What is grief?
Grief is the normal, natural response to loss, but it’s not uncommon for grieving people to sometimes wonder if they’re going crazy! Many find it can be disorienting and difficult to manage. Both of us were knocked over by how unpredictable and intense grief was for us at times, especially in the early days.
It helps to know that grief is a healing process. It moves us through a whole mix of reactions to help our minds and bodies gradually get used to living without the person who has died. It can’t be hurried. Grief takes all the time it needs to take.
If our love for the person who has died was strong and deep, our grief will be strong and deep too.
Grief helps us to get used to the reality of what’s happened, but people can naturally tend to see it as an enemy and try to fight it off. After all, we probably don’t want that new reality! However, avoiding or denying grief doesn’t serve us well. It will likely mean it will break through unpredictably and powerfully sometime in the future, and may even make us ill as our body strains to manage it inside us.
So, go with it. Grief has no set timetable. It might be hard to believe right now, but it does get easier to handle and the reactions become less intense.
Your grief experience will not be exactly the same as anyone else’s, because we’re all different. No one size will fit all. There are no set rules to follow, and grief isn’t a test, a race or a competition. Your grief journey will be personal to you, so do it in the way that makes most sense to you.
Common first reactions
In the early days after someone you love has died, you (and perhaps others around you) may experience some very strong first reactions. Notice that they’re not just emotional things. That’s because grief affects our whole being – physically, mentally and spiritually, as well as emotionally. In other words, grief can knock us off balance in a whole lot of ways.
In the first hours, days and weeks after a loss, people often find it difficult to take it all in – what’s happened, how it happened and what will happen next and in the future.
People are often surprised by the numbness they feel, but this enables people to be cushioned from the first shock and crisis until they have regrouped a bit and can begin to feel more. Numbness can last quite some time . Many bereaved people find they can go through daily routines automatically and wonder why it’s possible.
People are also often surprised how many things they can think and feel in one day – or all at once.
It can be very hard telling family and friends that someone you love has died.
Other people’s reactions can be difficult to handle, especially when you’re still coping with your own first reactions. You may like to find a sentence or phrase that you can repeat about what’s happened so it becomes a little easier. After the funeral, it’s not uncommon to meet people who haven’t heard the news. This can also happen at points much later on.
The death of your loved one will affect all kinds of people – family, friends, neighbours, workmates and perhaps even just acquaintances. We’ve both experienced people wanting to express their shock, sadness and support to us. While we found such responses mostly loving and supportive, it also could get overwhelming at times and tiring.
Remember, you get to choose...
- to speak to or see people or not - perhaps you might feel more able to respond to them later on.
- what information you do or don't want others to know
- if there's someone you could ask to tell people the news for you - be clear with them what information is OK to share with others and what's not.
- if it could help to sometimes use an answer phone or to put a sign on your door to let visitors know you aren't available right now
- if you want to accept offers of help or not - maybe letting others do some chores, bring food around, take calls, run messages or perhaps babysit could make things a little easier for a while, but it's up to you.
Just keep thinking about what will work best for you.
Ongoing thoughts, feelings and reactions
After the loss of someone you love, it’s normal to find yourself being reminded of them and of their death regularly for quite some time. You’re likely to miss the person in all sorts of ways. Different things can trigger off thoughts, memories or worries, and it’s naturally an emotionally difficult time.
As the reality of what’s happened slowly begins to hit home, it helps to remember that the grief process affects every part of us. This surprises many people who previously thought that grief is just about feeling sad.
As the shock wears off, and after the funeral has taken place, many people begin to experience some of the most intense and powerful feelings they have ever had. Emotions may feel out of control at times, which can be an awful feeling in itself. For example, you might feel full of energy and strangely buzzy, invincible and full of courage, then the next minute you might feel exhausted and unable to even move off your chair, and awash with worry and fear. Tears might flow uncontrollably, or you may not be able to cry at all, despite your sadness. It can be confusing.
Our minds have lots to adjust to and it’s inevitable that our brains, and our thinking, are put under extra pressure.
You are likely to find it hard to concentrate and may feel confused and forgetful. Your thoughts may constantly return to the person who died, with painful questions and thoughts about what’s happened and about the future running through your mind. Also, if the death was expected, you may think the death was a positive thing after a difficult illness.
Grief is like a wave...
Grief is like falling into the surf, being pulled over by a huge wave and knocked off your feet. You are dragged along and tumbled around. You are completely disoriented and lose your sense of direction. Just when you think you can’t cope any longer, you are tossed back onto the sand.
You lie on the sand catching your breath. Slowly, you start to feel the warmth of the sun on your body. As you begin to relax, along comes another wave and it tosses you back into the surf and away you go again – out of breath, disoriented and increasingly exhausted.
