For those of you who have recently lost a loved one and are experiencing your grief acutely the notion that you can somehow deal with what you are feeling may seem laughable, perhaps even insulting.

The sad fact, though, is that all of us will experience loss, all of us will find ourselves mired in a grief so profound that the world around us seems changed beyond recognition. And yet all of us, if we hope to lead a bearable life, have to deal with our grief at some point.

Symptoms of Grief

If you haven’t experienced grief yet no amount of description can truly convey its horror. If you are in it’s grip, though, the symptoms listed below might provide some reassurance that what you are feeling is a normal response to loss.

• Sadness (of course). This may manifest in feelings of emptiness, despair and deep loneliness.

• Disbelief. You may find it impossible to believe the loved one has really gone. You may find yourself denying the truth, perhaps even thinking you see the person in a crowd.

• Numbness. In the early stages of grief you may be so shocked that you feel nothing at all.

• Anger. Feelings of anger towards the loved one for leaving you, towards other people around you who are not suffering your loss, even towards yourself are common.

• Fear. Particularly if the loved one was a partner you may feel scared about how you’re going to face the future alone. You may even begin to fear your own mortality, or the possible deaths of others close to you.

• Guilt. Why didn’t I say this? Why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I say I loved them more? I wish I’d never… After a death all the things you assumed you’d put right sometime in the future are now forever beyond your reach.

• Physical problems. Grief affects us so profoundly that the effects can sometimes be physical. You may experience intense tiredness, weight loss or gain, prolonged constipation, sleeplessness, aching muscles, joint pains….

• Withdrawal. It is not unusual for grieving people to withdraw from social activity and relationships.

You may experience all of the above symptoms, or none of them. You may suffer others not listed here. The important thing to remember is that everyone experiences grief in their own way – there’s nothing wrong with you if what you feel differs from what someone else feels.

The Stages of Grief

The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is known for her model of the “five stages of grief”. This concept was introduced in 1969 and is often one of the first things a grieving person has explained to them if they receive any sort of bereavement counselling. The five stages are:

Denial - “This can’t be happening to me”
Anger - “It’s not fair”, “Who is to blame?”
Bargaining - “Stop this agony and I’ll…”
Depression - “What is the point of anything?”
Acceptance - “I’m reconciled to what has happened.”

As with the symptoms of grief, it is important to remember that you do not have to experience every one of these stages of grief in order to heal, and if you do experience them, you may not experience them in the order listed above. In fact, rather than a set of stages, it may be more productive to view grief in terms of an ongoing series of ups and downs, many of which repeat themselves over and over again.

Though this repetition seems grim, there is hope in the wave-like structure of grief. Just as real waves diminish in size as they approach the shore, the peaks of grief diminish with time.

How Long Does it Take?

There is no one correct answer. It takes as long as it takes. Some people grieve for a few months, some for years. Generally, the closer your relationship with the dead person and the less prepared you were for their loss, the longer you’ll grieve.

How Should I Feel?

Again, there is no right or wrong answer. Everyone’s response to a death is different. Some will cry, some won’t (though they may experience just the same level of pain). Some will be able to live daily life pretty much normally, others will be incapable of even the most basic daily routine.

Whatever your response, remember – it’s ok. Your grief is unique to you – your response will likewise be unique.

What Can I Do?

It is important to express what you are feeling, as it is only by accessing your emotions and working through them that you can hope to finally accept your loss.

Expressing your grief has the further benefit of allowing you to seek support, one of the single most important factors in facilitating healing. Reach out to family and friends, allow them to help you with your burden. If you are religious seek comfort in your faith. Consider therapy or counselling. All of these things will aid your recovery.

Look after yourself. Take care of your physical health and, when you can, nourish your emotional health as well. Laughing or taking pleasure in something does not devalue the memory of your loved one, does not mean that you miss them any less. But it will help you understand that you are still in the land of the living, that life, though it seems dark and empty to you now, does have its other side and will become again, if you wait long enough, something to cherish.

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