Is what you’re feeling “normal”?
If you have ended a relationship, been diagnosed with a terminal illness or had someone (person or pet) close to you die, you’ve most likely experienced grief. As you are going through it, you experience a variety of emotions and probably wonder if what you are going through is “normal.” You might be concerned about never feeling happy again or feel guilty if you do feel happy because you are supposed to be “grieving.” What does it actually mean to grieve and is there are “right” way to do so?
Grief is when you undergo a sense of mental suffering or distress over the loss/perceived loss of something of value to you, like a relationship, your own demise (terminal illness) and death of a loved one (human or animal). It is a universal experience, meaning that everyone in all walks of life, across all cultures go through grief. There are five stages:
1. Denial/isolation – typically the first reaction to learning about your loss. It is normal to help you rationalize overwhelming emotions, but it is a temporary response.
2. Anger – once the temporary denial wears off, reality sets in and the pain associated with your loss returns. It is often intense and makes you feel vulnerable, so often it gets expressed as anger and can be directed at anyone or anything (even if it doesn’t make sense, like being angry at the person who died).
3. Bargaining – the helpless and vulnerable feelings we have lead us to wanting to feel in control; therefore, we try to bargain with God or other higher power (this is a defense mechanism that you use to protect yourself from the painful reality).
4. Depression – is a two-fold process. The first is a reaction to the practical implications of the loss, such as worrying about cost of burial and the inability to spend time with those who depend (children) on you because you are going through your own grief. The second is often subtler (private) reaction and is dealing with your feelings that you didn’t spend enough time with the person/pet that is gone, the preparation to separate or bid our loved one farewell. It usually is expressed in the form of sadness and regret.
5. Acceptance – is marked by withdrawal and calm feeling, this doesn’t necessarily mean happy. Some people never reach this stage because death can be sudden and unexpected or you never get beyond anger or denial.
Each person is different as far as the intensity and duration that they are in a particular stage. You do not have to go through the stages in a specific order (it is not uncommon to be in one stage and then go back to another stage) and sometimes you might not go through a stage at all. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. It is highly individualized experience.
If you are grieving, it can seem like that you’ll never be happy again. The key thing to remember is to give yourself time. Grieving is a natural process, but takes time to go through. It is important to take care of yourself by talking to others and/or joining a support group. In time, returning to hobbies or interests is helpful because it will provide you with a sense normalcy. Things may never seem the same after losing someone, but as you grieve, you move toward dealing with/accepting the new “normal,” which is that person/pet is no longer physically present. Some moments will be more challenging than others, such as important events or holidays. You should talk to a doctor if after the initial shock has worn off you can’t keep up with your usual routine (going to work, taking care of your kids, cleaning the house, etc.), feelings of depression (that it is never going to get better), having thoughts that life isn’t worth living or of harming yourself, or any inability to stop blaming yourself for the loss. (Please see Fast Facts for more information about dealing with grief.) Don’t resist feeling the grief…this will only prolong the natural healing process.
Interacting with Someone who is Grieving
We’ve all had the experience of finding out that someone has suffered a loss and not being sure what to do or say other than the typical, “I’m so sorry.” If you think through a time when you were grieving, what was it that you wanted from others during that time. Sometimes, you just want someone there and, other times, you want to talk about what you are feeling. So, when interacting with someone who is grieving, the best thing to do is follow their lead on what level of interaction they want to have at that moment. A question you ask when someone is grieving is “How are you doing?” Although you mean well when you say this, it can be a challenging question for the person to answer. Overall, they probably are not doing well, but instinctively when asked that question they answer, “I’m doing ok.” Most likely they answer this way because they feel that it is what they are expected say. One way to help the person feel more comfortable in expressing their true feelings would be to ask, “How are you doing today?” or “How are you doing right now?” Just by narrowing the scope of the question, it gives them permission to answer truthfully. Maybe at that moment, they are doing ok, but five minutes before or 20 minutes later, they are not. Since each person experiences grief differently, it is important to not compare your previous experiences with someone else’s. The best thing to do is to be supportive and comforting.
Grieving is a natural, but challenging, part of living. Seek help from a doctor if you are having trouble coping. Remember that you are not alone and your grief will lessen over time. For more information about dealing with grief, please visit the grief page of the American Psychology Association website at https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/grief.aspx