The term "grief" is used to describe the reactions and feelings that a person might have to the loss of someone or something that is important to them. One of the biggest and most difficult losses is the death of someone really important to you. However, there are many experiences which may result in feelings of grief or loss, including:
- the death of someone you love
- your parents separating or getting divorced
- separation from a parent, both parents and your family
- separation from friends or your community
- moving away from home or leaving your country
- splitting up with your partner
- losing your job
- the death of a pet
- leaving school or university
- losing the ability to do some things through disability, injury or poor health
- becoming really sick or seeing or learning about someone else becoming really sick
What does grief look like?
No two people are likely to experience grief in the same way. The process of grieving can be affected by lots of different factors, such as the nature of the loss, the person's past experience of loss, their cultural and spiritual beliefs, coping styles, physical health and available support systems. There is also no strict ‘time limit' on grief. It doesn't occur in neat stages and some people get back to their usual routine fairly quickly, while others take longer. Some people prefer time alone to grieve; others crave the support and company of others. Some common feelings that can be experienced include:
- Sadness, crying, mood swings
- Shock, a sense of numbness
- A sense of the loss not quite being ‘real' at first, or finding it hard to believe or accept that it has occurred
- Anger, shame
- Guilt (e.g. about interactions with a person who has died ("I should have spent more time with her") or guilt about gradually getting back to ‘normal' life and at times not ‘remembering' to feel sad)
- Feeling disconnected from others, isolated, alienated or lonely
- Worries about not grieving ‘normally' or ‘correctly'
- Waves of sadness or anger which can be overwhelming and sometimes suddenly triggered by reminders
- Suicidal thoughts
- Physical symptoms like headaches, feeling sick in the stomach, aching muscles, feeling run down, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, feeling tired, having no energy, getting sick more easily
These feelings can happen at any time and for any length of time. You might feel really good one day and awful the next. Sometimes it can feel worse in the morning, or as you are about to go to sleep. Sometimes you might wonder if you will ever feel 'normal' again. You will - gradually the pain is with you less often and life finds a new sense of meaning.
When does grief become a problem?
Most people going through the pain described above will eventually adjust to the loss and return to normal life, although of course carry some sadness about the loss. Most people do not require medication or counselling to manage grief, and should simply be supported to go through their individual grief process. However, sometimes people deal with loss in harmful ways, or are unable to come to terms with their loss and are unable to move on over time. In these cases, it would be a good idea to talk to a counsellor about it.
Dealing with loss in harmful ways
Using drugs and alcohol to try to cover up the pain or make it go away. This method may just 'put off' or prolong the natural process of grief, as well as doing you harm.
Hurting other people. Anger is sometimes the emotion you show when there are a whole heap of other emotions happening underneath. If you think you've no safe place to express yourself or don't understand what's going on, you might turn anger on other people.
Hurting yourself. Choosing to harm yourself is only one choice to express the pain that is happening for you. There are lots of other ways you can choose to express yourself.
When to seek help
There is no ‘time limit' or guide to normal or healthy grief. Some people take longer to adjust to losses than others. However, a general rule-of-thumb is that a person who is coping very poorly after 1-2 months may be at a greater risk of the grieving process taking longer to resolve or being more difficult. Some other warning signs may include:
- Abuse of alcohol and other drugs including prescription
- Pushing away painful feelings or using distracting tasks to avoid experiencing grief
- Excessive avoidance of talking about or reminders of the loss
- Increased physical complaints or illness
- Intense mood swings or isolation which do not resolve within 1-2 months of the loss
- Ongoing neglect of self-care and responsibilities (e.g. not attending classes, not looking after yourself)