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Grief & Loss - Pitfalls & Misconceptions



How do we identify the process of grief? What is it and when do we experience it?

Recently we lost a wonderful man in our lives who wasn't our father or grandpa but made a tremendous impact on our family. He was gentle and caring and strong and wise...and wanted to spend his time with us. We could feel his love. And we'll forever miss that.


I know that's grief.


But when my son suddenly moved to the other side of the country. I was proud, amazed at his courage, elated for his new life... and something else.


I guess I felt like part of MY life was over. I know on a conscious level that it's not - that it's just changed - but that's not what I feel. I feel a sense of loss. A sadness that I can only interpret as grief.


But is it grief?


Most of us, over the pandemic, experienced this sense of loss...our lives changed, we lost freedoms, we lost what we thought we knew, our jobs changed (or we lost them) and we actually know people that succumbed to the virus. So when we lose something and more importantly, someone, it's not just death that creates this sense of loss. This feeling of loss that manifests itself as a myriad of emotions can only be characterized as grief.


Grief can look like many different things:

  • Death of a loved one

  • Relationship breakup

  • Ending a friendship

  • Change in financial status

  • Divorce

  • Moving

  • Switching jobs

  • Death of a pet

  • Anticipating future loss

  • Change in health status

  • Estrangement from family

...and so much more.


While this list is not comprehensive it does paint a picture that grief can be stimulated by both death and non-dealth-related experiences.


From this perspective, I believe that grief is the experience of a sense of loss and the magnitude of which (permanency + degree of shock), determines the strength of emotions associated with that loss.


Russell Friedman talks about the concept of grief. He explains that “Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.” and gives several examples of experiences that can lead to this sense of loss and emotional experience of grief.


And these emotions can take time to process.


So first, let's go through the basics of what grief looks like. After that, I jump into how we make ourselves wrong in the grief process. What are some common pitfalls that can delay this process? Finally, I'll offer you a few strategies that can help you process these emotions and when to seek out support.


The stages of grief


1. Denial


Whether a loss occurs suddenly or with some advanced notice, it’s possible to experience shock. You feel emotionally numb and may deny the loss.

In the first stage of the grieving process, denial helps us minimize the overwhelming pain of loss. As we process the reality of our loss, we are also trying to survive emotional pain. It can be hard to believe we have lost an important person in our lives, especially if we have seen them recently. In this way, there may be varying degrees of shock involved in this stage.


During this stage of grieving, our reality has shifted completely. There is a lot of information to explore and a lot of painful imagery to process. Denial attempts to slow this process down and take us through it one step at a time, rather than risk the potential of feeling overwhelmed by our emotions. In this way denial is not only an attempt to pretend the loss doesn’t exist, but a strategy as we try to absorb and understand what is happening.

2.Anger


While not always present, anger can be a difficult phase of the grieving process. You may lash out at people you love or become angry with yourself. Or you might try to “strike a bargain” with a higher power, asking that the loss be taken away in exchange for something on your part.


We are trying to adjust to a new reality and are likely experiencing extreme emotional discomfort. There is so much to process that anger may feel like it allows us an emotional outlet.


Keep in mind that anger does not require us to be very vulnerable, and in this way may be a protection mechanism. However, it may feel more socially acceptable than admitting we are scared because anger allows us to express emotion with less fear of judgment.

3. Bargaining


When coping with loss, it isn’t unusual to feel so desperate that you are willing to do anything to alleviate or minimize the pain. During this stage in grieving, you may try to bargain to change the situation, agreeing to do something in return for being relieved of the pain you feel.


During this internal negotiation, you could find yourself thinking in terms of “what if” or “if only”: what if I did XYZ or if only I had done something differently to prevent the loss. When bargaining starts to take place, we often direct our requests to a higher power, or something bigger than ourselves. Bargaining during the grieving process can come in the form of a variety of promises such as “I promise to be better if you will let this person live.” and “I’ll never get angry again if you can stop him/her from dying or leaving me.”.


There is an acute awareness of our humanness in this stage of grieving; when we realize that there is nothing we can do to influence change or create a better end result. We feel helpless in a situation that feels so out of control.


During this phase, guilt is often an accompanying emotion as we wish we had done things differently. We are inadvertently trying to regain some control, even if at our own expense.

4. Depression


As you reflect on your loss, you may start to feel depressed or lonely. It is in this stage in grieving that you begin to truly realize the reality of your loss.


During our experience of processing grief, there comes a time when our imaginations calm down and we slowly start to look at the reality of our present situation. Bargaining no longer feels like an option and we are faced with what is happening.


In this stage of grieving, we start to feel the loss of our loved one more abundantly. Our panic begins to subside, the emotional fog begins to clear, and the loss feels more present and unavoidable.


In those moments, we tend to pull inward as the sadness grows. We might find ourselves retreating, being less sociable, and reaching out less to others about what we are going through. Although this is a very natural stage in the grieving process, dealing with depression after the loss of a loved one can be extremely isolating.


