What is grief?
Grief is a natural reaction to loss. It can be a loved one, friend, co-worker, pet, and even sometimes objects such as a house or car. It’s important to understand that grief is a way in which our minds and bodies cope and that grief can be a healthy, even necessary, process. Everyone experiences grief at some point in their lives and works through it on their own terms. In fact, 1 in 5 people will experience the death of someone close to them by the time they are 18. Grief can be an extremely personal time where people may reach out to others or isolate themselves. We will discuss the difference between healthy and unhealthy grieving, along with the common stages of grief.
The stages of grief
Depending on where you look you can find anywhere from 5 to 7 stages of grief. For sake of brevity, we will focus on the core 5 stages. The stages are:
While these stages represent an overall progression, it is important to note that it is possible to move back and forth between stages, skip stages and even begin the stages again once you’ve reached acceptance. For instance, you may skip the bargaining stage and go straight into the depression stage but then fall back into the anger stage before finally reaching the acceptance stage. The healing process will be painful and depending on the level of grief you are experiencing can often take a long time. Sometimes it may take weeks, other times it can years to reach some form of resolution to the grieving process. It is important to focus on happy memories and positive thoughts when working through a loss. In 2008 psychologist Dale Lund of California State University surveyed 292 recently bereaved men and women age 50 and older and found that 75 percent reported finding humor and laughter in their daily lives and at levels much higher than they had expected. Other research has shown that being able to draw on happy memories of the deceased helps you heal — those who are able to smile when describing their relationship to their husband or wife six months after the loss were happier and healthier 14 months out than those who could only speak of the deceased with sadness, fear, and anger. Everyone works through grief their own way and in their own time but it is important to recognize when the grieving process has stagnated and is not progressing toward acceptance in a healthy way. This may be a sign that professional help is needed.
When is grieving good/bad?
As we mentioned above grief is a very natural, human reaction to tragedy and necessary to our healing process. Grieving is healthy when we are able to use it to process our thoughts and emotions in a way that lets us heal and eventually reach a state of acceptance that lets us move on from the tragedy. This does not mean forgetting about the people we may have lost or the events that might have happened, but simply reaching a place emotionally that allows us to live our lives normally. Grief is unhealthy when we stop progressing through the stages and get stuck. This may happen in any one of the stages and you may even switch between a couple but are never able to reach the acceptance stage. This can happen for any number of reasons. Depression, isolation, and compounding life sources of stress and grief are just a few factors that could lead to obstacles in the grieving process. If this becomes the case, it is often best to seek professional help. Contacting a professional grief counselor is the best first step in assessing where you are in the grieving process and to determine if there are other areas of concern that need attention. To get in touch with a qualified counselor you can talk to your primary care doctor and they can often make a referral. You may also have direct lines to behavioral health benefits through your employer’s health plan or Employee Assistance Program. Check with your Human Resources Department if you are not sure.
How to grieve in a healthy way
As we said, there is no right or wrong way to grieve, but there is healthy and unhealthy grieving. In order to help yourself stay positive and productive in the healing process it is helpful to keep in mind:
- You are not alone – Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, church groups, and others you know socially can help. Think about whom you know that can support you.
- Don’t let others tell you how you should feel – Only you know what’s right for you. What someone else went through when they dealt with grief may not be what you experience.
- Let others know how they can help – What you need while navigating the grieving process may be different from moment to moment, day to day, and week to week. Let others know how your needs are changing.
- Everyone’s grief is unique – There is no guide to tell you when to start and stop grieving or when to move from one stage of the process to the next. However, if you feel that your grief is getting worse and that you are not progressing, there is help. Contact a grief counselor or EAP to get in touch with help. If your EAP is MINES our contact information is below.
Of course, this is not a comprehensive list and as you navigate through the healing process you may find that certain things help and others don’t. Find what works best for you.
How to help others grieve
At this point, you should see that grief is personal and can be a sensitive topic to some people. It can be hard to find ways to talk about grief or offer help if you know someone is grieving or struggling with a loss. There are things you can do, however, that offer support without being intrusive or overbearing. Things you might try include:
- Just being around – Sometimes there is nothing you can say that will make a person feel better. But just the fact that you are around can help. By being present and ready should they need something, the grieving person will feel supported even if you or they don’t know exactly what to say at the moment.
- Food – When someone is grieving, sometimes food is the last thing on their mind. They may not feel up to cooking or going out to get something. Or they may be suffering from lack of appetite which is common during grief. Being handy with quick, nutritious, easy to eat items such as fruit, veggies, or simple dishes can be a great help. As well as helping them remember when they ate last and ensuring they are getting enough sustenance.
- Support for decisions – When depressed, people’s decision-making ability can suffer. Try to help the griever put off big decisions until they are in a better state of mind. If necessary be there to act as a voice of reason and clear thought should important choices come up that need to be addressed.
- Listening – If and when the grieving person is ready to open up and talk, be there to listen. Offer simple understanding and words of support. Try and keep them talking so that they can vent their emotions when they have a chance. Steer away from any judgment and instead offer encouragement as much as possible. Talking is healing.
- Let them cry – Seeing our loved one’s cry can be painful, but don’t let that make you discourage them from doing so. Crying can be an important part of emotional processing. Instead, comfort them, offer them tissues, and even cry with them.
Be there for the person in need but allow them the chance to choose to open up to you on their own terms and in their own time. Trust that if you are there for them they will let you know when they need you. Intervene only if you sense that they are getting worse and not taking care of themselves in a way that will help them get better in time.
If you are currently grieving, supporting someone who is, or have grieved in the past but have reached acceptance, continue to focus on and preserve the good memories you have. You may always feel the sting of the loss to some extent but as you remember your passed loved one, lost relationship, or even a lost pet, the pain will slowly disappear over time and the fond memories and times that made you laugh and smile will be all that remain. If you are struggling and having trouble reaching the point of acceptance and do not feel as if you are healing, please reach out to someone. Find a close friend or family member you can confide in, seek out a grief counselor to talk to, and again if your employer has an Employee Assistance Program use that resource to find the help you need. If you have MINES as your EAP, we are always here to talk 24/7, please reach out to us anytime at 1-800-873-7138.
To Your Wellbeing,
The MINES Team
Children’s Grief Awareness Day. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2017, from https://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/cgad2/index.shtml
Konigsberg, R. D. (2011, March 14). Grief, Bereavement, Mourning Death of Spouse. Retrieved March 24, 2017, from http://www.aarp.org/relationships/grief-loss/info-03-2011/truth-about-grief.html