For me watching a loved one face grief is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I find myself wanting to take the pain away, ultimately knowing that I can’t is SO hard and let’s face it pretty stressful.
This week it began with a phone call, you know the one that comes at a time of day that you just know something isn’t good before you even answer the phone. My body got tense, shoulders raised stomach in knots as I answered it. The call display making it clear that I would once again need to give my husband awful news. This is the second time such a call has come, 3 years ago it was his mom and then on Tuesday night his dad.
As I watch the sad realization come across his face, my own heart broke for him. These moments can be the beginning of so many thoughts and feelings. For me it is the responsibility of making something that isn’t ok, is ok. To protect this person I love so much from pain and suffering. And of course the memories of my own experience with loss and grief coming back.
Our stress often begins in experiences that we have no control over, they seem to take on lives of their own. What I’ve learned through these experiences has helped me tremendously. And today I found myself wanting to release some of my own emotion by sharing my the strategies that have helped me with you.
What is grief?
Before I begin, let’s answer a question. What is grief? According to Wikipedia “Grief is a multifaceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something that has died, to which a bond or affection was formed. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, cultural, spiritual and philosophical dimensions.”
Essentially it is our own reaction to loss, any kind of loss. You see loss comes in many forms, the loss from death, or a relationship, a friend, a job or even a dream. Perhaps this is best described by the American Institute of Stress “Grief is intense and multifaceted, affecting our emotions, our bodies, and our lives”.
The 5 stages of grief
There are five stages of grief that were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Please keep in mind that everyone grieves differently. Many people do not experience the stages of grief in the order listed below, which is perfectly okay and normal. The key to understanding the stages is not to feel like you must go through every one of them, in precise order. Instead, it’s more helpful to look at them as guides in the grieving process — it helps you understand and put into context where you are.
Denial & Isolation:
The first reaction is to deny the reality of the situation. “This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening,” people often think. It is a normal reaction to rationalize our overwhelming emotions. Denial is a common defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock of the loss, numbing us to our emotions. We block out the words and hide from the facts. We start to believe that life is meaningless, and nothing is of any value any longer. For most people experiencing grief, this stage is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.
As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear, reality and its pain re-emerge. We are not ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. Anger may be directed at our dying or deceased loved one. Rationally, we know the person is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the person for causing us pain or for leaving us. We feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us angrier. Remember, grieving is a personal process that has no time limit, nor one “right” way to do it.
The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control through a series of “If only” statements. This is an attempt to bargain. Secretly, we may make a deal with our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable and the accompanying pain. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality. Guilt often accompanies bargaining. We start to believe there was something we could have done differently to have helped save our loved one.
There are two types of depression that are associated with mourning. The first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss. Sadness and regret predominate this type of depression. We worry about the costs and burial. We worry that, in our grief, we have spent less time with others that depend on us. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. We may need a bit of helpful cooperation and a few kind words. The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell. Sometimes all we really need is a hug.
Reaching this stage of grieving is a gift not afforded to everyone. Death may be sudden and unexpected or we may never see beyond our anger or denial. It is not necessarily a mark of bravery to resist the inevitable and to deny ourselves the opportunity to make our peace.
Coping with loss is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience — nobody can help you go through it more easily or understand all the emotions that you’re going through. But others can be there for you and help comfort you through this process. The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong the natural process of healing.
What are the Effects of Grief and Stress?
Within the feeling of loss, you will likely feel a combination of emotions: depression, sadness, frustration, shock, fear; even guilt. Your emotional stability will be affected too; grief is often described as a roller coaster of emotions.
Your body reacts to grief too; you’ll certainly feel tired. You can also feel physically weak as if all your strength has drained away and left you unable to do things you used to find easy. You could experience tightness in your chest, a change in your heartbeat or difficulty breathing. You’ll either lose your appetite (or overeat to soothe anxiety). You can suffer from insomnia or just want to sleep the days (and nights) away. You can find yourself crying at unexpected times, both publicly and privately. Mourners often retreat from their social lives, becoming more and more isolated over time (which complicates everything).
It can take weeks, months, or even years to move through your grief. Here’s the bad news: you’ll never completely get over the loss of your loved one. As Jandy Nelson wrote, “Grief is forever. It doesn’t go away; it becomes a part of you, step for step, breath for breath” (Source: Goodreads).
The strategies that have helped
The first was to recognize that grief is full of experience and definitely not a one size fits all situation. This means that the approach can be day by day or even moment to moment, that how you process grief may not be the best fit for another. So for me, the most important part was just being open to listening to your own mind and body, allowing emotion to be felt. And for others to allow their own process to take place, allowing your support to be guided by the curiosity of what they need at this moment.
Getting it all out.
I’m the type of person who needs to express my emotions verbally. But that doesn’t mean everyone needs the same type of express. Be creative in allowing yourself a way to express how you feel. Maybe it is journaling, photography, painting, musical composition or a more physical option like an intense bike ride or hike.
Taking action to help others.
I’ve always found that volunteering or giving my time to others helps me relax and find perspective. Whether this means formal volunteering, dropping off a donation to the food bank or spending time with the elderly I have always found it helps to connect me to my heart.
Enjoy some Movement.
We carry much of our emotions in our body, so when we feel stuck or caught up in emotion, or like it is too much to handle I turn to movement. You don’t have to join a gym, it could be a walk or a yoga class. It could be some gentle stretching in your own home. Whatever you choose to be gentle with yourself and do something that you enjoy.
Have you ever wondered why we offer to make you food during times of loss? It’s because through experience we know that the last thing we think about is taking care of eating. We may feel changes in our appetite, or be so distracted by emotion that we miss the subtle signs our body gives us. Processing these emotions will require the energy we can only get from food, so eating small meals throughout the day are an important way to help us move through the process.
Ask for help and be gentle with yourself.
We are definitely not our best selves when we are grieving. So I try to remember to be gentle with myself. It’s okay to cancel appointments, to take some time away from your responsibilities. Reach out to your support team and let them know how you are feeling.
Listen to and lean into your own needs.
It can be very easy in these moments to overstretch ourselves caring for others. Take some time each day just for you. Listen in to what you need, whether it’s rest or just some time away. It’s okay to take this time, to keep your own cup full.
Grief and Stress are closely linked
In my work as a stress reduction expert, I have found that grief and stress have a very close relationship. The effects can be seen in our mind, body, and spirit. It is easy to tell ourselves to push through, that we don’t have the time or how we “should feel”. My advice is to be gentle with yourself, be attentive to your own needs and to allow yourself to notice your emotions and gently allow them to be.