Where grief lies
I have often wondered where the saying “good grief” comes from? It has always seemed a strange, somewhat oxymoronic statement to me…what is so good about grief? Well, as anyone who has suffered grief will tell you, not very much!
Grief is something that oozes into every fibre of our being. It has the power to create emotional tsunami’s that become painfully overwhelming. Paradoxically, it can erode our ability to feel or think, leaving us nothing more than a vacuous shell. That being said, grief is something many of us feel reluctant to talk about and yet it is something that affects us all at one point or another.
Grief is synonymous with bereavement. However, when evaluated truly and holistically, grief can be identified as our natural response to loss. When we consider this, we can begin to understand the impact that a range of situations and experiences may have in terms of a grief response . The sudden or even sometimes gradual disappearance of something significant to us, will create a void that causes us to grieve.
So what can cause us to grieve:
The loss of a loved one - bereavement, infidelity, separation, rejection or divorce. Separation could also mean the relocation of a family member or friend. This also encompasses empty nest syndrome where a child leaves the family nest in order to pursue a life of their own. This can lead to parents questioning their purpose, equating to another loss.
Loss of a job – this loss is synonymous with several secondary losses. Loss of identity, financial stability, routine, loss of certainty in having your basic physiological needs met (such as food and accommodation) and loss of acquisitions.
Loss of health – creating potential losses in self-identity, ability and lifestyle, perhaps even a perceived/real loss in freedom.
Aging – bringing changes to our physical appearance, physical and cognitive functions and with these a recognition of the loss of our youth. Retirement; for some; will bring other considerable losses such as loss of status, purpose, connectivity to a wider community and finance.
Loss of innocence – through sexual abuse or being forced to grow up quickly. This can be with people for a long time as it is a loss that is sometimes difficult to pinpoint.
Loss of sexual function – this can create further losses in terms of identity, masculinity/femininity.
Loss of practicing our beliefs – If we are questioned in our beliefs, our cultural heritage and/or are forced to change these, this can trigger grief.
Loss of Treasured Object – through theft, accidental damage or loss.
Loss of safety – after a natural or man-made disaster, abuse or robbery.
Loss of a dream – this can happen with the loss of a job, loved one, miscarriage or infertility.
Joyous events – moving home, obtain a degree, reaching your weight loss goals – even these events will require you to leave something behind, in return for a new opportunity. It is OK to experience loss whilst celebrating a positive new beginning.
Broken heart syndrome is real!
Loss and grief can be felt so intensely that it is capable of manifesting as physical conditions. Stress-induced cardiomyopathy can cause excruciating chest pain, when the heart responds to a surge in stress hormones. The pain and stress of loss can cause changes in the composition of the blood and the regularity and rhythm of the heart so much so, that an individual may feel like they are suffering a heart attack. Conversely it is common for those who experience loss to feel numb and disassociated. This too can manifest physically with desensitisation.
Many will feel loss in the abdominal grief centre. This can lead to gastrointestinal issues in the short term as well as manifest as abdominal illness in the long term. Cognitive disturbance can result in brain fog, headaches, tension and visual disturbance and it is proved that uncertainty can exhibit as clumsiness and issues with balance. So, if you are experiencing grief, know that these physical ailments are not uncommon, however medical advice should be sought where physical symptoms become a prevalent issue.
It is widely acknowledged that there are both beneficial and negative ways of coping with loss and many of these will revolve somewhat around avoidance. Avoidance has a beneficial place in helping us maintain control and functionality during periods of grief, however it becomes maladaptive when we refused to acknowledge our painful emotions and feelings in favour of constant avoidance. To ensure personal functionality, whilst attending to our much-needed healing, it is important to make time for grief and avoidance, respectively.
Maladaptive avoidance can also be in the form of prolonged numbing of emotions and self-sabotaging behaviours. Typical strategies that are/can become maladaptive include:
Constant “busying” oneself – such as over- working, over-exercising, throwing yourself into projects and focusing purely on the needs of others.
Avoiding specific people and places - often people and places that trigger emotional pain.
Substance misuse and emotional eating/undereating – trying to fill the void and/or find a way to numb/comfort the pain.
Isolating oneself physically and emotionally.
Entering into conflict.
It is important to recognise that grief will not disappear with complete avoidance. It needs its “time out of the box” to be, held, heard and acknowledged. It also needs its “time in the box” to allow you to continue reconstructing the areas of your life in which you have experienced losses and to give yourself permission to move forward.
Things to remember when dealing with grief:
It is an individual experience – There is no set process, time or way to grieve. Although many of the emotions that we feel will be commonly experienced, such as denial, anger and shock, how we experience them and when, will be to our own very bespoke timetable. It is therefore advisable to tune out voices that cast judgement on this.
Being strong. Strength lies in your ability to be true to yourself not following the expectations of others. If you need to cry, do it! It does not make you weak. Feeling scared, angry, confused are all natural congruent emotions, that you should not mask for the comfort of others. If anyone expects you to put on “a brave face”, you may want to reconsider the company you keep, until a time when their capacity to help, you more beneficially meets your needs.
Tears are the only way to show you care – baloney! Although tears are a congruent way to display sadness, those that don’t cry may feel pain in equal measures. They may just show it differently. Keep a keen eye out for anger! Anger is often a “go to” emotion for many people and will become observable quicker than the fear, guilt or sadness that lies underneath. Similarly, those who feel numb, often will not display much emotion.
The symptoms of grief can be emotional (shock, sadness, anger, fear, guilt…) cognitive (such as overthinking, ruminating) and physical (nausea, fatigue, weight disturbance, pain, changes to skin, nails and hair, insomnia). All are normal responses, however, if these happen excessively and/or for a prolonged period of time, it is worth considering medical/professional intervention to help with these.
Seeking support will help – it is OK to find solace in others, to ask for help and talk to people who genuinely care for you. Many find it difficult knowing what the right course of action is when someone is suffering. They want to help but may not know how. Allow yourself to ask for what you need, be it a chat, a meal cooked or help with the kids. The person you ask, may feel incredibly valued if you do.
Expect the unexpected-your emotion can overwhelm you without warning, so if you break down in the veg aisle at Tesco’s know that its OK…I assure you the vegetables won’t mind.
Plan for triggers – if you are visiting a place that reminds you of your loss, or an anniversary is coming up, prepare yourself for an emotional slap round the chops! Tap into your support network and talk, allow those that care, to help you build strategies to minimise the impact that these triggers may have.
Self care – this is anything from defining and acting upon your boundaries to asking for help. It is giving yourself permission to take it easy, to indulge and acknowledging where your behaviours may be sabotaging you in the long run. It is facing your feelings (maybe writing, talking, creating a photo album or doing something ceremonial – like burying a wedding ring) and knowing when to adaptively distract yourself to help in moving forward. It is in finding comfort in things that make you happy, such as hobbies and voicing when things become too much. It is building plans and being kind to yourself if they fail. It is understanding that no one else has travelled the road that you are walking and therefore there is no map, but that these roads are best travelled with the right company and the right provisions until you reach where you need to be.