Coping With Grief

What is grief?

It is most useful to consider grief as a kind of energy that enters our system when something traumatic happens to us. We seem to encounter grief most painfully when someone close to us dies; however, events such as divorce, job loss, or moving can cause a grief reaction.

Grief affects us both emotionally and physically. In the beginning, grief may be so intense that we’re almost in shock – we feel numb and zombie-like. Later, grief can cause us to be depressed, irritable, and so sensitive that we feel like we’re “going crazy.” All these experiences are normal, and some last until the energy that maintains grief is released from our mind and body.

How long do people grieve?

In the case of death, if the deceased person was very close to us emotionally, and especially if the death was unexpected, the grieving process tends to take a long time. For example, it is normal for parents to take one to two-and-a-half years to recover from the death of a child. Other traumatic events can cause a grief reaction that lasts from several days to many months, depending upon the nature of the event and the emotional constitution of the individual.

How can we shorten the grieving period?

It is not possible to pressure someone to stop grieving any more than we can force a wound to heal. This is frustrating since we want friends who have experienced a loss to stop grieving quickly because we see how much they are suffering. But unfortunately, all out well-intended efforts to “help” our friends stop mourning only tends to make them feel guilty about being unable to stop. The energy that maintains their sadness can only be released by going through the grieving process at their own pace.

What is it that we can do to help a grieving person?

The best way we can help our grieving friends is to be available to them as empathetic listeners. Another way is to encourage them to become involved in an activity that uses up energy.

Perhaps the most important method for releasing grief is by talking about the reasons for their sadness. We should have mourning persons talk about the deceased, of the experiences which they shared, about the day of death, how death occurred, what the doctors said, what the first thoughts were upon receiving the news of the death, etc. Individuals mourning other traumatic events should be encouraged to discuss those events in equal detail.

To be helpful in this process, we must not question whether the person’s feelings are rational or not – we need to help the grieving person feel comfortable, safe, and accepted as they share their feelings and thoughts.

Another important way for grieving people to release energy is by crying. When crying occurs, it is NOT helpful to say, “There now, don’t cry… everything’s going to be okay.” It is usually better to wait, listen, and let the tears come out. After energy has been released in this way – when the crying stops – grieving persons should be comforted and they should be assured that we are concerned about them.

A third method for releasing grief is through an activity – either physical exercise or some creative or constructive work. Men may especially have a difficult time releasing grief energy through talking or crying. For them, involvement in an activity provides a good alternative. For example, jogging, raking leaves, organizing a memorial, taking up a collection for a wreath, or any other ritual would be appropriate for this purpose. To be effective in releasing grief energy, however, the reason for the activity (the traumatic event) must be kept in mind while the activity is being performed.

How can help person deal with the anger that often accompanies their grief?

Many persons feel angry when someone close to them dies, or when they encounter some other traumatic event. For example, a widow might be angry at hospital staff for what she perceives as being inadequate treatment, at God for allowing her husband to die, and even at her husband for “abandoning” her and causing her to experience powerful, unpleasant emotions. This anger must be discharged before the grieving process can be completed.

Anger can often be released by talking with others about its source and through involvement in activities. In addition, therapists frequently advise grieving persons to think about whoever or whatever they are angry with, and to vent those feelings by engaging in various physical activities such as exercise or some creative project. Again, during these activities, the person/event that is the object of the anger must be kept in mind.

What can we do for grieving people who feel guilt or responsibility for the death or traumatic event?

It is not unusual for some people to feel that they somehow caused or “permitted” the death or event. They seem sure that if only they had or hadn’t done this or that the trauma would not have occurred.

In some cases, such as divorce, the individual may indeed have contributed to the occurrence of the event. These persons will need to accept appropriate responsibility for their own actions while eliminating irrational guilt feelings. Sometimes professional counseling can facilitate this process.

In the case of a death, the grieving person is rarely responsible in any way. Again, talking about those guilt feelings is the best way to eliminate them. Let the mourning person talk about their guilt, how bad it feels, and why they think the death is partly or largely their fault. After these ideas have been expressed, have them talk about everything they had done for the deceased and how they genuinely cared for that person.

What should we do with a person who feels that he/she is “going crazy?”

With the death of someone who was close, grief tends to be very intense and it can cause symptoms like depression, inability to concentrate, memory lapses, withdrawal, etc. People experiencing such extensive grief frequently will have the feeling that they are “going crazy.” For example, they might go to the deceased person’s room to wake him weeks after he has died. The grieving person often fears that these symptoms will never cease, that they will never be “sane” again. The truth is that very few grieving persons ever “go crazy” and rarely require psychiatric treatment. What they are experiencing is quite normal and they will get better with the passage of time.

The best way that we can convince mourning persons of these facts is to have them talk with others who have experienced intense grief. Especially helpful are talks with persons who have finished their mourning – they seem to provide the best inspiration to those who have just begun the grieving process that even the most intense grief is a condition which can be survived.

When does the grieving process come to an end?

Eventually, grieving persons come to accept the event, at both the cognitive and emotional levels. In the case of someone mourning a death, he or she finally concludes that “I’m alive and I have the rest of my life to live. I’ll never forget him/her, but I have to move on. I have to let go.” At that point, the death has been accepted and the grieving process is over. Persons mourning other traumatic events finally come to a similar conclusion. They accept the fact that the event has occurred, that it cannot be erased or eliminated, and that life must go on regardless.

Human beings have a natural tendency to return to a state of mental health and well being if they are given a nurturing environment in which to heal. Persons sensitive to the grieving process can help facilitate this recovery.

Adapted from Thomas F. Frantz, Ph.D., founder of the Life and Death Transition Center, Buffalo, New York