grief

Understanding and Coping With Grief

By: Tanya Kramer, LPC, CADC-I

Grief and Loss can and will affect everyone. Sometimes when we grieve, we might start to compare ourselves to others around us with thoughts such as:

  • “Why am I not crying”
  • “Everyone else seems to be OK”
  • “How come I can’t just move on”
  • “Why can’t I stop thinking about this when everyone else is not talking about it”
  • “One day I am fine and then I am back to feeling angry or sad”

Comparing how we grieve to others is not helpful for your grieving process, and can trigger the thought, “What is wrong with me”. However, it is important to know that everyone grieves differently, on different timelines, and in different ways. So, if you take anything from this article, it is to hold yourself with grace and kindness as you move through your OWN grief process.

What can trigger Grief and Loss?

Anything that is a change, a transition, a loss, or an unplanned event. Here are some examples of what could trigger Grief and Loss:

  • Someone passes away
  • Moving
  • Miscarriage
  • Changing a job, school, or an experience in your normal routine
  • Loss of a pet
  • Someone else moving away
  • A relationship or friendship ending
  • Seasons changing
  • Retirement
  • Change in financial stability
  • When plans such as a vacation get canceled
  • Loss of health
  • A loved one having an illness
  • An item of value being broken
  • Loss of a cherished dream
  • Loss of safety after a trauma
  • This is not an exhaustive list!

What to expect when experiencing grief? A person can experience any or all of this list:

  • Crying
  • Worry / Anxiety / Frustration / Anger / Stress
  • Guilt
  • Confusion
  • Numbness
  • Isolation from others
  • Difficulty sleeping or eating
  • Fatigue
  • Body symptoms, such as headaches, stomach pain, nausea, tight chest, body aches and pains, etc.
  • Questioning life or spiritual beliefs
  • Feelings of detachment
  • Abnormal behavior

What are the Five Stages of Grief and Loss?

A Swiss psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book called “On Death and Dying” where she gathered information from terminally ill patients which led her to define the Five Stages of Grief and Loss:

  1. Denial – “This can’t be happening” or “I don’t believe it”
  2. Anger – “Why is this happening to me”
  3. Bargaining – “I will do anything to change this” or thoughts of “If I only had done _____ , then this would not be happening”
  4. Depression – “What is the point” or “I won’t ever get through this”
  5. Acceptance – “It’s going to be OK” or “This is hard, but I can accept it”

It is important to note that these Five Stages are listed in an order that they can occur in, but they don’t have to. Some people skip or never experience one or more stages. Often people move through the stages and then re-experience certain stages when triggered by a memory or a situation.

Here are some examples of how someone could move through the Stages of Grief and Loss:

  • Denial – Anger – Depression – Anger – Acceptance
  • Anger – Bargaining – Depression – Acceptance
  • Denial – Depression – Acceptance
  • Denial – Bargaining – Anger – Bargaining – Depression – Anger – Acceptance – Depression –Acceptance
  • Anger – Denial – Depression – Anger – Depression – Acceptance – Anger – Depression –     Anger

Specifically notice from these examples that the last two showed someone getting to Acceptance, then experiencing other stages of grief and loss before returning to Acceptance. Just because we get to Acceptance does not always mean we stay there. We can be triggered by a song, picture, or a reminder, which can slip us out of Acceptance into one of the other Stages of Grief and Loss…which is a common experience. What is helpful to know is that if we experience Acceptance, even if we get triggered into one of the previous stages, we are more likely to return to it again sooner since we have already been there. Let’s take a deeper dive into each stage to better understand what happens in each of the Stages.

Denial

This stage can literally help us survive or cope with the loss. It can sometimes cause emotional numbness, shock, not believing something has happened, or result in our belief system leaning into a “preferable” reality. Denial and shock help individuals cope and survive the grief event by slowing down the event to the pace that your emotional self can take it in. It is the body’s natural defense when the mind might be thinking, “I can only handle so much at once”.

