Understanding Grief

Susan Rochow, M.Sc., Registered Psychologist

 

Grief.  What a heavy word.  It is something we all have to deal with at some point in our lives, and it seems that the older we get, the more we are surrounded by loss.  It is not uncommon for clients to come to see me because of grief and loss, and it is always a privilege to walk alongside them in their suffering.  But sometimes the client’s goal is to stop the grief – to alleviate the pain, to turn off the anger, and to suppress the feelings of guilt.  In these cases it is necessary to remind clients that grief is not something to get over, but to journey through.

Whether the loss is a broken relationship, a job termination, the death of a pet, or the passing of someone close to us, it is normal and necessary to grieve.  But what is grief?  Is it an emotion?  A thing?  Is it equivalent to sadness?  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is famous for her theory of grief.  She conceptualizes grief as a journey that involves five different emotions or stages.  However, she is clear that the stages do not proceed in a stepwise fashion.  Rather, we bounce around from stage to stage, often in an unexpected way, usually over years, perhaps for the rest of our life.  Sound discouraging?  Well, it kind of is.  But keep in mind, “Feelings of loss are caused by feelings of love” (Margaret Edison, cited in Trimiew, 1996).  Thus, grief is the eventual cost of love, yet most of us would not forfeit love to spare us from grief.

So what are the grief stages?  They vary somewhat depending on whether you are the person anticipating your own death or you are the one left behind.  But typically, the stages include (as suggested by Kubler-Ross):

  • Shock and Denial
  • Anger
  • Depression (or simply Sadness)
  • Bargaining (or Searching/Yearning)
  • Acceptance

Not everyone agrees with Kubler-Ross’s theory, but as a therapist I have found it very helpful when supporting grieving clients.  Also, in addition to her five stages, I have observed that Guilt/Regret is a common stage in response to loss.  Regardless whether these five or six stages accurately reflect the full grief experience, what I find particularly helpful is that this theory highlights that grief is complicated.  It is not one emotion (e.g., not just sadness) and it does not have a discrete start and end point (e.g., starting with Shock and ending with Acceptance).  Thus, the theory helps us to realize that grief is not something to get over, but a continuing journey.  I often use the analogy of a road when talking about grief.  The grief road is not like the highway from Calgary to Edmonton – basically straight with a start and end point – it is a curvy road full of overlapping intersections that repeatedly loops around.  Eventually, the hope is that more time is spent at the Acceptance intersection than at the other intersections, but without warning a person can bounce from Acceptance back to Anger or Depression etc.

So if grief is a normal part of life, is therapy necessary?  Maybe.  If you are well supported by family and/or friends, the support of a therapist is not likely required, especially if you understand that grief is a complicated process that needs to be experienced in full.  However, if you don’t have a helpful support system, a therapist can be a wonderful resource to journey with you through the complex emotions.  Sometimes, however, even with a helpful support team, therapy may be necessary.  This may be because the loss involved a traumatic experience that is feeling “stuck” in your mind – like a certain image you can’t get out of your head, or a negative belief that keeps looping in your mind (e.g., I can’t protect myself, I’m powerless, I should have done something).  Or maybe you put your grief on hold as you felt you had to “be strong” for everyone else, and now you find yourself struggling with delayed grief.  Alternately, maybe you feel overwhelmed by the grief and, although you know it is “normal,” you are struggling to function and are experiencing despair.  In these cases, professional support may be helpful.  Likewise, medication may be necessary in extreme situations, but generally it is understood that depression is normal during the grief journey and the goal is not to eliminate or mask the depressed mood, but to work through the emotions.

If you are currently on the grief road, here are some ideas to help you be present with your emotions:

  • Write a letter to the person who died.  Keep it, burn it, or float it to the sky attached to a balloon.
  • Journal or talk to someone about your thoughts and feelings.
  • Plant a tree, bush, or flowers to commemorate the loss.
  • Buy or designate something in memory of the person, pet, or event (e.g. ornament, candle, watch, artwork).
  • Make a photo collage or photo album.
  • Visit the cemetery or create your own memorial site.
  • Do something that you used to do together.
  • Draw, paint, sculpt or otherwise creatively express your feelings or symbolize your relationship.
  • Do something practical for someone else who is grieving this person/pet/event.
  • Listen to music or watch a sad movie.
  • Cry, laugh, scream, pray, reminisce, or sit quietly.
  • Be grateful.  “I still miss those I loved who are no longer with me, but I find I am grateful for having loved them.  The gratitude has finally conquered the loss” (Rita Mae Brown, cited in Trimiew, 1996),

 

If you are grieving and find yourself in need of professional support, our counselling team would be honored to support you.  Please contact Darlene at info@eckert-psychology.com or at 403-230-2959, ext. 33 to schedule an appointment.

References:

Trimiew, A. (1996).  The Comfort Book for Those Who Mourn.  Wheaton, IL: Harold
Shaw Publishers.

Susan is a Registered Psychologist providing assessment and counselling services at Eckert Centre.  Susan makes a unique contribution to the Centre as a Certified EMDR Therapist, counselling those dealing with the effects of big and “little” traumas in their life, including adoption, accidents, loss, abuse, neglect, bullying, infertility, academic challenges, imperfect parenting, phobias, addictions, etc.  She also provides faith based counseling services to our clients seeking counseling from a Christian worldview, and works with individuals, couples, and families.

 

 

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