Grief and loss

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Grief can be an extremely painful process. It’s something all of us have experienced, or will experience, in our lives. Losing someone or something you love is difficult.

You may experience all kinds of emotions and physical reactions to the stress you are under. You may feel you will never recover from the loss, and even feel you don’t know how you are going to carry on.

We feel grief if we lose people we love, or things or places we are attached to, including:

  • people – through death or a relationship break-up or because a relationship changes
  • health – through illness or accident
  • things we own – by accident or theft
  • places – through moving countries, schools, house or city
  • our place in the world – through losing a place on a team or a job, or because we have changed ourselves
  • pets.

Grieving is a very individual process and how you grieve will be different from how others grieve. Many factors influence this such as your personality, your life experience, how you cope under stress, your faith and, of course, the nature of the loss. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief.

The time it takes for you to grieve is unique to you.

There is no set time or process - grieving and healing takes as long as it takes. For some that could be weeks, for some months and others longer still. However, it’s important to know that over time the emotions of sadness, numbness or anger do fade and become more manageable as you start to rebuild your life.

It’s important to remember that almost every feeling you have when you first suffer a loss is normal. However, if you do not eventually start to feel better, or you don’t feel as though you can handle things on your own, you should consider speaking to your doctor. They will be able to help by suggesting support options, as well as making sure you are not experiencing clinical depression, in which case specific treatment options will be explored.

Signs to look for (symptoms)

While loss affects people in different ways, there are patterns of emotions and responses that occur, such as:

Shock and disbelief – Straight after a loss, like when someone passes away, it can be hard to accept what happened. You may not believe what you are hearing and expect the person to turn up at any moment.
Sadness – Complete sadness, emptiness or loneliness are what most people describe when they talk about their experience of grief. You may also cry a lot or feel emotionally unstable, alternately you may not cry at all and feel numb.
Guilt – You may feel terribly guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do, or about how you are feeling.
Anger – Even if the loss was nobody’s fault, you may feel angry and have a desire to ‘blame someone’ for what has happened – yourself, God, the doctors, or even the person who died.
Fear – After a significant loss you may feel anxious, helpless, or insecure. If you have lost a loved one you may worry about how you can manage on your own without them.
Physical symptoms – We often think of grief as an emotional process, but grief often involves physical problems, including fatigue, nausea, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, and not being able to sleep or sleeping too much.

It’s especially important that you talk to your doctor if you:

  • feel like life isn’t worth living
  • wish you had died with your loved one
  • feel sad and disconnected from others for more than a few weeks
  • are having difficulty trusting others since your loss
  • are unable to perform your normal daily activities.

How the doctor can help

Generally, resolving grief will not require any medication, just time, before you begin to feel more able to cope. However, to rule out complicated issues such as depression, it’s important that your doctor spends time with you to get a full understanding of how you are feeling and coping.

Your doctor can help by recommending grief counsellors and therapists to help you work through how to come to terms with your loss.

Treatment options 

Treatment for grief and loss can involve a number of aspects, each of which can be tailored to your individual need. For most, talking therapies such as counselling can be effective.

Therapy, such as talking therapies

Supportive counselling is a treatment for milder forms of depression, where it is as effective as antidepressant medication. Your doctor will explain what is available locally and which type of talking treatment is most suitable for you.

Medication

Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants for a short time. Finding the right medication can be a matter of trial and error – there is no way to predict which medication will be effective and tolerated (have fewer troublesome side effects) by any one person.

If you are prescribed medication you are entitled to know:

  • the names of the medicines
  • what symptoms they are supposed to treat
  • how long it will be before they take effect
  • how long you will have to take them for and what their side effects (short and long-term) are.

If you are breast feeding no medication is entirely safe. Before making any decisions about taking medication at this time you should talk with your doctor about the potential benefits and problems.

Complementary therapies

The term complementary therapy is generally used to indicate therapies and treatments that differ from conventional western medicine and that may be used to complement and support it.

Certain complementary therapies may enhance your life and help you to maintain wellbeing. In general, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, yoga, exercise, relaxation, massage, mirimiri and aromatherapy have all been shown to have some effect in alleviating mental distress.

Physical health

It is also really important to look after your physical wellbeing. Make sure you get an annual check up with your doctor. Being in good physical health will also help your mental health.

Important strategies to support recovery

If you're supporting someone through grief, take things at their pace. Grief can’t be ‘fixed’. It has to take all the time it needs to heal a person after a loss.

Those who have experienced grief and helped other cope suggest the following useful tips:

  • Let the person grieve in their own way. They may want to look like they’re coping, but inside be hurting. Or they may be putting their emotions away to deal with later. They may find it easy to express what’s inside – or impossibly difficult. 
  • Check in regularly – help them feel connected and cared about.
  • Recognise when they need their own space – don’t make them feel guilty for this.
  • Help them to keep normal routines going as much as possible.
  • Encourage them to keep connected with others. Include them and keep offering invitations, even if they’re declined.
  • When a whole family, whānau or group is grieving the same loss, a young person can get overlooked. Give them time and attention, and involve them in making plans and choices
  • A long time after a loss, even years afterwards, a young person can experience new waves of grief. At different ages and stages, or as new milestones are reached, it’s normal for them to sometimes think about the loss and feel grief. Expect this. They may have new questions. Look out for when some extra support might be needed.
  • Comfort them in the toughest times with hugs, making time for tears, encouragement or just being there. Or offer practical help, like driving them somewhere, fixing something broken or sorting something out for them.
  • Help them take a break from grief. You could watch a movie, watch a comedy on TV, listen to music, hang out with friends or play sport together.
  • If you’re very concerned about how intensely grief is affecting them, encourage them, or offer to take them, to see a doctor or other support professional, such as a counsellor, psychologist, social worker, community or youth worker or a local family/youth support agency.
Source: Common Ground
Thanks to Janet Peters, registered psychologist for reviewing this content. Date last reviewed: September, 2014.