Written by: Miki Fire, PsyD
For many people, the process of grief is one of the most challenging and painful experiences in our lives. Whether it is grief following the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, the loss of a job or a home, the death of a pet, or even just the experiences of loss that come with the myriad endings we face each day, the experience of grief can be overwhelming.
Grief is one of the most common of human experiences, although it can feel absolutely strange and frightening. Grief impacts us on every level of our being; emotional, psychological, physical, mental, spiritual, and social. We may experience feeling of overwhelming sadness or anger; we may literally feel like we are going crazy; we may feel like we can’t breathe, can’t sleep, can’t eat; we may feel numb and disconnected from the people in our lives; we may even feel like life is not worth living. In some ways grief itself is like a vicarious death and we ourselves feel like we’re dying. These are just a few of the many different ways in which grief moves through our systems.
Many people wonder: Is what I’m experiencing normal? You may have heard that there is a normal process to grief and that there are specific stages of grief that everyone goes through in a specific order. The truth is that when it comes to grief, there is no one defined way that every person experiences and processes grief. Some people may feel the different emotions we associate with the classic stages of grief model described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), but not everyone feels these exact emotions, nor do people feel them in this order or only once. In addition, these experiences only describe the emotional/psychological levels of the experience, but not necessarily all of the other ways in which grief is experienced, like for example on the physical level.
When it comes to grief, your grief process may look entirely different from someone else’s, and whatever you are experiencing is normal. Really.
People often ask, “But, do I need to seek help?” When it comes to grief, seeking “help,” can often be incredibly useful, no matter where you are in your grief process. Seeking help does not need to be seen as a last resort, but potentially an integral part of the process. Many people come into therapy feeling like they have somehow failed because they were not able to “get through it” alone. In actuality, seeking support, whether that means reaching out for the support of friends and family or seeking the guidance of a therapist or support group, does not need to be a last resort option, but can be seen as an important tool in processing your grief in a healthy way. Grief is a completely normal, universal, human experience and in this way it actually has a way of moving through our systems quite naturally, if we let it. But, most of us have lots of reasons why it is hard to just let the process do its thing, and outside support, can be useful in helping us see where we might be impeding the process and making things harder on ourselves.
In addition to using outside help to support a normal grief process, there are some additional situations in which seeking help is recommended. The following are a few of these situations:
- If you feel that you are at risk of hurting yourself or another person.
- If you do not feel you are able to attend to your basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter.
- If you feel unable to attend to the basic needs of your children, or any other people or pets that are dependent on you for their basic needs.
- If you are concerned that the ways you are coping might be hurting you (e.g. excessive alcohol or drug use, self-harming behaviors like cutting or burning, etc).
- If you do not feel that your grief process has in any way changed after what you consider to be a reasonable amount of time, and you feel like it is debilitating your ability to engage in important areas of your life, such as work, relationships, etc, and you are unsure of how to move forward.
In addition to therapy, which can be incredibly helpful for processing the experience of grief, there are many different types of support groups specifically designed to help individuals in the grieving process. Groups can be one of the most effective supports for grief because of how powerful it can be to recognize that you are not alone in your experience.
Grieving is a process that can take a very long time. Especially in the beginning, it may feel like it will never end. As cliché as it sounds, time does heal in many ways, but even when years have passed and there is a sense that the grief has really moved through, there may still be moments where the sense of pain and loss comes flooding back; like anniversaries of various kinds or important life events. This too is completely normal, and you can trust that having been able to live through the early days (and months and even years) of grief, even in the unexpected moments when the grief returns, you will have the capacity to be with it and get through it. Although it may be hard to believe this if you are in the early stages of coping with a loss, grief is incredibly powerful in its ability to change and even transform in positive ways. The process is not an easy one, but it is a profound and universal one; it is an experience that we all go through in some way at some time, and that changes us forever.
(If this blog resonates with you in any way, or if you have any additional thoughts, suggestions or questions in regards to this topic I welcome any comments!)