘right’ way to grieve; everyone experiences grief and loss behaviours differently based on their personality, faith, or experience. Some people experience a ‘short’ period of mourning, while some others may find the entire process challenging. Grief may be experienced physically, psychologically or emotionally, and there may be persons who experience any of these at different intensities, while others may not immediately experience them.
Grieving is a highly subjective process among people, and should not be rushed or suppressed.
When you are grieving, you may go through any number of emotional states.
What you experience varies in terms of how the loss has personally affected you. Some people may go through intense bouts of anger, while others may go through severe depression and cut themselves off from their family and friends.
Emotional responses may also come about when you encounter something that reminds you of the departed, such as a song the both of you enjoyed, a photograph taken with them, or a recent memory of time spent with them.
Stages of Grief
At some point, you may have encountered some mention of the five stages of grief. It was coined by the Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, for her book On Death and Dying. She theorised that the process of grieving is divided into five stages, but does not have a fixed staging system; phases come and go differently among people. You may experience any of these, along with their associated emotions, at any point of your mourning and in no particular order.
- Denial: a defensive mechanism to help you process the shock and the reality of your loved one’s passing
- Anger: feelings of frustration and helplessness over their passing that are directed as anger to others, or even to objects; anger stems from feeling that life is unfair, or similar circumstances
- Bargaining: seeking some way to regain control through “if only” scenarios, i.e. “If only I did something sooner to prevent their passing”; it is a form of negotiating for better circumstances, or seeking false hope
- Depression: overwhelming sadness as you process the loss and its effects on you
- Acceptance: accepting what has happened, and the beginnings of moving on with your life; it does not mean you have moved on from the loss
There are other models of grief as well, including the eleven stages proposed by psychotherapist Edy Nathan.
Types of Grief
While grief has no set timetable, there are other forms of grief that you may go through.
Acute and Integrated Grief
Acute grief is defined by the phase of grieving that happens immediately after a loss, with its associated stages and emotional, physical and psychological expressions of adapting to the loss.
As time passes, you enter what is referred to as integrated grief, where emotions and behaviours related to the loss begin to integrate into your life that allows you to remember the departed. You adjust to the loss and no longer feel overwhelmed or depressed when thinking of it.
There will be occasions where acute grief may come back at times; for example, during the anniversary of the loss. How you respond to this depends on your emotional wellbeing, stress levels, and other factors.
Anticipatory grief is mourning that happens when you are expecting the eventual passing of a loved one. Its symptoms are the same as acute grief, except they are experienced before a significant loss.
Going through anticipatory grief does not mean that grief after a loss will not be experienced, it is an additional phase you may go through beforehand. The amount or intensity of grief will also vary from person to person, similar to acute grief.
Also known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, complicated grief is acute grief that continues over a longer period. The term ‘complicated’ refers to the complications that may arise when you have substantial difficulty adjusting to the loss. While grief is a normal process to go through to adjust to loss, complicated grief makes it hard to move forward with your life because of how much it affects you and your daily life.
Some symptoms of complicated grief include:
- Intense pain at the thought of your loss
- Unable to accept the loss and move on
- Detachment from daily life
- Lack of motivation
- Loss of interest in hobbies
- Isolation from friends and family
- Feeling lost without them in your life
- Bitterness or numbness when remembering the loss
It is important to seek help when you are experiencing complicated grief. This becomes paramount if you have also been diagnosed with depression. Immediate treatment of complicated grief will be necessary to help you cope with the loss and learn to move on without feelings of regret, guilt or fear.
Rebuilding Life after Loss
Moving on after a loved one’s loss is not an easy thing to do. If you are the sole caregiver providing support for a loved one until their passing, it may be a lot harder to find solace.
There are coping strategies that can help you with mitigating the effects that mourning brings. These strategies may have different effects from person to person, but they will be of significant help in lessening the pain and lead to integrated grief, thus allowing you to resume your daily routine.
Of particular importance is to allow yourself to experience grief. You should never bottle up your feelings, or tell yourself that there is no time to grieve. What you are going through is normal and should be freely experienced in all its emotional depth. All these emotions are valid, even if you may not agree with them. Delaying or ignoring grieving is unhealthy in that you are preventing yourself from accepting the loss and are thus unable to move on. If this persists, you may need to get help from a licensed therapist.
It is why you should also communicate your feelings to someone you can trust, whether it may be an immediate family member or a close friend. There will be days when you may feel overwhelmed by emotional, physical and psychological reactions to loss. Talking it through can help to put things into better perspective, or reveal useful insights that can help you cope better with the loss. Be honest with how you feel about your doubts and insecurities.
If you simply need a shoulder to rely on, let them know that they do not need to have an answer; sometimes it is good to have someone who will listen to you with compassion and empathy. Spend quality time with them, too, to take your thoughts away from the grief for a while.
You can also consider private, personal moments to channel your grief healthily. These can include:
- Making a small memorial to honour the departed
- Express your inner thoughts and feelings by writing them in a journal
- Exercise to channel all the pent up energy inside you
- Have little rituals for self-care, such as meditation
These can help you keep track of how you are feeling by providing outlets to express your thoughts and emotions about your loss without interruption.
Your grief will change over time, and if you are keeping a journal, you can even see how it unfolds.
Seeking Professional Help
If you still have difficulty coming to terms with your loss, you will need to consider seeking help for your condition. Complicated grief’s symptoms may not become immediately apparent, but if you or someone close to you notices that you have difficulty moving on with your life, then do not delay in getting professional help.
If you are dealing with anticipatory grief, consider means that can help you spend time with your loved one before their passing. End-of-life care is one consideration that can help take your mind and energy off of providing quality care while they are at home. You can spend more time with them doing things that both of you enjoy while having adequate support from your family that is going through the process.
If you think you may be facing complicated grief, or want support while going through anticipatory grief, seek help from professional counsellors or therapists. While there is still a stigma in Malaysia towards getting counselling or mental health therapy, the benefits you gain from getting proper help goes a long way in getting you back on track with your life. Complicated grief especially can have detrimental effects on your physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing if left untreated.
Complicated grief therapy uses psychotherapy methods to help you identify the signs and symptoms of complicated grief, and address coping with your loss by exploring the thoughts and processes behind its complications, as well as help you slowly move on from the distress and despair you feel when reliving or remembering the circumstances of the loss.
Support Groups in Malaysia
Finding solace in a support group is also a good way to cope with your loss. The Befrienders are an emotional support hotline that offers 24-hour support for “people who are lonely, in distress, in despair or having suicidal thoughts.” You can call their hotline at any time and receive thorough and empathetic support from their team.
There are also mental health support groups that can help you come to terms with your loss through personalized or group therapy. You can consult organizations such as RELATE Malaysia, the Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association (MIASA), and the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) for affordable and professional grief support.
Remember that you are not alone, and some people can help you through these hard times.
Coping with Grief and Loss
It is not easy to find meaning after a loss, especially if the departed is very close to you, or unresolved issues with them while they were alive. There will also be other pressing issues that can get in the way of your grief, such as handling the funeral expenses, managing their assets, and dealing with the finances. If the thought of these overwhelms you, speak to your family or friends and see if they can provide any assistance, small or large, to helping you along the way.
You should take your time to grieve healthily, together with the support from loved ones and with professional help if need be. Take good care of yourself while you mourn; as the pain of loss slowly subsides, you will keep your loved one in remembrance as you pick up the pieces and start anew.
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