“Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” – Vicki Harrison, Author.
Losing someone we love is possibly one of the toughest, most dreadful things we will ever experience in our lifetime. The feelings of sadness, confusion and anger can be immeasurable, dominating our days and causing us to withdraw from the real world. For those blindsided by sudden losses, it can be especially traumatising to realise that we never really know when life may throw us a devastating curveball and crush our dreams, forcing a new reality upon us. Whether through bereavement or other types of losses (eg. divorce, relationships, financial and health losses etc) grief can pose a major threat to our mental state. As painful thoughts and emotions spiral, some may begin to question the comprehensibility of life or doubt their own competence when they find their core beliefs of a secure and benevolent world challenged. Without adequate psychological buffer and defence, the world feels shattered and we may be overwhelmed by loss.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s grief model noted there are five stages commonly experienced in grieving.
Denial: Avoidance, confusion, shock, fear and disbelief.
Anger: Frustration and irritation.
Bargaining: Struggling to find meaning in life, or constantly telling yourself, “If only i had…”
Depression: Feeling helpless, lonely and wanting to withdraw from life. This stage is also the most commonly associated with grief.
Acceptance: Exploring options, putting new plans in place and trying to move on.
It is important to note that these stages are not necessarily linear nor do they illustrate a complete picture of grief. Many who are grieving feel emotionally or physically numb as they subconsciously block painful memories to protect themselves. Some may experience a roller coaster of emotions and are drained of energy as they process the loss. Everyone’s experience with grief is different and very personal – it all boils down to how we cope with crisis and the resulting emotions. Don’t worry if you find your grief experience taking longer than others to complete. Grief is a normal and natural response to loss. We need to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves during the season of grieving
Practicing self-care is a great place to start. Though painful thoughts may flood your mind and you may find yourself wanting to withdraw, taking care of your body is crucial. This can mean maintaining a healthy diet, going for walks in nature, exercising, and ensuring that you get good sleep. Listen to your body and don’t hold yourself back from enjoying the activities that you usually find pleasure in, just because you are still in the grieving process. If you like to read, take a trip to the nearest library. If you find comfort in being around animals, go visit a cat or dog café. These activities help provide much-needed relief and prevent you from being consumed by grief.
Art can also be a meaningful outlet for repressed emotions. Some people may find themselves ruminating over perceived missteps, or wishing they could have done something to change the outcome. It doesn’t matter if you lack artistic talent; painting, drawing, poetry, or even creative journaling can serve to declutter your mind. The creative expression of emotions can be a therapeutic process for grieving individuals to connect with their inwardly-held emotions. Story-telling through art enables them to express deep seated emotions that would have otherwise been hard to access or articulate.
When ready to be more social, it could be good to catch up with family and friends. Some also find it beneficial to join grief support groups and share their experiences. These groups help them feel less isolated and offer emotional support and encouragement as they witness others along different stages of their grief journey. While social support can help take the weight off your shoulders, it can be tough to confide in others when you’re mourning a loss. Fears of having others gossip behind your back or having others pry into your personal privacy, divulging every minute detail – these are completely valid understandable concerns and professional therapy might just be the safe environment you need to work things out.
In professional therapy, you can rest assured that your privacy is kept strictly confidential while receiving professional guidance to help you through difficult times. Therapy is an incredibly valuable and effective way to help yourself heal from your emotional wounds. If you find yourself stuck in an unhealthy loop of distress over unresolved issues and experience difficulty adjusting to losses, a professional therapist can work with you to make sense of the loss and navigate your way through grief with greater emotional resilience. The therapist can also help you discover constructive and authentic narratives that enable better integration of the loss and meaningful transition to life after the loss.
Edmondson, D., Chaudoir, S.R., Mills, M.A., Park, C.L., Holub, J., & Bartkowiak,J.M. (2011) From shattered assumptions to weakened worldviews: Trauma symptoms signal anxiety buffer disruption. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 16 (4), 358-385
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Neimeyer, Robert & Burke, Laurie & Mackay, Michael & Stringer, Jessica. (2010). Grief Therapy and the Reconstruction of Meaning: From Principles to Practice. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. 40. 73-83. 10.1007/s10879-009-9135-3.
There isn’t consensus in the scientific community about whether Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief is rooted in empiricism. Although much vaunted in popular culture, if you’ve experienced grief and resolved it in your own way, you’ll know that grief is an organic process that is by no means neat or orderly. It’s deeply unique to each individual, and this article is designed to hopefully help you through whatever loss you have experienced in the recent past.
