Grief is the reaction people have to any loss in their lives. It includes a wide
range of responses which vary with each person, the type of loss and its meaning
to them, and their particular circumstances and experiences.
The death of a significant person in one’s life is a major loss but grief can be
felt about many losses.
- the ending of a relationship
- moving or migrating
- losing a job, health, a pet, a role in life
- giving up something that mattered a lot
- losing a dream
One loss can cause other secondary losses. These others may only become clear as
time passes and may include:
- loss of income
- changed roles in the family
- loss of the family home
- loss of a planned future.
A loss, or something associated with the loss, may cause recurrent or on-going grief.
Many things can be mixed up in people’s experience of loss and change and add to
a sense of confusion. There can be good aspects or feelings as well as the pain
and difficulties. Sometimes even changes that were wanted, such as a promotion,
can also result in losses.
When people grieve they are coming to terms with what has changed in their lives.
At the same time, they are beginning to find new ways of going about their lives
to cope with the gaps that the loss has created. This takes varying periods of time.
The length of time is affected by things such as the significance of the loss and
what other things happen to the person. It is not unusual for grief to be felt over
an extended period of time, even up to several years.
The body’s response
Although each person will grieve in their own way, there is a general pattern. Following
a loss, the person first may be stunned or distressed with the shock. The human
body releases chemicals, such as adrenalin, in response to shock. These are to help
with thinking, alertness and coping with pain. The person may have physical reactions
such as sleeplessness, difficulty in sitting still or concentrating, loss of appetite,
tummy upset, or even chest pains (which should be checked by a doctor). Often people
can feel numb or as though they are on “automatic pilot”. They may do normal activities
but not feel connected to the real world. Doing some physical activity may be helpful.
Thoughts and feelings
People experience a whole range of thoughts and feelings. These can be all mixed
up together and even quite opposite to one another, for example, relief, guilt,
laughter, anguish, anger. This storm of emotion comes and goes over time and varies
with individual people as they are confronted with reminders of what they have lost
and mourn for this. Loss of self esteem and confidence are common.
In the beginning, most people have a sense of disbelief which they usually give
up over time. Seeing the body and having a funeral play a part in how this happens.
The fact that people often cannot believe that it has really happened can be useful
in protecting them from being overwhelmed by such a huge change in the way they
have expected their life to go on.
Three to four months after the death
This may be a particularly low time. Society’s expectations are that bereaved people
should be over their grief by this time and should be back to normal. But this is
when the reality of the death is sinking in. The chemicals which support the body
after a severe stress are starting to wear off, and the support of friends is dropping
away. So bereaved people are often going through a very painful time emotionally
when there is least support.
Most people will find themselves automatically expecting past things to happen again,
and may have a need to keep some of these going for a while. But gradually most
people begin to face the gaps in their daily lives and struggle to cope with the
differences. They start to create a new life for themselves often while the old
life and the person who was so much part of that life are mourned. Usually, this
whole journey takes a large amount of effort, emotion and energy, but this may not
always be seen. Sometimes they do not look after themselves and they may have little
energy to reach out for what they need. Interested listening and practical help
may be useful.
But the confusion and pain should get less. Most people start to recognise they
are having more frequent and longer times when they feel more energy and hope. They
often recognise they have successfully survived a difficult time in their life and
feel stronger. They may notice their memories are not as painful for as long, although
this pain may never go away altogether. The length of time it takes to make this
adjustment varies a lot, beginning in the early weeks and perhaps lasting up to