Understanding Grief

What is grief? For many of us the definition is unique and futile. I have witnessed countless reactions to grief, many directly after a traumatic loss and others years after the event. No experience of grief is identical, however there are common themes that if understood can help provide clarity to the uncertainty associated with a loss. I aim to help define grief and provide support to those who experience it.

I understand grief as a person’s emotional and physical response to a loss. Grief is most commonly assumed as the process one undergoes after the death of a loved one. This is true however it can also result following the loss of pets, relationships, careers, health, and purpose. In fact, people can even feel grief before a loss. Those who have experienced anticipatory grief can attest. Grief can be experienced for a brief period of time or over decades. If left untouched and ignored grief can cause significant physical and emotions ailments. We will all experience some form of grief during our life which furthermore highlights the importance of developing a greater understanding and outlook.  

There are several theories/approaches to grief. The most commonly know is Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grief. Ross proposes that grief can be defined by 5 stages; Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression, and Acceptance. Some interpret the stages as isolated event however in reality the experience is not so simplified. I find Kubler-Ross’s stages to be a great template to further exploration. While experiencing grief you can feel all five of the stages at once and furthermore any other combination of the stages you can think of. The emotions come in waves and just as the oceans currents are unpredictable, so is the grief. 

I commonly find three different reactions to grief following the initial onset. Suppression, overworking, and seeking emotional comfort from external vices. First like other traumas, once someone has experienced a loss it can provide temporary relief to burry and avoid the unsettling emotions. Suppression can work for a brief time however the pain will always resurface. I hate use the word always, nonetheless I have never met an individual who can escape their pain forever without significant consequences. One of the best ways to address suppressed emotions is to bring them to surface in a safe and clinical environment. Once these emotions are accessible a clinician can support you in processing the loss and understanding the maladaptive patterns of suppression.

Second is Overworking. Many times, I have encountered individuals who experience significant loss and begin increasing their workload immediately. The overworking can also provide temporary relief however exhaustion and burnout will eventually set in and the feelings you have tried to work away will reemerge. For those using work to elude the pain associated with loss, first they must slow down. The difficult emotions must be nurtured in a healthy and safe environment where healing can begin.

Third is seeking emotional comfort from external sources. Often following a significant loss, individuals seek relief from outside sources. Alcohol, drugs, shopping, promiscuous behavior, media, and more. The individuals using these vices are seeking an external force to hopefully dampen or replace the emotions they are avoiding/suppressing. Their efforts are affective for a short time but like every other maladaptive coping skill it will be unsuccessful. The pain you experience with grief is not a normal emotion it is a flood. Patients I have worked with describe grief as unhinged, unpredictable, and overwhelming.

It is not hopeless. With the appropriate support those suffering can decipher the tangled emotions, celebrate positive memories, memorialize their loss, work towards acceptance, and plan for life moving forward. If you have questions about how a therapist can support you or loved one who is grieving, please reach out.

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