And as before, just when you think you can no longer cope, you get tossed back onto the sand again. This experience can repeat itself again and again, but gradually you begin to spend less time in the sea and more time on the beach, breathing normally and feeling the sun on your body.
The way grief often hits us when we least expect it is like the way waves can knock us over at the beach when we’re not looking. You could be doing something as routine as shopping. One woman described how she had gone to buy a pair of tights and when she was told that they didn’t have what she wanted, she burst into tears and then couldn’t stop. This had nothing to do with the tights and everything to do with her brother’s recent death.
These sudden bursts are waves of pain, hitting us hard and then receding, so we can catch our breath again until the next one comes. While we can’t easily control these bursts of pain, we can get through them and we can always know that we’ll have some normal breathing times in between. Indeed, slowly, the waves come less often.
The stress of grief makes big physical demands on people too. Some of the ways grief can be felt in our bodies have been mentioned, but it can help to recognise just how broad the range of physical reactions can be. Often people can experience a physical reaction and not link it to their grief journey. For example, people are more likely to get colds or other infections because their immune systems are weakened. And quite often people report more bruises and scratches than usual because they find themselves bumping into things or having more small accidents or falls than they usually would.
And of course different kinds of people will react physically in different ways. Some might feel energised or restless, and they might look for physical outlets like mowing lawns or doing chores. Others might feel they don’t even want to move and or that they want to sleep a lot.
Death is naturally a time when people might turn their thoughts to their beliefs, faith and cultural traditions and to spiritual questions. Big questions like “Why?” or “Why not someone else?” and questions about life and death, and about your place in the world are understandable.
For some bereavement is a time when they feel very supported and strengthened by their personal faith, spiritual beliefs or traditions. However, others can find this a time to question them and even reject them. Some may feel let down by and angry at God, or others might feel God is closer to them than ever before.
Some people report seeing, feeling and sensing the presence of someone who has died.
We’re all so different. Some turn to prayer or meditation. Some find being in nature or alone somewhere quiet very helpful. Some want to talk to others about their questions; others prefer to figure out things themselves.
Whatever you prefer, take time to pay attention to your spiritual side – it’s an important part of you.
Expressing feelings and thoughts can release a lot of tension that’s built up inside. Find some ways that suit you and the kind of person you are. Each day may be different.
How long does grief last?
Your grief is related to the nature of your love for the person who has died. If the person was the love of your life, very close to you or a treasured friend, the intensity of your grief is more likely to be immense. However, it does not stay like that. Even though you will always have a place for them in your heart and mind, and a grief for their loss, the pain will lessen and be replaced by enduring tenderness.
What does happen is that, very slowly, we begin to resume parts of our lives. We may return to work or go back to groups we belong to or invite friends for a cup of tea, and we realise that we have done something without too much emotional pain and that we are OK. We have managed it without distress. This tells us that we are finding a place for our pain, for our grief.
So grief doesn’t leave us. Rather, it finds a safe place within us to remain, representing the love we have lost, but allowing us to still function and feel alive.
The important message here is that the time taken for your grief journey is your time – no one else’s, just yours. Your grief doesn’t have to meet anyone else’s criteria. You, and you alone, will come to know what you need and when. Do it your way.
Finding support on your journey
It makes good sense to use some support when you are journeying through grief, especially as the first days and weeks pass. It’s one of life’s toughest assignments, after all. Ask your funeral director for suggestions of support available in your area.
There are various community resources and agencies that offer support, practical help, resources and helpful information. Check your local community directory first, then this list might help you find some other support as well.
Contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau. They know your community well and could suggest different groups that could assist you. Phone 0800 367 222 for your nearest one or see www.cab.org.nz
Victim Support: If the death was sudden or especially tragic, phone 0800 842 846, or they can be contacted through your local Police station. See also www.victimsupport.org.nz.
Skylight offers support to all children and young people, adults and their families/whanau facing loss and grief, as well as those who are caring for them. Call them on 0800 299 100 or see www.skylight.org.nz for information, helpful resources and support.
Use local telephone counselling lines, such as Samaritans, Lifeline, Youthline, Mensline and others. Check for their numbers in the Personal help services section of your local phone book.
Other support in your local community could be:
Community health centre
Hospital social worker
Mental health team
Public health nurse
School social worker
Family support agencies
Community cultural centre services
Budgeting services: Learning to budget and manage your money could be very useful, both now and in the months ahead. Ask your Citizens Advice Bureau for who to contact, see www.familybudgeting.org.nz or phone (04) 471 1420.
Support groups: Some communities have very helpful support groups for people facing loss, such as a bereaved parents support group or a widows and widowers association. Ask at your local Citizens Advice Bureau.