Anger

If anger comes up, then let yourself feel it. In many situations, anger is a necessary experience that helps move through the emotions that are overwhelming the system. Most people learn ways to manage their anger, but when faced with a significant event, feeling anger can be healthy and cathartic. Sometimes anger helps motivate people to take necessary action in a difficult situation. Anger can help individuals face the reality of the situation and attach to others who are also dealing with the situation.

Bargaining

In this stage, people try to cope by making deals with themselves, God, or others. This type of negotiation can give false hope. Bargaining can sometimes lead to feelings of guilt. When people have thoughts such as “What if I had only done this ______ differently, then they would still be OK” The problem is bargaining thoughts are rarely helpful, and can do more harm than good  to yourself. Understanding what bargaining is so you can notice when you are in this stage is helpful because then you can use positive self-talk to be kinder to yourself. You might need to tell yourself that you are not the cause of the incident. You might need to ask yourself the question, knowing what you know now, what you might you do differently in the future. You should be extra kind to yourself when in this stage.

Depression

Depression is the result of feeling empty, alone, lost, fearful, or other disregulating emotions when you realize something has ended or changed. In this stage, you might feel withdrawn from life, numb, emotional and cognitive fogginess, low motivation to do basic self-care, and feelings of being overwhelmed or hopeless. You might want to be alone and have space. Some people might have thoughts of self-harm or suicide with thoughts of, “What’s the point of going on?” This stage may be necessary as an outlet to feel the deep emotions that are coming up, so healing from these emotions can begin.

Acceptance

In this stage, individuals start to feel a sense of stabilization. It is not necessarily a feeling that everything is going to be okay, but more that in the midst of everything, you can be okay. This is when some people report they fully started to re-enter reality. The new situation may not be “good”, but you are able to start to figure out how to live in this new reality. Individuals go through a process of learning how to be adaptable, adjust their perspective, and often re-adjust as they get used to the change in their life. In this stage, you start to experience emotional and cognitive clarity, you are engaging more in social relationships, and you feel like you are ready to start making forward movement in life. Just because you make it to Acceptance does not necessarily mean you stay here, but each time you come here, you often get to stay longer.

The Stages of Grief and Loss can provide a sense of knowing that you are in a normal process that many people have and will experience.

What are the different kinds of Grief?

  1. Anticipatory Grief – This type of grief happens before the loss is actually experienced, such as having an aging pet, or witnessing a loved one who is terminally ill. You have not technically experienced the loss but you are experiencing the coming loss.
  2. Disenfranchised Grief – This type of grief happens when you experience a loss that is not recognized by others, it is stigmatized, minimized, or you can’t openly mourn your loss.
  1. Complicated Grief – This type of grief can result in a person feeling stuck in a state of bereavement due to an ongoing situation. An example is living in a house where the other person used to live with you and you see their stuff or have memories you shared with them in this space many times a day.

How to cope with the pain when grieving?

  1. Acknowledge your pain (to yourself and a trusted person)
  2. Accept that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions
  3. Feel your feelings
  4. Understand that your grieving process will be unique to you
  5. Seek out face-to-face support from people who care about you
  6. Support yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically (eating, sleeping, hygiene)
  7. Try to maintain your hobbies and interests
  8. Don’t let anyone tell you how you feel and don’t tell yourself how to feel either

How to seek support for your grief?

  • Lean on your friends and family
  • Work with a therapist or counselor
  • Draw comfort from your faith or spirituality
  • Join a Support Group that focuses on grief and loss
  • Talk to others who have experienced a similar loss
  • Process your feelings through listening to music, journaling, making art, poetry, etc.
  • Read books or listen to podcasts about grief
  • Plan ahead.  When you know you have grief triggers such as special dates, or important milestones that might awaken the grief, be sure to engage your support system around grief triggers.

Everyone experiences grief so when you are the one grieving, reach out to others as you are not alone in your experience. Be kind to yourself. Hold yourself with grace and understanding. If you find yourself with limited support, then reach out to your local crisis lines for support.

Elizabeth Dubler-Ross Foundation

HelpGuide.org – “Coping with Grief and Loss

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