A Guide to Understanding
the Grieving Process
“We become more
fragile, sensitive and vulnerable when struggling with our loss.
Everything seems to impact on us more.”
This article explores the
various phases of grief and the wide range of feelings and reactions
that may be experienced after any loss. There is also advice about
BUT IT HURTS
There is no way to predict
How you will feel.
The reactions of grief
Are not like recipes,
With given ingredients,
And certain results.
Each person mourns in a different way.
You may cry hysterically,
You may remain outwardly controlled,
Showing little emotion.
You may lash out in anger
Against your family and friends,
You may express your gratitude
For their concern and dedication.
You may be calm one moment
In turmoil the next.
Reactions are varied and contradictory.
Grief is universal.
At the same time
it is extremely personal.
Heal in your own way.
Earl A. Grollman.
It is important to understand
the various experiences of grief. There are many more aspects to grief.
However, everyone does not necessarily go through every experience, nor
do they go through them in any set order. Each person has his or her own
timetable and his or her own style of grief. You may struggle with
several feelings at the same time. The depth and duration of each
experience is different for everyone. You may experience a feeling
briefly, intermittently or struggle with it daily.
A central issue involved in
the grieving process is the effect it has on our self-esteem. We become
more fragile, sensitive and vulnerable when struggling with our loss.
Everything seems to impact on us more.
The following pages explore
each experience of grief. Understanding the various phases helps you to
cope. To learn that what you are feeling is completely normal is a great
relief and comfort. Knowing that others have gone through this pain and
have eventually been able to reinvest themselves in life gives one a
sense of HOPE.
Grief is a universal
experience. It is the very natural response to any significant loss,
real or imagined. Although the extremes of the grief response appear
when one loses a close meaningful relationship, particularly in death,
any significant loss evokes the same response but to a lesser extent.
Pregnancy loss falls into this category.
Other losses may include
separation, divorce, loss of job or status, loss of possessions or
health and changes in identity such as rape, sexual abuse, assault,
menopause and loss of youth. Each of these losses, depending on how
important they were for the person, leads to some experience of the
This article is based on the
process of grief associated with the death of someone close but the
phases explored are pertinent to any loss. We take a step-by-step
approach to help you understand that what you may be experiencing is a
normal and natural process rather than something unhealthy and abnormal.
“It can’t be true.”
You keep thinking that any minute you will wake up from a bad
dream/nightmare. Sometimes you can’t cry at first because you don’t
really believe it happened. Often people will comment on “How well you
are doing.” Inside you know that the reason you appear to be doing so
well is that you just don’t believe it.
Shock is nature’s way of softening the blow. It serves as a cushion -
giving you time to absorb the fact of your loss. You hear the words, but
do not comprehend the full impact. Emotions seen frozen. You feel
disoriented, restless, numb, bewildered, stunned and unable to think. It
takes everything just to function. You go through the motions like a
robot and feel as if you are an observer watching this happen to someone
Sobbing means to weep aloud with short, gasping breaths. Sobbing is an
outlet for the deep strong emotions that accompany the death of a loved
one. Some people cry often and cry a lot. Others push down their tears,
but this may lead to psychological or physical problems. It is helpful
to cry - to release all that pent-up emotion. Cry alone or with others -
but take the time to cry. The book, HOW GOING TO PIECES HOLDS YOU
TOGETHER, says it very well. The advice “don’t cry” is ill advised.
