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Understanding Grief

If you or a loved one are suffering from grief, it’s helpful to have an understanding of what to expect. Having understood grief better, it is helpful to have some ways of coping with it or supporting another to cope with it as best as you can.

What experiences does grief involve?

First of all grief is not just sadness or sorrow. It is normal to have a range of experiences in response to a loss.

Normal experiences of grief include rumination, anxiety, anger, guilt, self-doubt and self-blame. It can also include feeling numb, feeling disconnected, feeling forgetful and not being able to think clearly, even to feel a sense of relief, after prolonged illness for example, and to feel warmth from positive memories.

It’s important to know that all of these experiences are normal and may come up seemingly out of the blue as you grieve.

To feel like we don’t want or shouldn’t be having the experience we are having makes things so much worse. As hard as it is, knowing that your grief is happening the way it is happening for you and that each wave will pass gives some amount of comfort.

Why is grief so hard?

Grief has been compared to a trauma or physical wound and as such it creates a great deal of stress in the body and mind.

One of the reasons grief is so hard is that the emotions and thoughts that come in the wake of grief are often very intense and can come up suddenly and feel overwhelming.

How our nervous system responds to the stress of grief.

Our nervous system has two possible responses to the stress of grief.

One is too much arousal (hyperarousal) which stimulates anxiety and action. Too much arousal of our nervous system might manifest as obsessive thinking (rumination), difficulty sleeping, hypervigilance, impulsivity and emotional reactivity.

A second possible response of our nervous system to the stress of grief is too little arousal (hypoarousal) which stimulates shutdown and submission. Too little arousal might manifest as feeling emotionless, numb, withdrawn, feeling disconnected, unable to think or process information.

We don’t have control of how our nervous system responds to grief, but we can take some actions to help us deal with the stress of grief and regulate the difficult thoughts and emotions that can come up in waves during grief.

Social connections regulate our nervous system

We know that social connection is one of the most helpful things for a grieving person. This is not always easy however.

The reality is that friends, family, work colleagues and others may not know how to support us as we grieve. Some may feel helpless and may avoid a grieving person due to this. Others may be awkward and say or do things that make the grieving person feel worse. A person in grief can also have an inclination to isolate themselves if they are very independent or worry about burdening others.

If you are grieving, it’s helpful to let others know how they can help you in each moment, since your needs can change rapidly.

If you are supporting someone who is grieving, ask them how you can help. Also, be open to where they are. If a grieving person wants to talk about their loss, that’s what they need. If they want to talk about other things, that is what they need. Let the grieving person lead the type of support you give. If you notice your grieving loved one is isolating themselves, try acts of service to help them such as preparing food or doing chores for them.

It’s important not to judge how someone is grieving. For those with nervous systems in high arousal, they may cry frequently, be irritable and emotionally reactive. For those with nervous systems in low arousal, they may show very little emotion. Both are okay and normal reactions to grief. Give the person time and support as they heal. Just being with them is helping them reduce the stress of grief.

Mindfulness regulates our nervous system

Mindfulness means being aware of something. When you are aware of an emotion as a physical phenomenon in the body it means you are in relationship with the emotion. Another way of saying this is that when you are aware of the emotion as a physical phenomenon, you are not taken over by it – as is implied when someone says they are “overwhelmed”.

Awareness or witnessing creates a space between the emotion and you and this makes a big difference to the experience. With the space, the emotion is still there, but is no longer overwhelming.

Since it may be very hard to be mindful with the large waves of emotion during grief, here are some simple mindfulness actions that anyone can do.

  • Place your hands on your heart area and notice the warmth of your hands radiating.

  • Sigh. A sigh releases tension and allows for the next inhalation to be deeper.

  • Notice your feet on the ground.

You can also bring mindfulness to thoughts that are obsessive and repetitive such as ruminations about guilt, blame and other thoughts about the loss. These thoughts can trigger waves of emotion or keep them happening for longer periods of time. Although ruminations may seem to be trying to solve a problem or help in some way, obsessive, repetitive thoughts that trigger bad feelings are certainly not helpful.

With mindfulness, name the thoughts, “there are thoughts of blame toward ….” (for example). Then return to mindfulness of the body: be aware of your feet on the ground, your legs, your spine, the breath coming and going a few times. The thoughts lose power when we name them and then shift attention away from them, into the body. The thoughts may stay in the background and come up again and again. Each time you notice them, repeat the process. Name the thoughts, shift attention into the body and breath.

Counselling for grief

Some forms of grief can be extremely challenging to handle on your own, even with relatively strong support networks. If you or someone you know is struggling with grief, counselling can be a resource to provide compassionate support and guidance during this difficult time.

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