Grief and Loss

Grief and Loss - a desolate tree with a cloudy grey sky background

Losing someone close to you is very painful. You may feel all kinds of hard emotions and sometimes it may seem like the pain and sadness you feel are just so overwhelming they will never end. You might even feel you’re going mad. These are normal reactions to any significant loss, whatever the cause.

What is grief?

Grief is the emotional pain you feel in response to a significant loss. The more significant the loss, the greater the pain and the longer it takes to recover. It doesn’t matter if the loss is through death, separation, divorce or circumstances, we grieve all significant losses.

While most people would associate grief with the passing of someone close, other causes of grief include:

  • Separation or divorce
  • Loss of health, or that of a loved one
  • Losing a job, redundancy or retirment
  • Loss of financial security
  • A miscarriage or stillbirth
  • Infertility
  • Death of a pet
  • Loss of a cherished dream
  • Loss of a friendship
  • Loss of trust (eg after infidelity)
  • Loss of safety after a trauma
  • Losing the family home

How do we grieve?

There is no set pattern of grief. Everyone grieves differently and at a different pace. No two losses will be the same, even for the same person. The grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually.

We cannot force or hurry grief, and there is no “normal” timetable for it. It can take anything from six months to three years or more to get back to something like normal (although it might a very different ‘normal’). Be patient and allow the grieving process to happen naturally.

The stages of grief

In 1969, a psychiatrist called Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified she termed “the five stages of grief”:

  • Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
  • Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
  • Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return, I will ____.”
  • Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
  • Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”

It’s a common misconception that we should go through all these stages one after the other, but that’s not true. People move in and out of each stage as time progresses and sometimes miss one or more stages entirely!

We used to think grief would get smaller over time, but it seems more accurate to say that our lives grow around the grief so it no longer consumed us. The BBC made a video which can help explain how many people experience grief and our handout, Growing Around Grief, explains it further.

Common symptoms of grief

As has been said, every loss is unique, and there is no pre-defined set of symptoms that will describe your grief. However, some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Shock: At first, you might feel numb and unable to take in what has happened. It surprises many people that they feel nothing at all. That is normal and very common. Give yourself time: other feelings will come.
  • Disbelief/denial: it’s hard to accept what happened. Your mind just doesn’t want to believe it, so might try to deny the truth of it. If you have lost someone close, you might still expect them to walk through the door or be on the other end of the ‘phone. It can take a surprisingly long time for these feelings to pass. Sometimes years.
  • Sadness/tearfulness: Profound sadness is probably the most universally expected symptom of grief. You might feel empty, despairing, yearning, or experience a deep, deep sense of loneliness. You might find you are more emotionally unstable, crying at the drop of a hat. Or you might not. Not everyone experiences grief in this way.
  • Guilt/shame: You might feel shame or guilt because of things you said or did when the person was with us. Or, for the things you wish you had said or done, but now it’s too late. Sometimes people feel guilt or shame for some feelings they experience (e.g. feeling relieved when the person died after a long, severe illness).
  • Anger/resentment: It is common to feel angry and resentful, even if no one was to blame for the loss. You might be angry with yourself, God, the doctors, or even the person who died for abandoning you. Or, you might just be angry, without a focus to the anger. That’s normal, too.
  • Responsibility: We can often blame ourselves for causing the loss, even when it was not our fault. “If only I had _____ then they wouldn’t have _____ and they would still be with us.” It’s such a common thought. That doesn’t make it right, though.
  • Fear and panic: A significant loss can trigger a host of worries, anxieties and fears, even panic attacks. The death of a loved one can trigger concerns about your mortality, of facing life without that person, or about the responsibilities you now face alone.
  • Questioning your faith: While faith can bring great comfort in loss, it’s very common for the loss to raise doubts, fears and questions, too.
  • Physical ailments: You may experience such things as fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, loss/gain in weight, general aches and pains, insomnia and other physical problems.

Dealing with grief

Everyone deals with grief differently and in their timescale. Even within families, no two people will grieve in quite the same way, though there may be strong similarities. So, don’t be alarmed or anxious if you seem to grieve differently, or on a different timescale, compared to those around you. There is no “right way” to grieve.

When we are struggling with intense emotional pain, it can tempt us to numb our feelings with alcohol, drugs, or food; or by throwing ourselves into work or some other activity. While such props might seem to help in the short-term, they don’t help you heal. They just mask the pain. In the longer term, they make healing harder and can lead to depression, anxiety, addiction and even emotional breakdown.

What can I do to help myself?

Here are things that other people have found helpful in coming to terms with their loss, helping them heal:

  • Give yourself time: Grieving is a slow process. Accept how you are feeling today, and try not to “push the river”. There is nothing you can do to speed up the process, so give yourself the time you need.
  • Talk with others: Continue to meet with and talk friends and family. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person you have lost. It’s an essential part of the grief process.
  • Take care of yourself: Even though you might not want to, you must continue to eat well, get enough sleep and exercise regularly.
  • Continue your hobbies: Getting back to the activities you enjoy will help you reestablish a sense of normality and can bring moments of joy.

What if I don’t cry?

Many people expect that people will cry, wait and express powerful emotion when they suffer a significant loss. And often, they do. But we all grieve differently, and to own timescale. Sometimes tears come, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they come when you least expect them, maybe years after the event.

Rather than worrying if you’re not crying, allow yourself to experience the emotions you are experiencing, without shame or judgement. There is no one way to grieve.

How long is too long?

There is no timetable for grief, and no two people (or two losses) are alike. Your age, personality, belief system and support network all affect the grief process. It often takes longer to mourn the death of someone close (and that includes pets) than to grieve, say, the end of a romantic relationship. Grieving traumatic loss can be different from mourning an expected end.

But I expected the loss

We would expect some losses, for example, if a person had a terminal illness. And, often, we expect these losses to be less painful–we expected them. Sadly, it’s rarely so. Drawn-out endings can make the grieving process more complicated and difficult.

Will life ever get back to normal?

While life may return to normal quickly after a relatively minor loss, other losses can have a much more significant impact. Some losses are life-changing. If you have lost your life-partner, your health or mobility, life might never be quite the same again. That doesn’t mean that you will never be happy again, or that life is not worth living (even if it feels that way now). Over time, you will heal and find a new “normal”. It is a slow process, but a new day will come.

When to seek help

There may be times when it takes all you have to get through the day. Maybe you just don’t want to face life without the one you have lost. If these are fleeting or only occasional, it’s not a cause for concern. They are part of the grieving process. However, if you are:

  • struggling to cope with life
  • finding it hard to manage your daily tasks like going to work or cleaning the house
  • thinking about harming yourself or ending your own life
  • unable to stop blaming yourself

it’s essential to seek professional help. Remember, the Samaritans are available 24-hours a day on 116 123 and would be happy to hear from you. You can also consult your GP, who might refer you to for counselling.

Counselling can help

Counselling can give you a space to speak of your loss, a place where you can cry, talk, laugh and share what they meant to you. It can give you a place you can rebuild your life, eventually finding your new ‘normal’, for things won’t ever be the same again.

If you would like to know more about how counselling might help you, or if you would like to make an appointment, you’re welcome to complete the contact form, call us on 0151 329 3637 or email enquiries@counselling-matters.org.uk. We would love to hear from you.

Further reading

Lewis, C.S. (1961) A Grief Observed. Faber and Faber.
Child Bereavement UK: Helping children and young people deal with loss.
Scott-Holland, J. (1910) All is Well (poem).