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Understanding Grief

Updated: May 18, 2022

Grief is how we respond when we experience loss. Grief is a normal, natural, and inevitable response to loss, and it can affect every part of our lives. Grief can seem like a roller-coaster ride with ups and downs, or it may feel like we are being battered about like a little boat in a storm. Sometimes it can seem overwhelming and frightening. Grief allows us to gradually adjust to our loss and find a way of going on with our life without the person who has died.

What does grief feel like?

Everyone experiences grief in their own way. There is no ‘correct’ way to grieve, and no way to ‘fix it’. There are a number of ways grief can affect us.

  • Feelings - we may experience intense feelings such as shock, chaos, sadness, anger, anxiety, disbelief, panic, relief, or even numbness. Some people are fearful as they are adjusting to a loss, that they may forget or lose connection with the person who has died. They may even feel disloyal.

  • Thoughts - we may experience confusion and find it difficult to concentrate. It’s not unusual for people to have ‘extraordinary experiences’ such as dreams of the person who has died or to have a sense of their presence. Mostly these are comforting and help us feel close to the person who has died. We may think we’ll never get over this, or that we are going crazy. We may think that it’s all too hard and wish we were with the person who has died. This is an expression of our pain and sadness.

  • Physical reactions - sometimes we may have trouble sleeping. Grief can also lead to physical symptoms such as tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, or pain. If these symptoms persist, check with your doctor to exclude other causes.

  • Relationships – relationships can be affected. Sometimes we will be preoccupied or tense or feel disinterested in other people and things.

  • Behaviours – we may experience lethargy or over-activity, pay little attention to self-care, sleep a lot, desire to resort to alcohol or non-prescribed drugs and other potentially harmful behaviours.

  • Beliefs – our beliefs about life may be challenged. Often grieving people wonder why this has happened to them.

How long does grieving take?

Grief has no timeline. It’s not unusual for grief to be felt over an extended period of time, even for many years. At first, people tend to feel grief more strongly. As time passes, we learn to manage the grief. Sometimes, after a period of feeling good, we find ourselves experiencing sadness, despair, or anger. This is often the nature of grief - the ups and downs - and it may happen over and over. Life will eventually have meaning again, although our loss will always be part of us.

How do we grieve?

Everyone grieves in their own way. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Some people express their grief in private and do not show it in public. We don’t always know how people are grieving simply by what we see. Some people want to express their grief through crying and talking. Others may be reluctant to talk and prefer to keep busy. Members of the same family can grieve differently. People may behave differently at different times.

It’s important to respect each other’s way of grieving.

Caring for yourself through grief

Grief is like a journey to an unknown destination that you cannot control or plan. Here are some suggestions for getting through the difficult times. Remember though, that you will grieve in your own way.

Privately and personally

You may sometimes prefer to keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself:

  • try not to make big decisions too soon

  • create a memorial do or make something to honour the person who has died

  • continue the relationship with the person who has died by talking to them, looking at photos, visiting special places

  • develop your own rituals such as lighting a candle, listening to special music, making a special place to think

  • allow yourself to express your thoughts and feelings privately – keep a journal, draw, collect photos

  • do something with your pent-up energy, such as exercise, walk, swim, or garden

  • draw on religious and spiritual beliefs if this is helpful

  • find books and articles and read about other people’s experiences

  • think about some self-care ideas such as meditation, massage, or aromatherapy.

With other people

Sharing with other people can reduce the sense of isolation and feelings of loneliness that come with grief:

  • allow people to help you – you will be able to help someone else at another time

  • talk to family and friends – sharing memories and feelings can be comforting

  • consider joining a support group

  • don’t feel you must grieve all the time – try some things you enjoy as well, when you feel up to it

  • talk with a counsellor to focus on your unique situation

Being a carer for someone with a terminal condition can be quite isolating and exhausting. After the person has died, you may find it very difficult to reintegrate into work, groups, clubs, or activities you previously enjoyed. Inviting a friend or volunteer to accompany you the first few times may make it a little easier.

Helping others through grief

No one can take away the pain and sadness of grief but knowing that people care is comforting and healing for grieving people. You cannot fix it, but you can help.

Here are some suggestions for things that might help:

  • keep in touch and be prepared to just listen

  • be open in showing your concern and care

  • help in practical ways

  • express your sorrow about their loss

  • talk about the person who has died – use their name if culturally appropriate

  • remember that many people may be grieving, including children, grandparents, friends

  • make contact again, even if there was no response the first time – sometimes people will want to talk and sometimes they won’t

  • share memories and stories

  • remember and acknowledge birthdays, death days, anniversaries, and other special days.

Sometimes, there are things that aren’t helpful, these might include:

  • avoiding people who are grieving

  • taking anger personally – often it’s simply an expression of pain and grief

  • saying ‘I know how you feel’, because everyone feels differently

  • telling them they ‘should’ be grieving in a certain way

  • changing the subject or trying to cheer them up

  • not using the name of the person who has died for fear of reminding them – they won’t have forgotten

  • trying to find something positive in the death

  • making suggestions to ‘replace’ the person who has died

Use your judgement. If you’re really worried about someone, ask them if they think they are doing okay. If you make a mistake, it’s never too late to say sorry. If possible, don’t allow friendships and relationships to become strained. Finally, don’t allow your inability to fix it stop you from reaching out to a grieving person and don’t underestimate the value of ordinary human kindness.

Feeling overwhelmed?

Sometimes, we may need to seek help. Counselling is one option, or you might consider joining a support group. Although the experience of grief is a normal and inevitable part of life, for some people it can be very distressing. If this happens, professional help is recommended. Some signs that you may need to seek professional help include:

  • a strong sense of meaninglessness that persists over time

  • high levels of insomnia

  • inability to carry on previous relationships

  • deep yearning or searching for the person who has died

  • deep depression or anxiety

  • thoughts of self-harm or harm to others

Specialist palliative care services can help with accessing a bereavement counsellor or social worker. Also, your general practitioner will be able to refer you to an appropriate service.

Several organisations provide information or telephone counselling including:

Lifeline 13 11 14

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

Mensline 1300 78 99 78

Parentline 1300 30 1300

Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36

This information is not clinical advice. Your health care decisions are best made in consultation with your doctor. This is one of many resources produced by Palliative Care Australia.

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