Accept the grief - don’t try to be brave and fight it. At first, you
need to take time to grieve daily. Looking at pictures/mementos, playing
special music may aid in releasing pent-up tears. Men can and should
cry. Crying is a good model for children. When adults cry, children
learn that it is “okay” to cry and to express their feelings. Children
learn to share their feelings instead of suppressing them and struggling
You may experience some of the following: lack or increase of appetite;
sleeplessness or oversleeping; knot or emptiness in pit of the stomach;
tightness in the throat; shaky legs; headaches; stomach aches; sighing
to get your breath; trembling; chills; fatigue; chest pains; general
achiness; difficulty swallowing and/or speaking; digestive disorders
(indigestion, nausea, diarrhoea); feeling weak/faint; tension; slower in
speech/movement; temporary paralysis of limb or sight. It helps to
understand that some of these symptoms may be a part of grief and can
emerge anytime. It is advisable to have a physical checkup to make sure
that there is not another cause for your physical ailments. Take care of
yourself by establishing a simple routine (good nutrition, adequate rest
and time for relaxation). Exercise aids sleep and may lighten
The phone will ring, the door opens, or you will see someone, and at
first you think that it is your loved one. You may subconsciously be
searching for your loved one when out in a crowd. It takes times to
believe what happened. Even though you know the fact of death, you
continue not to really believe it. Many habits continue, such as setting
the table for the same number, expecting your loved one to come home at
the regular time, buying his/her favourite food, watching a TV program
and saying; “I’ve got to tell him/her what happened.” This shows our
unconscious denial of their death. Denial provides a buffer zone from
the reality of what has happened.
Often we keep asking “WHY?” “Why did he/she have to die?” We don’t
necessarily expect an answer, but the question “WHY?” seems to need to
be asked repeatedly in an effort to make sense of the loss. The
questions may be unanswered, but it is important to ask the question
until we can take the step of letting the question go. Rabbi Kushner
states in his book WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE? that often
the “why” is not a question, but a cry of pain.
You may find that you are saying almost the same things to the same
people. The same thoughts keep running through your head. In saying the
words and hearing ourselves over and over again, it helps us to believe
what has happened. It is important to find friends who will listen,
especially someone who has experienced a similar sorrow.
“It’s true”. “It really happened.” This is a frightening time. We feel
that we are getting worse. Often this happens after people who have been
so helpful have left. It seems as if we are going backwards. Actually,
this reality has to “hit”. The best advice is to “lean into the pain”.
As much as we don’t want to hurt, we must.
“I can’t think”. “I forget what I am saying halfway through a sentence”.
The simplest decisions seem impossible. It is difficult to concentrate
and follow through on things. You feel disorganised and error-prone.
Bereaved people often feel impatient and want to do something, but feel
unclear as to what to do. Sometimes motivation to do something may be
very low and basic survival needs may not even be met. Confusion abounds
because you are using all your emotional energy to grieve and there is
very little left over for anything else. The weariness due to grief may
affect thinking and concentration.
At first, you may only focus on the best qualities - seeing your loved
one as perfect. It is a very normal reaction, but it is important to be
aware of others in the family. They may compare themselves to the
“perfect” loved one and feel that they are not as loved - that it would
be better if they had died instead.
Many people seek to identify with their loved one who has died by
wearing their clothes, taking up a sport they liked, planning to follow
in their footsteps, etc. It is a way of ‘staying close’.
ANXIETY/PANIC (Fear of Losing Control)
At first you may fear being alone. You worry about the future and may be
afraid that something else will happen to another loved one. You often
panic at the approach of special dates (birthday, holidays, anniversary
of the death). Usually they are not as difficult as the days prior to
the special days. This is due to our unbelievable panic and
apprehension. You may feel as if you are ‘GOING CRAZY’. It may seem as
if you are losing control of yourself. Usually we don’t tell anyone that
we think we are “going insane”. Sometimes bereaved people have thoughts
of suicide as the only way to escape the physical and emotional pain. We
panic at the prospect of “always feeling like this”. We feel that we
should be doing better and panic when we don’t. Our situation may seem
hopeless and our thinking becomes jumbled. Panic is normal. If panic
seems intolerable, you need to do something about it. Talking about our
feelings, getting busy with something, sobbing, screaming, exercise -
all may help to release the “panicky” feelings. Emotional and physical
fatigue contribute to our panic. Good nutrition and rest are vital.
You want “things to be as they were”. You may hope that just wishing
will bring back the person. You may try to bargain with God “that things
will be different”; that you will try to be a better person if only the
loved one can be alive again.