The five stages of grief, which Kubler-Ross first postulated that terminally ill patients experience are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Denial in this context encapsulates a perfectly normal response to a tragedy, and is exactly what you would imagine – it’s simply a refusal to believe that “this bad thing is happening to me”. After reality sets in, and the sobering realisation that the tragedy has occurred is impossible to ignore, Kubler-Ross observed that people often display frustration, which culminates in Anger. Once that Anger has dissipated, people often move on to Bargaining, which is the hope that they can somehow extricate themselves from their dire straits and obtain the balm of a different circumstance. Notwithstanding the success of the earlier bargain, Depression follows, which is self-explanatory. The final stage of Acceptance is the sanguine realisation that nothing will change their situation.
If you are currently going through your own grief and taken a step back to evaluate how you are processing it, you might have noticed some incongruencies between the model and your experience. That’s perfectly natural because there has been some criticism levelled at the Kubler-Ross model in that there is confusion over description and prescription. This means you shouldn’t take it as a rule, no, or feel inadequate or “bad” that you aren’t “properly” grieving. We hope that what follows in this article will provide you with some breathing room to let your grief take its own course, and helps you handle a tragedy with the right tools.
Grief is a loss. It’s your prerogative to define what grief is to you, and even something as banal as losing a cherished item from your childhood can precipitate feelings of loss. So, you shouldn’t wall up these feelings behind what society has proscribed as appropriate. We’re talking about you here, not anyone else. It bears repeating that your grief is unique because of a multitude of factors, for those of you who don’t want to accept that it is your right to give yourself the breadth to grieve – your upbringing, your culture, your faith, your parents, the list is endless. So give pause and slip into your own rhythm of grieving.
To help ensure that you do not slip into the common fallacies that can disrupt your grieving process, we’re going to list some of the pitfalls that ensnare people and prevent therapeutic processing of grief.
1) If you don’t show an outward display of grief such as crying, you aren’t “sad”
Just like the shortcomings of Kubler-Ross’ model, while crying is seen as a “socially acceptable” way of demonstrating sadness, it isn’t applicable to everyone. You may have been brought up to avoid tears at all costs, perhaps due to tough parenting or some childhood trauma, or you may not wish to “affect” others with your grief. No matter the reason, you should know that physiological responses to grief vary widely depending on your circumstances. Shock, numbness, anger, even hysterical laughter – just about anything is permissible in the initial, very private stages of your grief.
2) If you don’t “get over it” within an “acceptable timeframe”, you aren’t good enough
Although your family members or people in your community may react to and resolve their grief earlier than you, you need to know that it is by no means healthy to affect the fragility of such a process by introducing the pressures of comparison. Some people simply have better coping-skills than others or are more inured to unhealthy thought processes that hold them back from the therapeutic management of their grief.
3) You feel like you need to “protect” loved ones from your grief, so you turn inwards
We keep emphasizing that grief is individual to everyone – this should tell you that there is no circumscription to how you handle it. Even though it might feel selfish to display your feelings openly because you think less emotionally able loved ones shouldn’t have to deal with your pain, remember that there is nothing shameful about the old adage, “Shared joy is double, shared sorrow is halved”.
There are some simple coping mechanisms that you can use to help yourself through the process. Although the low mood is a given after the heartache of a tragedy or loss, and you might not feel willing or able to pick yourself up and carry on, remind yourself of the wisdom of eating and sleeping right. Drugs and drink might seem the most accessible ways to insulate yourself from poor mood, but these indulgences, in the long run, are hindrances to sustaining your mental well-being.
If you feel like the person you have lost needs to be remembered, you can do so in the solitude of creative expression, or you can choose to gather loved ones to laugh about cherished memories. If there’s one scenario where laughter in the face of loss is wholly acceptable – here it is! Whether communal or solitary, there are many ways you can raise someone up in loving memory – honouring them and helping yourselves.
Find solace in your old routines. If you’re hurting after the failure to gain acceptance into a school of your choice, it may help to remember all the things you did well before that gave your life meaning and structure. At the worst of times, it helps to fall back on old patterns if only to hang on to some stability.
Lastly, know that there is a difference between clinical depression and the normal response to grief. You should be aware of critical signs or symptoms in both yourself and your loved ones that may indicate depression. For example, if you notice that your loved one isn’t eating or sleeping properly after a long period of time, or is displaying reckless tendencies such as driving dangerously or overindulgence in addictions, it may be time to seek professional help. Although many people can get through grief without the help of a mental health professional, when it all gets too heavy to handle, you may consider seeking grief therapy. Some of our clinicians are specifically trained in grief therapy, such as Joachim Lee or Winifred Ling.