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A Beginner’s Guide to Grief and Loss

Over the past year, many individuals have suffered from devastating losses due to COVID-19, and plenty of people have experienced grief, big and small, independent from the pandemic. These difficult situations include changes in employment, broken relationships, and even unexpected deaths of loved ones. Although experiencing loss is a common reality of life, dealing with grief does not come easily and can cause significant distress in your life.

Whether your loss is anticipated or unexpected, understanding the process of grief and having a knowledgeable guide will help you cope and work through the challenging experience.

What Are We Talking About Here?

Sometimes, putting a label to what you’re experiencing can help you wrap your mind around it and make it feel more manageable.

Grief is the emotional, physical, spiritual, and behavioral response to a loss. It expresses itself in various forms and includes an array of circumstances. The grieving process is not confined only to the death of a person, but also includes the loss of pets, identities, relationships, meaningful objects, roles, and usual routines in one’s life.

Anticipatory grief occurs when the loss is expected. It could be a terminal illness, the dissolution of a relationship, children going to college, the conclusion of a stage of life, or many other endings that you can see coming. The grieving process begins before the permanent loss has taken place.

Complicated grief, on the other hand, occurs when you become significantly impaired during the grieving process and have difficulty transitioning back into a normal routine. Typically when you submit to the grieving process, symptoms eventually decrease over time. However, someone experiencing complicated grief often does not improve, and their outlook may seem impossibly grim.

Common Symptoms of Grief

Normal grief occurs when there is an expected or unexpected loss or death. Feelings of sadness, doubt, anger, and questioning can occur immediately.

The following are other common symptoms of grief:

  • Sadness, constant crying

  • Irritability, frustration

  • Anger, Bitterness

  • Isolation, Detachment

  • Numbness

  • Headaches

  • Muscle soreness

  • Doubt in faith or even one’s purpose in life

  • Preoccupation with the loss

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Anxiety

Stages of Grief

According to the Kubler-Ross Model, there are five common stages of grief. Since the conception of this model, researchers have expanded on the five stages and dispelled the notion that the grieving process occurs in a particular order. In addition, while the Kubler-Ross Model was originally developed to explain a person’s stages of grief related to their own death, it has commonly been adapted to reflect the stages of grief experienced by those who are left behind. Every individual’s grieving process is unique to that person but shares common themes and responses overall.

The following stages of grief are commonly experienced when processing loss:

Denial — Here, we are in constant shock and numb to emotions. We cannot accept the reality of the loss and have difficulty comprehending the drastic change.

Anger — In this stage we are beginning to explore emotions of “not having” or “being without.” Feelings of irritability and anger surface as we process the unfairness of being without the person, place, or thing of significance.

Bargaining — At this point, we try to come to terms with the loss, but feelings of doubt, anxiety, and shock continue to circulate. In an attempt to undo the outcome, we may entertain an unrealistic hope by making promises of change to a Higher Calling in effort to turn back the hands of time.

Depression — At perhaps our lowest point in the grieving process, we begin to explore our feelings of loss. As reality sets in, we go through a period of sadness, lack of concentration, and constant rumination of the loss.

Acceptance — Eventually, we accept the loss and work towards a new normal. While we aren't necessarily happy, we are living more in the present and comprehending the loss.

Complicated Grief

As previously stated, those who experience complicated grief suffer from symptoms including intense emotional pain, the inability to function, constant rumination and preoccupation with the loss, extreme bitterness and anger, isolation and difficulty trusting others, and lack of a sense of purpose in life. When these symptoms of complicated grief are present, and you are unable to find healthy ways to cope on your own, higher levels of support such as individualized psychotherapy and medication may be needed.

Moving Forward

Losing someone or something of significance can leave you feeling alone and as though no one will understand your experience. While everyone has their own way of grieving, there is healing in seeking support and being around those who can help you cope in a healthy manner. And when grief becomes complicated and unhealthy, seeking the support of a trained mental health clinician may be what you need to work through your grief in a healthier way. A therapist is someone who will be with you throughout this process and provide the support you need.

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