Grief does not just occur when a person dies but also when we lose a pet, a job, or our health, to name some examples. The feelings associated with this kind of loss can be as painful and severe as after the death of a person. Most losses can be incorporated into our lives after a while and we can move on without too much difficulty. Generally, people are able to cope and feel better over time.
However, sometimes grief becomes so overwhelming or so painful that a person is unable to deal with it on his or her own. Society adds pressure by conveying that we should be “over it,” and many people feel guilty because they still experience overwhelming sadness even after a considerable amount of time has passed. In those situations, counseling and/or support groups can be invaluable. In a group with other people who are going through the same process, it is easier to share feelings and find support and understanding.
Grief can manifest through behaviors and emotions, such as crying or pacing, sadness, anger, or guilt. Many people who experience the loss of a loved one describe physical pain, often in their heart or their arms. Another common symptom is fear, the fear to lose somebody else; the fear that something bad is going to happen. Grief can also cause memory loss or the feeling of “going crazy.”
People do not only just feel their grief in different ways, they also express it and cope with it differently. Some start working a lot, some drink or eat excessively, some withdraw from friends and family. Some start dating again weeks after losing a partner, while some feel they can never love another person again.
Children show even more diverse reactions to death. They might ignore the fact that somebody died. They might tell jokes about death or ask very detailed, sometimes inappropriate questions about circumstances of the loss. It is actually quite common for children not to show any significant reaction for about a year and then “fall apart” all of a sudden, often when their parents just start to feel better again. Teenagers generally don’t like to talk about their grief, at least not with adults. They hate the feeling of being different from their peers and often try to pretend everything is normal. Their pain might show up as anger or high-risk behavior instead of sadness.
Grieving people frequently describe secondary losses. After the death of a loved one, other people seem to disappear from their life. People they considered close friends don’t call or visit anymore and often offer no explanation. Other friends or family members who used to be supportive and understanding start urging them to smile again, distract themselves, or get over it. They mean well, but they are not helpful. When you lose a loved one, you often don’t want to smile; you don’t want to be distracted; you can’t get over it.
One way to help a grieving person is to ask what would be most helpful. Some people need to sit and cry and talk about the person who died. Others just want to be hugged or need some company but don’t want to talk. Some people want to be distracted and not think about their loss.
Practical help is also often welcome. Mowing the lawn, watching the kids, or providing dinner are just a few of the concrete things that can be helpful. It is hard for grieving people to reach out, so the well-meaning offer “call me any time you need me” is often not utilized.
After the initial rush of support, a grieving person commonly feels that those around them are going back to their normal lives while they, themselves, are left with their loss and their grief. Anniversaries and holidays are especially hard, but even a trip to the supermarket or a song on the radio can trigger memories and pain. Expect and accept mood changes and let the grieving person know that it is okay to express those feelings.
It is helpful for friends and family to keep in mind that grief doesn’t stop after the funeral, or after a month, or even after a year. If you or a loved one struggles with a loss, don’t hesitate to reach out. There is a grief support group in Moab that meets twice a month and there are mental health professionals who can help. Please contact a counselor if you need information or resources.
Antje Rath is a clinical mental health counselor who has a private practice in Moab. She can be reached at 435-719-5550, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.