It is a feeling of being in the “pits”. You hurt so much. Sometimes you
just don’t care about anything. You just sit. Mornings are terrible. So
is the time and the day of the week your loved one died. It’s an effort
just to get out of bed, to shop or to fix a simple meal. Talk things
over with a friend who cares and will listen. This is one action that
may help a person not to become seriously depressed. Talking to others
in a support group of bereaved people who know what you are going
through also helps a great deal.
It is a feeling of deep, overwhelming sadness and hopelessness that
lasts for longer than two weeks. Other symptoms may be: loss of
appetite; insomnia; inability to enjoy anything; anxious or restless
behaviour; apathy; preoccupation with thoughts of suicide; wishing to be
dead; loss of interest in sex; difficulty in concentration and making
decisions; poor memory; irritability; feelings of worthlessness;
inability to cry even if one desperately needs and wants to; intense
guilt and withdrawal from relatives and friends. It is important for
bereaved people not to become alarmed, because everyone experiences some
or all of these symptoms at some time. If six or more of these symptoms
are severe and continue over an extended period of time (so that pain
and problems outweigh pleasure much of the time), then it would be
advisable to get professional help.
This phase comes and goes. Often after the reality “hits”, or after a
particularly troublesome time, you feel better and may even think that
the difficult times are over. There is a sense of great relief at no
longer feeling down. Appreciate the relief ... the grief will return
soon enough. It is helpful to recall the fun times. Wholesome fun and
laughter are beneficial. It is not being disloyal to our loved one to
enjoy life. In fact, plan things to which you can look forward. Having a
sense of humour is often mentioned by bereaved people as being helpful.
We often expect too much of ourselves. We want to handle the grief
better and more quickly than is humanly possible. Submerging our
feelings is very detrimental because we still have to face these
feelings eventually. The expectations of others, “You must be over your
grief by now”, only adds to our burden. Often we will expect that after
the holidays, or after some special day, we will feel “much better”.
This kind of expectation only hinders the grief process. It is more
helpful not to have a timetable of how we should feel, or when we will
get better. Taking one day at a time, or half a day, or one hour at a
time is more realistic.
A bereaved person’s confidence is often undermined. In a study in
self-esteem using a scale of 100, it was found that an average person’s
self-esteem was in the 70’s and generally a bereaved person’s was in the
teens. Understanding the impact of grief on your self-esteem may help
you find ways of coping.
Your loved one who has died may be in your thoughts constantly. You may
think of nothing but the loss. You may even dream of your loved one, or
be preoccupied with his/her image. Even at work, church, doing the
dishes ... in fact, no matter what you are doing ... you may find that
some of your thoughts are always about your loved one. The intensity of
this preoccupation usually lessens with time.
Many people are tortured by “if onlys” and “what ifs”. “If only I had
called”. “If only we hadn’t let him/her take the car that night” or “If
only I had taken time to listen and visit”. We tend to blame ourselves
for something we did/didn’t do that may have contributed to the death,
or for things that we wish we had done for our loved one. Feelings of
guilt are normal, though often not realistic. It is best not to push
down the guilt. Talk about it until you can let it go. Hopefully, in
time, you will realise that you did the best you could under the
circumstances. None of us are perfect. The past is behind us. All we can
do with the guilt is to learn from it for the other people in our lives.
When the death is by suicide, it is especially important to remember we
can’t control the behaviour of another person.
Anger may be directed at ourselves, others (including family members,
spouse, doctors, nurses, person who caused accident); the person who
died; God; or we may experience a general irritability. We may feel
angry towards people who push us to accept our loss too soon, or who
pretend that nothing happened. Anger is normal. Pushing down anger is
harmful and may cause things like ulcers, high blood pressure or
depression. Unacknowledged anger may be directed at innocent people and
unrelated events. It will come out one way or another. It is often
difficult to admit being angry. Erroneously we may think, ‘nice people
don’t get angry’. It is important to recognise our anger. It is helpful
to find ways to express our anger such as screaming in a private place,
walking, swimming, aerobic classes, tennis, golf - even installing a
punching bag in our home. Talking about our anger also helps us to
define, understand and learn how to handle it. To suppress anger can
lead to deeper than normal depression and bitterness. It is important to
acknowledge our anger and to take steps to handle it.
