Ask a Therapist: Column #11 On Grief
Q: I lost a loved one this year and with Christmas coming I am finding it hard to feel emotionally stable. Can you help me understand how grief affects me?
A: It is common for the holidays to be a difficult time for those grieving a loss. Losses come in complex forms. Most commonly, people associate loss with the death of a loved one but people can experience grief as a result of a move, a job change/loss, a medical diagnosis, or a break-up, among other life experiences.
Grief comes in waves and is unpredictable and everyone’s journey is unique so it is hard to predict how circumstances will affect you and trigger mixed feelings. Remember that whatever you feel is normal and okay. There is no formula or timeline for grief so be gentle with yourself as you walk this path.
To help you understand some of the most common feelings associated with grief, clinicians often refer to a Stages of Grief model, usually the Kubler-Ross method in which 7 stages have been identified in the journey through grief. Although these stages are listed in a particular order they may not be experienced chronologically.
It should be emphasized that this model, like all models, is flawed and will not account for everything that you experience in grief and you may not experiences all of the stages. Hopefully, however, it can help to bring some clarity and validation to some of what you are going through.
The first stage is often shock and disbelief and this reaction is a system protection against being overwhelmed. You might find that you feel numb, disoriented, or foggy in your thinking. You may feel like you are living a bit outside of yourself and this can be distressing. To navigate these feelings, do your best to ground yourself to the present moment. You can pay attention to your five senses to bring you back into your physical body and your immediate surroundings.
Denial can also be a part of the journey and, in this situation, it is really more about not being able to make sense of what has happened. Sometimes people deny the reality of the situation and some deny the complexity of their emotional reality. This is a stage where their experience of loss needs to begin to be sorted out in their hearts and minds. It is often a good time to join a support group or to seek personal counselling so that thoughts and feelings can be ordered in a helpful way that leads towards healing.
People who are grieving can begin to wish that they said or did something differently, or that they hadn’t missed an opportunity before it was too late and they can feel a sense of regret. This guilt often causes people to be hard on themselves and to blame themselves in some way that is typically irrational. Getting a healthier perspective as you make sense of these feelings and telling yourself the truth about all the good in the relationship might help you reframe things into a better space psychologically.
Anger can be a scary stage, especially for those who tend to be peaceful and stable most of the time. This intense feeling that things are not right can be directed at the situation, others, or yourself. Sometimes you may find yourself bargaining with God or others in an attempt to change the situation by trying to set up new terms. Again, try to work through your anger and look for healthy ways to express it and for next steps to deal with it. Be careful not to let your anger be directed in ways that cause damage to current relationships as it can be a powerful emotion and you won’t want to further complicate your situation by causing harm.
Grieving individuals may feel alone and deeper reflections on their loss can lead to a stage of depression. This can make it difficult to cope with regular daily activities and can lead to feelings of isolation and melancholy. Moving your body can help significantly to manage these feelings and prevent them from overwhelming you. Don’t dismiss your sadness, though; crying and mourning is a natural way that our bodies process loss and it’s important to be kind to yourself as you move through this time.
At some point, you will move into a stage that indicates that you are ready to move forward. You may be able to take care of the practical details of life again and sense more than before that there is some forward motion in this reconstruction stage. It is important to recognize that there still will be a shadow that comes and goes as you begin to rebuild because the loss will always be part of your story.
Gradually, you will experience some acceptance and begin to feel like yourself again. You may be able to chat more about your story and move through your days without feeling emotionally overwhelmed. You realize at this stage that you won’t ever fully move on; rather, you will begin to feel hopeful about a new way of doing life after loss.
Depending on what stage you are experiencing (or sometimes re-experiencing), try to practice self-compassion and self-care to navigate this season. Always be patient with yourself and reach out for help as needed. There is no formula or timeline for what you are going through. Grieving acknowledges that what was lost mattered so it is important to actually feel your emotions (rather than resisting or stuffing them down) along the way in order to facilitate healing.
Doing things to honour the memory of your loved one can be meaningful and particularly important this time of year. Perhaps you’d like to add a special ornament to your Christmas tree or attend a memorial church service to remember them. Writing a letter, journalling, and honouring a special tradition or place during the holiday season can be strategies for keeping your memories alive.
Don’t be afraid to reminisce and talk about your feelings with others along the way. Be sure to connect with others for social support and consider getting some additional mental health support if you are having trouble managing on your own. Be encouraged that you will find your way on this journey and there is hope for the future.
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