logo

Good Grief – Is there such a thing?

Recently my family suffered the tragic loss of my mother in law, who sadly fell down some stairs at my Husband’s 50th birthday party.  She was a fit and energetic lady, who sadly never regained consciousness after the fall. This has been a shocking time and a period of grief that was so raw and painful, words cannot convey.

The mixed emotions, the “ what ifs “ and “if only” scenarios , the anger, the deep sadness, the shock, the need to restore family balance and the still ever present demands of everyday life and work life create such a huge drain on you and how to function. What I have learnt through this period is that there can be such a generosity of spirit around you at this time by so many and a loss does bring out so much humanity and kindness.  We so often do not really appreciate this when we are all living busy working lives.

I studied a Psychology Degree at the University of Sydney and upon reflection I am gobsmacked that we never studied the process of grief and the stages that you will naturally step through. I find this also quite shocking, as we know that so much dysfunctional human behaviour and addictions are the result of unresolved grief.  Why is this not included in studies also in schools today?

An article in Psychosoc Nursing Mental Health Service 1992 by Bateman, Broderick, Gleason, Kardon, Flaherty and Anderson states that “Dysfunctional grieving represents a failure to follow the predictable course of normal grieving to resolution. When the process deviates from the norm, the individual becomes overwhelmed and may resort to maladaptive coping “such as displaced anger and a change in pathological behaviours.

Grief can be experienced in so many forms – not just the loss of someone. It can be moving location, moving jobs, leaving schools, divorce; facing menopause;  facing demotion;  redundancy; job loss; loss in health; facing retirement.

A definition of grief is: the mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow or painful regret (Collins English Dictionary).  This definition makes us realise that many people are suffering grief at any one time and in the workplace we should be mindful and aware of this. Later in this article I have gathered some thoughts on helpful hints to be there for someone grieving and to be thoughtful and insightful as a friend, partner, employer or colleague.

We live in a western world that is lacking for ceremony, openness and vulnerability. Aussies like to exude a “Stiff upper lip” and “Get on with it”. Bravado pervades emotional bruising. This macho culture of the “Great Aussie Battler/ Survivor” does not support people grieving with emotional, spiritual and social intelligence.

There are now many articles on the stages of grief and it appears that there is a tendency to encounter 5 stages of the grieving process: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler talk more deeply about these stages:

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance

Denial:

This first stage of grieving helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day. Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle. (I recently found that  this also enables us to be operational and get the funeral arrangements or the necessary details arranged – such as rewriting a resume; refurbishing a newly moved to home or starting new applications for schools etc.)

As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.

Anger

Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal. There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. The truth is that anger has no limits. It can extend not only to your friends, the doctors, your family, yourself and your loved one who died, or the other grief you are suffering but also to God. You may ask, “Where is God in this?”

Underneath anger is pain, your pain. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned, but we live in a society that fears anger. Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss. At first grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone, maybe a person who didn’t attend the funeral, maybe a person who isn’t around, maybe a person who is different now that your loved one has died. Suddenly you have a structure – – your anger toward them. The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing. We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.

Bargaining

Before a loss, it seems like you will do anything if only your loved one would be spared. “Please God” you bargain, “I will never be angry at my wife again if you’ll just let her live.” After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others? Then can I wake up and realise this has all been a bad dream?”

We become lost in a maze of “If only…” or “What if…” statements. We want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumour sooner, recognise the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt. People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one.

Depression

After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on alone? Why go on at all? Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of. The first question to ask yourself is whether or not the situation you’re in is actually depressing. The loss of a loved one is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal and appropriate response. To not experience depression after a loved one dies, or a loss would be unusual. When a loss fully settles in your soul, the realisation that your loved one is not coming back or your life will never be the same is understandably depressing. If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way.  

A wonderful definition of depression that I read in the Manly Daily by a Counsellor, Martin Hunter Jones is that depression can be described as a simple mathematical equation: ( D= Fx EE – Depression equals Fear times Emotional Exhaustion) – at this time of grieving  you are extremely fearful about the future and what is ahead and emotionally exhausted – so it is no wonder you will feel depressed.

Acceptance

Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone or that life will never resume back the same way and recognising that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. We must try to live now in a world where our loved one is missing. our life has changed – new home, new school, new job, no job, no marriage, change of health… In resisting this new norm, at first many people want to maintain life as it was before. In time, through bits and pieces of acceptance, however, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust.

We must learn to reorganise roles, reassign them to others or take them on ourselves.

Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones. As we begin to live again and enjoy our life, we often feel that in doing so, we are betraying our loved one. We can never replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections, new meaningful relationships, and new inter-dependencies. Instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve. We may start to reach out to others and become involved in their lives. We invest in our friendships and in our relationship with ourselves. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief its time.

At times, people in grief will often report more stages. Just remember your grief is an unique as you are. You will be triggered at times in the strangest moments and reminded of your grief. Tears may come to your eyes in the oddest situations – allow yourself the tears – they will only make your stronger.

In my recent experience of this grieving process I have gained some helpful insights into what can help someone in their time of grief. These ideas are all based upon my own experience and some friends that I respect and have observed in their deep grieving experiences. Obviously some of these notes will depend upon the type of grief. If it is the loss of loved one this will be different to the loss of a job or a divorce. These are also random hints – they are not a process or in an order.

I like to say be an APE to those who are grieving:

A) Acknowledge the loss – be present (send some written words) not necessarily a visit – but let the person know you are there for them. Let them know you are holding them in your thoughts. So often people do not know what to say so they avoid – do not avoid and have no words, words are not the tonic, your presence and acknowledgement that you are there is all they want.

P) Practical Help: When someone is going through the first stage of grief and shock sets in – the everyday ways to operate and function go out the window – meal times get forgotten and family schedules get missed. If you can provide a humble and practical way to help, such as a meal; setting the dinner table: doing a shop for essentials, helping with kids and weekly activities; putting out the rubbish; cleaning; watering the flowers, doing some washing; reminding them of an appointment or diarized event; booking them a haircut; sending some fruit; sending flowers a few weeks later when all the initial gifts have died and need tossing; cutting the lawn – any practical help – this is such a loving and practical way to ease the noise and machinations of the moment. Even allowing a spontaneous ceremony to reflect, such as bringing the favourite flower of the loved on and leaving it at their door; sending respectful memories of good times. Small ceremonies can be so therapeutic. My nephews and nieces lined up little paper boats with tea lights and dropped them into the river we were all staying at – this was so therapeutic and respectful for our healing in the immediate days thereafter.  Linda Neale writes some amazing experiences about the power of ceremony and how it can help us develop greater meaning and an understanding.

E) Express Less:  One thing that i have heard from so many is how so often unwittingly words of “intended consolation “had been so unhelpful and hurtful. Meanderings of others grief experiences. Such as ‘I understand how you are feeling” “time will heal” “you will get over this” can be so destructive. Funerals often allow people to truly feel and experience their own withheld grief and feel that they need to share. In this situation less words truly is more! Say less and just be there in your warmth and spirit. No one will ever experience the same process and the pain of the grief will ease but the hole that it has made will never go away.

In conclusion – there is no such thing as good grief but there is healthy and unhealthy grieving. Healthy grieving allows freedom to openly move through the stages of grief and have open expression. Healthy grieving can be supported by friends who can be Apes around them and openly show acknowledgement, practical support and few words. There are so many forms of grief and unresolved grief that can lead to dysfunctional behaviour. Be mindful of those around you who may be experiencing grief and know that the pain may get less but the gap in their hearts that grief causes may never go away.

Simone Allan

Founder / Director of Mondo Search Pty Ltd
Email:  simone@mondosearch.com.au