After the initial help, relatives/friends usually pick up their own
lives and we are often left to deal with our grief alone. Co-workers,
friends, neighbours and sometimes even family may avoid us or change the
subject. Some friends withdraw because they are hurting and do not know
how to help us. We often become isolated in our grief. The widowed often
say, “I not only lost my spouse, but my friends as well.” In reality,
few people are able to help or understand. Support groups can be
helpful. Some aspects of grief can not be totally shared, even in the
same family. It is difficult for husbands and wives to help each other.
As Harriett Schiff, author of THE BEREAVED PARENT states: “It is
difficult to lean on someone who is already doubled over in pain”.
Especially at first when we are hurting so much, we realise that we are
not much fun for others to be around. When others have all their loved
ones alive, it makes us feel even lonelier. We may feel intense
loneliness due to the absence of our loved one, because we are unable to
share thoughts and feelings, to touch, to be understood. We feel empty
without our loved one.
“How can I go on?” You may come to the point where the agony seems
intolerable. You can’t bear it - you think that you won’t be able to
survive. Your hopes/dreams are dashed. It may seem as if there would be
little difference if you lived or died. You may have suicidal thoughts:
feelings of desperation, despondency, pessimism and loss of all hope
seem to surround you. If you are a smoker you may smoke more than ever
due to nervousness, or to an attitude that you don’t care if you ever
take care of yourself again. Sometimes it is blackest before the burden
of grief begins to lift. Talk to someone who has made it through grief.
We miss our loved one and feel deprived of his/her presence. We may feel
unhappy, inconsolable, distressed, sorrowful, dejected and heartbroken.
These feelings seem to pervade our life.
“What am I going to do?” We feel helpless about our feelings ... our
grief. It seems as if we are unable to help ourselves to cope, or to get
better. We do not seem to be capable of aiding other family members. We
may feel self-pity. Although we realise that we had no control over what
happened, we feel a sense of powerlessness at not being able to prevent
You may feel jealous of people who still have their loved ones to enjoy.
With a child’s death, dreams for their future are gone. This pertains to
college, job, wedding, grandchildren - things you would have shared
together. When a spouse dies, you envy others watching their
children/grandchildren grow up and enjoying retirement together.
Many frustrations are a part of our grief. “Why am I feeling so upset
for so long?” We become disappointed with ourselves that we are not
coping as well as we think we should. So many impulses, thoughts,
feelings and actions that had become habits are stopped in mid-course.
We are left with these unfulfilled emotions, desires and thoughts
buzzing about in our heads or sitting in our stomachs.
Bereaved people often feel resentful about the death and their changed
circumstances. Sometimes there is a (sub) conscious hostility towards
others whose families are still intact. Some bereaved people feel hatred
toward those responsible for the death. These bitter feelings should be
recognised and worked on, or the bitterness could last for many years.
Hatred and bitterness drain you of energy and may be destructive to your
health and relationships. When these feelings are left unattended,
healing becomes blocked.
Eventually we may reach an in-between point between the reality of death
and the point where life seems worthwhile again. We may feel a little
better at last, but be uncertain of what to do next. It may take much
longer than we would like before our zest for living returns. We often
live behind a facade - masking our feelings and saying, “we are fine”.
You realise that your grief is softening. At first the pain was with you
constantly. Now the pain of grief is briefer and comes less frequently.
The good days out-balance the bad days. You feel encouraged that you
will get better. Things, which had been so painful before like shopping,
painting the living room, looking forward to events, etc., all become a
part of your life again. Once again you are effective at work and home,
able to make decisions and handle problems. Generally you are able to
sleep and eat as you did before. You are able to care about others. You
begin to realise that you are moving forward and can once again enjoy
life. You smile and laugh once again and are rewarded with the smiles of
family, friends and strangers.
