The truths you need to know about grief.
At its core, grief is a reaction to change.
We tend to think of grief as sadness, and while sadness is often a part of grief, grief is not one emotion.
We also tend to relate grief only to death. Death is definitely something we grieve, but there are MANY other things we grieve throughout our lifetime. We might grieve a lost job or a lost love, the loss of health or ability, the loss of a pet. We can also grieve happy changes: Moving out on your own, a new job, getting married, starting a family, retirement, and other opportunities.
All of these examples involve some kind of change. And with any change comes the possibility for grief.
Another common misunderstanding is that grief is a purely emotional experience. It isn't. Grief is a whole body, whole life experience. Grief impacts our emotions, our minds, and our physical bodies.
Physically, grief affects things like sleep and appetite in both directions. It can cause inflammation and even physical pain like headaches and stomachaches.
Cognitively, grief can cause things like memory problems and difficulty focusing. It can alter how we perceive time and can make it hard to make decisions.
While grief is not purely an emotional experience, it is important to recognize the amount and variety of feelings that grief encompasses. Grief is not sadness. It’s not any single emotion. It can be helpful to think of grief as the container for all of the feelings associated with loss. It can include “good” emotions like joy and gratitude and even relief.
Grief can also involve the absence of emotion. Feeling “numb” is also common.
Although grief is more than just one emotion, there is one emotion to highlight: anger.
There's a great quote by Liza Palmer: "Anger is pain's bodyguard."
It’s important to be aware of this because anger can often be misdirected. If you are interacting with someone you know is grieving, try to be patient if anger is present. You don't need to be a punching bag, but if you are on the receiving end of anger that seems unjustified, do your best to take a step back and realize it is probably not personal, it is grief.
Another common and damaging misunderstanding about grief is that it is finite. Most people think that after a little while, a person should be “better.” But you never “get over” grief, it never fully goes away. It changes over time, but it doesn’t end.
The rate at which it changes will be different for everyone. This is why sustained support from family and friends is so important.
People often feel as though they are “doing it wrong” if they do not feel better after a certain period of time. Remind them that grief isn’t something we complete.
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief may help us to name our feelings and experiences inside of grief, but they were never meant to be a step-by-step prescription for how to move forward.
The “stages” originated from Dr. Ross' observations of the experiences of terminally ill patients. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance reflect how people tend to cope with the reality of death and dying. They were never intended to offer a roadmap for grief.
Dr. Ted Rynearson put it beautifully, "There are only two stages of grief: Who you were before, and who you are after."