Grief and Loss
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.
C. S. Lewis
Tears are the silent language of grief.
What is Grief?
Grief is a normal and natural response to loss. Whether the loss involves the death of a loved one, the end of a special relationship, or becoming disabled -- and whether the person is a senior citizen, a child or a college student – all of us will experience loss and grief at some point in our lives.
At many points after a loss, the grieving person can benefit from the support of others. Individual grief reactions can vary widely, not only from person to person, but also within the same person over time.
Reactions to Grief
People who are grieving will experience many reactions to their loss. At various times, but especially at first, the grieving person may experience intense and sometimes conflicting feelings. Our brains shut down and can refuse to process such intense and upsetting information. Feelings of disconnection and a sense of ‘its not real’ can co-exist with strong feelings such as sadness, helplessness, loneliness, guilt, or anger. Experiencing and accepting these feelings as natural represents an important part of the recovery process.
Throughout the recovery period people who are grieving will experience many reactions. Some of the following reactions may indeed be experienced many times:
- Denial, shock, numbness -- reactions which distance the grieving person from the loss, thereby protecting him/her from being overwhelmed by emotions.
- Emotional releases -- these reactions accompany realizations of different aspects of the loss, they are often very physically located in the body (crying, screaming, shaking).
- Reactive Depression -- natural feelings beyond sadness (e.g., feelings of loneliness, isolation, hopelessness, sorrow) which occur as the person more clearly recognizes the extent of the loss.
- Panic -- feeling overwhelmed, confused, fearful, unable to cope.
- Remorse -- following a loss (whether through death, relationship breakup or disability) a grieving person sometimes becomes preoccupied with thoughts of what he/she might have done differently to have prevented the loss or to have made things better. This can be helpful as the person tries to make sense out of his or her situation, but can also lead to unrealistic feelings of remorse or guilt.
- Anger -- A significant loss threatens the grieving person's basic beliefs about himself or herself or about life in general. As a result (often to the grieving person's bewilderment), he or she can feel anger not only at a person perceived as responsible for the loss, or at God or life in general for the injustice of the loss, but also -- in cases of loss through death -- at the deceased for dying.
- Need to talk -- in order to recognize and come to terms with the impact of the loss, the grieving person may express feelings, tell stories and share memories, sometimes over and over with many different people.
- Physical ailments -- in response to the emotional stress of grief, many people are more vulnerable to a variety of physical ailments over the six to 18 months following loss (e.g., colds, nausea, hypertension, etc.).
Obstacles to Grief
Grief is a misunderstood and neglected process in life. Because responding to losses and death is often awkward and uncomfortable for both grievers and helpers, those concerned may avoid dealing with grief. With the myth that college years are always "happy years" and the concurrent failure to recognize that death of someone close is not the only type of significant loss, many potential helpers don't even recognize that a student, employee, or friend is grieving. Additionally, in cases of death, the student in college may be living far away from others who are experiencing the same loss. All of these factors can contribute to make the experience more lonely and unhappy than it might be otherwise.
Society promotes many misconceptions about grief that may actually hinder the recovery and growth that follow loss. For example, friends and family may make statements such as, "You must be strong," "you have to get on with your life," or "it's good that he didn't have to suffer." Such clichés may help the one saying them, but are rarely helpful to the griever. Other misconceptions may be that it is not appropriate to show emotions except at the funeral or that recovery should be complete within a prescribed amount of time. Still other misconceptions would imply that the grieving person is being inappropriate when at times he or she breaks away from the grief, laughs, plays, is productive at work, etc. An individual may have both personal and cultural differences in the ways that he or she deals with grief; friends need to support the bereaved in recovering and restoring balance in the individualized way that is best for that person, at that time.
Guidelines for Helping Someone Who is Grieving
Grief cannot be solved or tidied up or cheered up. People who are there to listen, support, witness, hug and comfort will almost never feel like they have done ‘enough’ because no matter how much you can help, the fact of the loss remains. What follows are some concrete suggestions about ways to be helpful over time to someone who is grieving.
- Take some kind of action. Make a phone call, send a card, give a hug, attend the campus gatherings, and help with practical matters (e.g., taking notes in class, writing a card).
- Be available. Allow the person time so there is no sense of "urgency" when you visit or talk.
- Be a good listener. Accept the words and feelings expressed, avoid being judgmental or taking their feelings personally, avoid telling them what they feel or what they should do.
- Don't minimize the loss and avoid giving clichés and easy answers. Don't be afraid to talk about the loss (i.e., the deceased, the ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, the disability, etc.).
- Allow the bereaved person to grieve for as long or short a time as needed. Be patient, there are no shortcuts.
- Encourage the bereaved to care for themselves. They need to attend to physical needs, postpone major decisions, and allow themselves to grieve and to recover.
- Acknowledge and accept your own limitations. Many situations can be hard to handle, but can be made easier with the help of outside resources -- books, workshops, support groups, other friends, or professionals.
Take care of yourself, Take care of each other.
Supporting a grieving person can also be stressful for the helpers; they need to take care of themselves while also attending to the needs of the grieving person. Since helpers themselves are often grieving, they may need to address their own healing process. This may include having the opportunity to express their own emotions, to take care of themselves physically and to turn to other friends for support. Grief can be isolating and overwhelming, but as social animals, humans grieve most fully in the company of others.
Skidmore and Saratoga Grief and Loss Resources
- Skidmore College Counseling Center-West Lot A, Monday-Friday, 9am-12noon; 1pm-5pm (518) 580-5555
- The Community Hospice of Saratoga- Sarah Etkin-Sescik and Maureen Monaghan (518) 581 0800
Material is used with permission from Cornell College and the University of Illinois.