You will always miss your loved one. Special family events, such as
holidays, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, even a song or special TV
program will trigger the feeling of longing for your loved one. Seeing
other families enjoying special events “that might have been for you”
also deepens your feeling of yearning. You can’t help but wish your
loved one were alive. You miss countless things that were special about
your relationship ... a hug, a kiss, a smile, a phone call or hearing
them say “I love you”, or “Thank you”. For some people, when there was a
special relationship, the missing can be more acute. If relatives do not
live at home, they may find coming home for a visit especially
difficult. Their feelings of missing, anger, guilt, etc., may be
intensified. The reality of the death is more believable at home where
their loved one is undeniably missing.
STRUGGLE WITH NEW LIFE PATTERNS
You realise that you have a choice. You can rebuild a new life. It will
be different without your loved one, but life can be enjoyed again. It
is important to seek meaning in living. Learn how to make happiness in
your life. It is estimated that between 70% and 90% of marriages where a
child has died become endangered and end in separation and/or divorce.
It is important to be aware of such statistics and to renew the
marriage. You need to reinvest in work, activities and friends. New
friends can be found among other bereaved people. You may find it
necessary or helpful to move, find a job, do volunteer work, join a
support group, etc. Be open to renewing familiar patterns and
friendships, but be ready to try new ways of living.
Eventually we are able to think and talk about our loved one with
happiness and a sense of peace. We have learned to accept the death and
can see options and possibilities for the future. We may experience
renewed meaning in life. There is the possibility of emotional,
spiritual and personal growth. Often we become a different person -
stronger, more involved, wiser, more compassionate, concerned,
understanding and aware. Our loved ones have entered a beautiful new
life without pain and problems. We will be together some day. Meanwhile,
they would want us to live, love and appreciate this life and the people
in our life to the fullest.
For many of us, we are too “proud” to ask for or accept help. When asked
how we are feeling we may say “fine” - when in reality we are falling
apart inside. We may think “I can do it by myself” or “I should be able
to do this by myself” not realising how unprepared we are for the death
of a loved one.
We may be unsure, stubborn or feel uncomfortable about letting anyone
know how we feel. This makes it difficult for others to give us the help
we so desperately need. We need to consider if our grief is being
complicated by our pride and, if so, work on ourselves to ask for and
Sharing such deep grief does help us to cope and understand. Don’t be
afraid to reach out and seek the support of others whether they be
friends, spouse, minister or counsellor. Help is available. Grieving is
essentially a lonely experience - no one can fix it but they can make it
Grief counselling and therapy are available through Open Doors
Counselling. It is often very helpful to be able to pour your heart out
to someone totally independent as we may worry about burdening those we
are close to. There are many reasons for seeking outside support. We
encourage you to consider this option.
Out of the tragedy of the Nazi concentration camps comes a beautiful
story. In the children’s camps, boys and girls began to scratch out
butterflies on the walls in reaction to their dismal prospects of
surviving. These drawings became a network of communication among the
children. Those that understood and drew these wonderful creatures
belonged to the club of the butterfly. The butterfly therefore
symbolised youth, life and HOPE.
Anatomy of a Bereavement
B. Raphael. Basic books. N.Y. 1982.
Granger Westberg. Augsburg Fortress Publications. 1992.
Life after Loss, Getting Over Grief, Getting On With Life
NSW Millennium. 1989.
Judith Viorst. Ballantine Books. N.Y. 1987.
The Courage to Grieve
Judy Tatelbaum. Lippincott & Crowell. N.Y. 1980.
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
H. Kushner. Pan McMillan. 1982.
These are only general
suggestions. You should always seek outside help if you are unsure what
to do. If you need to talk to someone right now you can call
5 Greenwood Ave Ringwood. 3134
Ph: (03) 9870 7044
Freecall outside Melbourne 1800 647 995