News • 31 Aug 2023

Understanding grief as a normal part of life

We all experience grief at some point in our life whether that be from the loss of a loved one, or the loss of our hopes and dreams. Grief is a normal and natural response to loss and how we express grief is different from one person to another.

On this Grief Awareness Day we speak with Open Minds Psychologist Emma Schubert and Master of Counselling Student Bec Whiteside about grief, what it is, how family and friends can support a loved one who is grieving, when to seek professional support and how it can help.

What is grief?

Grief can be defined as a normal and natural response to loss. Grief is something that everyone goes through at some point in their lives, although each person’s reaction to and expression of grief are highly individual. There is no time limit on how long a person will experience grief.

What are times in life that people might experience grief?

The loss of a loved one or pet are times when people will experience grief.

There are also ‘living losses’ or ‘non-finite losses’, which are identified as a loss that is ongoing and continual. This grief may be precipitated by a particular event like an accident or a diagnosis and can include losses that can’t be seen or touched, like the loss of a person’s hopes or dreams such as a relationship breakdown or job loss.

Are there varying degrees of grief?

Most people have heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, however these stages have never been confirmed by science. Often someone who is grieving will experience some or all these feelings, however grieving involves many more aspects than just five simple stages, and we can move through stages in different orders and for different amounts of time.

Grief can evoke feelings of sadness, anger, fatigue, hopelessness, suffering, and includes a yearning and longing for the one you have lost.

Complicated grief may cause a bereaved individual to be unable to stop thinking about or missing the person who died, they may remain in shock, confused, and angry about the death. They also may avoid acknowledging or celebrating anniversaries or birthdays.

Disenfranchised grief may occur when a person’s loss and grief is not recognised or validated socially. For example, marginalised groups such as same-sex bereavement or end-of-life experiences for people with a disability. When an individual’s loss is not recognised or supported, they are at risk of isolation, depression, and loneliness during this time. 

What are some ways for people to cope and work through their grief?

Grief counselling helps to learn how to cope with and adapt to loss and adjust to the new life reality. At Head to Health, we work with clients by providing a safe, non-judgemental space for them to be vulnerable to feel and express their deep emotions.

Research shows that people who can continue bonds or maintain a feeling of connection with loved ones who pass away, are able to function more effectively and adjust after a major loss. Visiting gravesites, lighting candles for birthdays and anniversaries, and even talking to the deceased individual while driving or when alone, can continue the persons memory within the bereaved individual’s new reality. The life ends but the relationship continues.

How can friends and family support a loved one who is grieving?

Many family members and friends of the grieving person will avoid talking about the deceased person or the loss suffered. One of the best ways they can help their loved one is to encourage them to talk about the loss. By helping to bring reality to their loss, they can help the survivor begin to deal with the emotional impact of their loss. Family and friends can help the bereaved by finding ways to remember the deceased so emotional memories and connections can be continued.

Allow the person to grieve at their own pace and avoid telling them they “should be over it by now”. 

If you notice they are becoming consumed by their grief, and it is affecting their everyday lives, it is important to encourage them to see a grief counsellor.

Also don’t forget the little things like sending a thoughtful note, a bunch of flowers, a meal or even a text message saying, “I’m thinking of you”.

How does grief affect people’s mental health?

Grief can cause deep sorrow and sadness and often causes sleep disruption and social isolation. We separate grief-related sadness from depression as it’s a normal response to loss. However, if the symptoms continue, we would consider whether the grief may have triggered or exacerbated depression (or another mental health condition).

Why is it important to raise awareness of grief?

Everyone at some point in their life will experience grief and loss. It is part of our normal human experience.  If you love people, you will go through this and the bigger the love the bigger the grief!

Grief counselling will not cure the pain you are feeling during this painful journey. However, it will assist you to draw upon your inner strength and resilience to accept your loss and new reality in your own time, while learning to continue your relationship with who you have lost.

At what point should someone seek professional help?

If someone is unable to continue with healthy everyday functioning in their lives due to their loss (can’t sleep or eat, struggle to attend work or other activities) or they feel stuck or overwhelmed by their grief or unable to accept the loss, it is recommended they seek professional help.

Open Minds operates the Lismore Head to Health Hub. It is a central service point for people aged 18+ in the North Coast region seeking mental health advice and support. For service information, call the free helpline on 1800 595 212 or contact our friendly team on 0482 161 784.

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