Grief is a normal reaction to any significant loss. Anyone including children can experience grief at any point in their lifetime. The feelings associated with grief can include sorrow, numbness, pining, rage, lethargy, guilt, sadness, depression, frustration, anger, loneliness, helplessness, relief, shock, anxiety and despair.
What gives rise to grief may be something tangible such as losing a loved one or it may be something intangible such as a change in the nature of an important relationship, a deterioration of a state of health, the lost possibility of a dream that was held dear or the realization of a loss of a state innocence in childhood.
It is not uncommon for grieving to be delayed and to start inexplicably long after the loss occurred. It is also not uncommon for a loss sustained in the present to bring up residual grief from past events. This can make it difficult for a person to identify that they are grieving or what they are grieving about.
The process of grieving is generally considered to take place in stages with certain tasks associated with each stage. While there is something of a progression from one stage to the next, it is common for the stages to be experienced in a circuitous way, with a stage being passed through and then subsequently revisited. The stages are described below.
The first stage of the grieving process is to accept the reality of the loss. This may sound obvious, but it is not as straightforward as one would think because people tend to experience a sense of disbelief when a significant loss first occurs. This disbelief is compelling. It has the quality of being like waking from a dream and not being sure whether something really happened or was part of the dream. Coming to a realistic acceptance of the reality of the loss takes time and takes place on many levels including intellectual, emotional and possibly spiritual.
Once the loss is acknowledged and accepted, the next stage is to experience the pain associated with the loss. This, too, is not as straight forward as it sounds at first blush, because many people attempt to cut off from their difficult feelings and to deny the pain that they are experiencing. Regrettably, unacknowledged pain has a way of back firing and taking a toll on a person’s wellbeing at some point. For example, it is not uncommon for unacknowledged grief to resurface later as depression.
Once the pain associated with the loss has been experienced, the next stage involves adjusting to the new environment without that which has been lost. This is a process of reinvesting and finding meaning and purpose again in one’s present life circumstances, post loss. Once a person has reinvested in their life without that which has been lost, the final step is to move forward with one’s life. Although moving through these stages is not a completely linear process, fortunately each time the stages are passed through the experience tends to become less intense and painful.
The capacity to grieve is essential to being able to fully feel all of the emotions associated with being alive. Although difficult, grief is a restorative, life-affirming process. Grief usually precedes relief. It is a natural process involving the letting go of the hurt and pain associated with loss so as to be able to open one’s self to life again. Moving through grief brings new life and hope after loss. Successful grieving rejuvenates the capacity to invest in living and loving. These are the hidden gifts in grieving. It cleanses the heart of the pain of loss to ready it to open anew to life and love. Grieving allows a person to rekindle the passion to engage in life.
The next post in this series on grief will cover normal versus “complicated” grieving as well as the tasks that are essential to grieving fully.