Grief & loss


There is no single way to grieve and deal with loss. How you respond is affected by the strength of your attachment to what you have lost and how that loss occurred. There are many types of loss including separation, illness, job loss and miscarriage. How you react to loss will be influenced by your personality, the way you think, your age and background. There are no rules when it comes to how you manage loss but it is important to know when to seek help.

The language of loss

grief

You may hear different words to describe loss and they each mean something slightly different.

  • Mourning is a word used to describe the process someone goes through in adapting to the death of a person. Mourners need to understand that their feelings are not a sign of sickness or instability
  • Bereavement defines the loss a person tries to adapt to and is a universal experience
  • Grief is a term that can be applied to other losses like a job or relationship. Grief is a normal part of life, one that must be experienced and not denied

Types of loss

Loss and grief come with the death of someone you love but loss and grief also come with:

  • separation or divorce
  • significant illness or disability –
    • disfigurement
    • blindness/deafness
    • amputation
  • financial problems
  • life-changing events
  • career redundancies
  • betrayals and lost friendships
  • miscarriage
  • infertility
  • failing memory
  • loss of independence
  • unfulfilled potential
  • lost opportunities

Loss is usually complex and layered: a woman who experiences premature menopause may feel a loss of femininity, a loss of fertility, along with losses of time, choice or opportunity.

Loss can be complicated if it can not be publicly acknowledged; for example a couple who keep their pregnancy secret and then experience a miscarriage. This unacknowledged loss is known as 'disenfranchised grief'.

What affects grief?

Personality People express grief and loss in different ways, some close down and need to shut themselves away and others will require action and busy-ness to help them through.
Thoughts, beliefs If loss can be understood as a part of the pattern or cycle of life, this can help with acceptance and recovery. This is a significant challenge, and can be a huge ask, that usually takes time and space to achieve.
Level of attachment Of course, the more attached you are to something the more you feel the loss. Sometimes you do not appreciate how important something is until it is lost and this can add shock to the grief.
Availability of support Loving friends, family and partners can help and so can grief counselling.
Age The age and stage you are in life can affect how you view your loss and how you grieve. For example, an elderly couple may be more prepared for the death of their partner so that even though there is a loss, it is not as great a shock.
Culture Some cultures have defined mourning periods and rituals which can help mark and support your movement through grief.
History of loss If you have experienced loss in your life before, it may feel a little easier compared to someone experiencing loss for the first time.
Experience of loss

The way the loss occurred may affect how you react to it. Some people can grieve again for a past loss, when a new loss occurs.

For example, a woman whose mother dies may grieve the death of her father 10 years before all over again and at the same time. She may then also grieve the loss of her identity as a daughter.

How long does grief last?

There is no set time frame or order for the grieving process. Grief is individual, there's no 'normal' grieving timeframe. Acknowledging your grief is the important thing. Denying grief and loss or listening to well-meaning advice like 'get over it' is rarely useful. Instead, accepting that you'll continue to grieve at various times throughout your life can be a big relief.

Rather than grit your teeth and think 'I'll get over this', it can be more helpful to accept that grief may stay forever, but the symptoms will reduce.

Is there a typical pattern of grieving?

There's no right or wrong way to grieve and no step–by–step process to follow. Your family has probably been your model. What do you remember about your mother or father's grieving? Was it secretive, did it turn into a sickness, did they ever get over their loss? Today we encourage you to be in the experience of it, know it for what it is and accept the process.

The following list presents all normal reactions. You may feel some or all of the following, at any time, as a part of the grieving process:

Emotions and feelings
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Numbness
  • Shock
  • Irritability
  • Disbelief
  • Emptiness
  • Hopelessness
  • Despair
  • Frustration
  • Guilt
  • Panic
  • Denial
  • Loneliness
  • Helplessness
  • Anxiety
  • Relief
  • Restlessness
  • Depressed mood
Physical responses
  • Decrease/increase in appetite
  • Weight loss/gain
  • Sleep changes
  • Lack of energy or fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Panic attacks
  • Headaches
  • Stomach ache
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Trembling
  • 'Knotting' or empty sensation in your stomach
  • Muscle tension
Thoughts

You may have thoughts like:

  • 'I should have done more'
  • 'It's my fault'
  • 'I can't do this'
  • 'This can't be happening'
  • 'It's not fair'
  • "I want to stop that moment from ever occurring"

Thoughts may also arise from a fear of losing control:

  • 'I can't cope'
  • 'I can't make it on my own'

Some people find it:

  • difficult to think
  • have repetitive thoughts
  • have thoughts of wanting to die or self-harm
Behaviours
  • Withdrawing socially or from a relationship, shutting yourself away
  • Crying
  • Transferring feelings: thinking everyone else around you is feeling sad when really you are
  • Being angry at someone who doesn't deserve it
  • Acting in ways that don't make sense
  • Avoiding situations
  • Changing behaviours such as using alcohol or drugs (including prescription medications)
  • Increasing 'risky' behaviours
  • Withdrawing from personal interests
  • Overeating
  • Oversleeping
  • Forgetfulness

Management & coping strategies

There are many different strategies that may help; you will need to find which one works best for you.

If you are an emotionally expressive person… You may benefit from talking to a friend or spending time with family. You may like to spend time with people who remind you that everything will be okay. Avoid people who exhaust you or who are uncomfortable talking about your grief. If you leave a conversation feeling bad or inadequate, it's time to seek other help.
If you are not an emotionally expressive person… You may prefer to spend time alone or become active and take control of other areas of your life. It's important to give yourself permission to cry, but it's also okay not to cry.
Find a private place Some people find it useful to have a private place to sit and be. Allow yourself to cry or even wallow in your sadness. Then leave it there.
Look after yourself Grief often leads to reduced immunity, so self-care is important. Eat and sleep as well as you can and do some exercise, even if it's a gentle, short walk. Avoid alcohol, recreational drugs and inappropriate use of prescription medications to numb the pain
Don't expect too much of yourself There's no right or wrong time to return to work – a good indicator is to go back when it feels meaningful. Activities and distraction can help, as long as you aren't denying your loss.
Give yourself space Give yourself space to grieve and adjust not only to your loss, but your changed life. Your changed life means a new identity, one you probably don't want and one you wonder and fear if you will be able to cope or survive with. A huge adjustment needs to occur and this takes time.
How do you know when you are getting through the grief Although it never goes away completely, you will know you are through the grieving process when you can think and speak of the loss without enormous pain. Mourning is finished when you can reinvest your emotions into life and in the living.

When to seek help?

If you don't feel you are coping or you are suffering symptoms, seek help from your doctor and/or a psychologist.

Counselling doesn't have to be long term – sometimes a few sessions are enough for someone to express their grief and find ways to cope with their grief.

Psychologists can assist with short–term coping strategies and help couples if needed, as loss and grief can significantly affect relationships. It can be difficult to empathise and relate to a partner who is grieving the loss differently (or not at all). A psychologist can offer support to you both, and give couples permission to respond differently in a trusted space.

  • You may feel comfortable talking with your doctor or religious adviser.
  • Medicare rebates allow up to 10 visits with a psychologist, speak to your GP to get a referral.
  • Community health centres may have a grief or support group. This is especially useful for people seeking support from others who have experienced a similar loss.

Last updated 11 August 2016 — Last reviewed 10 March 2014

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at March 2014.

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