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Understanding grief

Questions and answers about grief

What are the main definitions of grief?

Bereavement – the state of being robbed of a meaningful relationship.

Grief – a range of experiences following a loss.

Mourning – an outward expression of grief.

Loss and grief are a normal but difficult part of life we learn to live and cope with.

Are there any common emotional reactions to grief? If so, what are they?

Very often, people are shocked and numb at first. They feel ‘in a zone’ and life comes to a standstill. Yet, somehow, life goes on outside of them and they feel isolated, numbed. Some will say they feel on auto pilot as there
are a lot of things ‘to do’ and there often is no time to grieve in the first weeks or months. This lack of time can be prolonged for some due to family and professional situations.

After a while, feelings can surface, including: sorrow, despair, guilt and self reproach, blame, relief, loneliness, apathy, listlessness, suicidal feelings, helplessness, tearfulness, anxiety, tearlessness, unreality, euphoria, exhaustion, depression, sadness, sorrow, not feeling anything, aches and pains, seeing/feeling/hearing/smelling the person, nightmares, despair, guilt and self-reproach, etc.

Can experiencing loss also have physical symptoms?

Grief affects us in all aspects of our life. It is not uncommon that our immune system is lowered and we get a severe cold or flu we cannot shrug off, or a pre-existing condition flares up.

We may feel aches and pains, our sleep can be disturbed, as can appetite. People even mention dropping or forgetting things or being inclined to falls or little accidents.

What philosophical and spiritual impact can bereavement have?

Any major loss makes us reappraise the purpose and meaning of our own life. While for many existential questions can be ignored during many phases of life, they are inevitably brought to the fore at the end of life and in bereavement.

Spirituality is not easy to define. It is usually assumed to include an individual’s beliefs, values, sense of meaning and purpose, identity and, for some people, religion.

Because of their intensely personal nature it can be tricky to identify specific spiritual pain issues for individuals. A sense of hopelessness and lack of understanding, as in ‘time is dragging’, ‘nothing matters anymore’, ’not wanting to go on’, or doubt about beliefs and loss of faith are perhaps easier to identify with.

Is there a common ‘recovery time’ following a loss, or is the grieving process unique to each individual?

The grieving process is a challenge we all embrace – or shy away from – in our own unique way.

Grief affects our emotional balance because we need, at different times, to confront and avoid grief. At one moment we could feel sad and overwhelmed, wanting to curl up and withdraw, focusing on what is missing. The next we may be looking for distraction from our grief: focusing on new things, making holiday plans or new friends.

When individuals feel more resilient they can be one way or the other at different times without experiencing great tension, guilt or anxiety at oscillating between different states of mind.

Children are usually better at this than adults, as they can move from one to the other in a matter of seconds. A mother told me recently her child was tearing her heart out sobbing saying how much she missed her daddy, and then out of the blue asked what there was for supper!

What sort of intellectual and practical challenges can people face after losing a loved one?

Bereaved people may feel unable to concentrate or make decisions. They may experience disbelief, confusion,
preoccupation or hallucinations. On a practical level, they may need to reorganise roles and routines in the family: Who will be taking care of the bins, do the school run and the cooking? This is one of the reasons we developed activity groups for the bereaved: to rekindle life skills or learn new ones.

How can the Hospice help those who have suffered a loss or bereavement to move forward?

The Hospice can offer support in the form of one-to-one bereavement counselling; through our bereavement support and activity groups, including walking, cookery, car maintenance and DIY; the Nicky’s Way programme, which offers support to children; and spiritual and pastoral care.

We can also point you in the direction of other organisations that could help, as well as provide useful leaflets and books.