This intense sadness could cause you to feel different in other aspects too. You could feel:

  • fatigued

  • vulnerable

  • confused and distracted

  • not wanting to move on

  • not hungry or wanting to eat

  • not able or willing to get ready in the morning

  • not able to enjoy what you once did

5. Acceptance

In this final stage of the grieving process, you begin to accept the loss and feel hope for what tomorrow might bring. It’s not that all your other feelings are gone, just more so that you’ve accepted them and are ready to move on.


When we come to a place of acceptance, it is not that we no longer feel the pain of loss. Instead, we are no longer resisting the reality of our situation, and we are not struggling to make it something different.


Sadness and regret can still be present in this phase. But the emotional survival tactics of denial, bargaining, and anger are less likely to be present during this phase of the grieving process.

Common misconceptions about grieving

Because everyone mourns differently and for different reasons, sometimes you might feel your own grieving process isn’t going “according to the norm.”

But remember, there’s no such thing as a right or wrong way of coping with a loss.

These might be some of the thoughts that could cross your mind when looking at your own or someone else’s way of grieving.


1. ‘I am doing it wrong’


One of the most common misconceptions about grieving is that everyone goes through it in the same way. However, when it comes to healing from a loss, there’s no correct way of doing it. You might find it useful to remind yourself there’s no “I should be feeling this way.”


Grieving isn’t about going over or following a set list of steps. It’s a unique and multidimensional healing journey.


2. ‘I should be feeling…’


Not everyone experiences all the above-mentioned stages or even goes through these emotions the same way. For example, maybe the depression stage feels more like irritability than sadness for you. And denial could be more of a sense of shock and disbelief than an actual expectation that something out of the blue will fix the loss.


The emotions used to contextualize the stages of grief aren’t the only ones you’ll experience. You might not even experience them at all, and that’s natural too. This is no indication that your healing journey is faulty in some way. Your healing experience is unique to you and valid nonetheless.


3. ‘This goes first’


Remember, there’s no specific or linear order for the stages of grief. You could move along the stages one by one, or you could go back and forth. Some days you might feel very sad, and the very next day you could wake up feeling hopeful. Then you could go back to feeling sad. Some days you might even feel both!


In the same way, denial isn’t necessarily the first emotion you’ll experience. Maybe your first emotional reaction is anger or depression.


This is natural and part of the healing process.


4. ‘It’s taking too long’


Coping with a loss is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience. Many factors affect how long it takes.


Some people navigate through grief in a few days. Others take months or longer to process their loss.


You might find it useful to not set any deadlines to your process.


In grief, you’ll experience some of these emotions in waves of intensity. In time, you’ll notice this intensity decrease.


If you feel your emotions stay or increase in intensity and frequency, this might be a good time to seek professional support.


5. ‘I’m depressed’


Going through the stages of grief, particularly the depression stage, isn’t equivalent to clinical depression. There’s a distinction between having clinical depression and grieving.

This means that even though some symptoms might be similar, there are still key differences between both.


For example, in grief, the intense sadness will lessen in intensity and frequency as time goes by. You might even experience this sadness at the same time you find temporary relief in happy memories from times before the loss.


In clinical depression, on the other hand, without the proper treatment, your mood would stay negative or worsen with time. It would likely affect your self-esteem. You may rarely experience feelings of pleasure or happiness.


This doesn’t mean there isn’t a possibility you could develop clinical depression during the grieving process. If your emotions progressively increase in intensity and frequency, reach out for support.


6. ‘I need to shake this off and get back to normal’


Often we start to ridicule ourselves for taking too long or being entrenched in the grief process. There’s a sense of ‘get on with things already’. However the stages of grief are individual and depend largely on the circumstances of the experience.


Give yourself time to heal. Fully processing those emotions will serve you well in moving through the stages of grief to a new understanding and acceptance.


7. 'This isn't a big deal - why am I so sad?'


Grief is not a competition. You don't have to prove your loss to anyone.


You also don't have to perform grief in a certain way. Your grief is personal to you so you get to direct what that process looks like. Some types of loss are harder for others to understand because they have no frame of reference to understand that type of loss. The reality is, you don't have anything to prove to anyone. Your grief is your own.


What can I do to help myself through this process?

  1. Sit with uncomfortable emotions. Don’t allow yourself to numb out with work, substance or another distraction. See this for what it is and be ok with being uncomfortable with the feelings that are washing over you. Allow yourself the space to grieve properly.

  2. Journal. Log your feelings and emotions around the situation. Allow yourself this safe space to write down all that you don’t want to say. Allowing your thoughts to rest within the pages of your journal will free your mind and move you more quickly toward healing.

  3. Reach out. Allowing yourself time is necessary, however, knowing when to reach out for help is mandatory. Support from a friend, family member or professional can make all the difference. If you're feeling like you might be stuck or are concerned about a perceived lack of process through the grieving process, reach out and find the support you need.

When it comes to grieving the process is individual and affected by many factors. Any loss is significant, so allow yourself to move through this process and heal. If you are trying to help someone else through their grief, it’s important to just be present and listen.


If you or someone you know would like support through this process, please reach out here or email me directly at info@katrinamurphycoaching.com.

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