The stages of grief and healing
It’s a sad fact but grief is largely inevitable. At some stage in our lives, we will all experience a kind of loss, whether that’s mourning the death of a loved one, feeling sad over the end of a deep and meaningful friendship or struggling to get over the loss of a job, house or other important life element.
Needless to say, everybody’s grief journey will be different but if you’re looking for how to deal with grief, a great place to start is by understanding what grief actually is and how it can manifest in many different ways. Below, we dive into the five stages of grief and outline how the grief counselling support here at New Life Portugal is able to guide the process.
What is grief?
“The word grief describes the psychological, social, and emotional impact of a life event, most often loss,” explains Daral Boles, counsellor here at New Life Portugal wellness retreat. “In theory at least, grief is a natural process and part of life, but for much of the Western world it is unwelcome and even feared. Grief is the natural response.”
There are many potential causes of grief, from the death of a parent, child, sibling or partner to more interpersonal losses, like the end of a friendship or relationship. Fundamentally, “grief is a natural response to ruptures in the very fabric of life, so could include things like separation from a homeland or the loss of employment and professional identity.”
“There is also what grief counsellor Francis Weller calls a ‘still deeper grief…a sadness at the very heart of things’. This may take the form of mourning for the state of the world, for mistreated and marginalised peoples, for the abuse of the planet. The question isn’t whether or not we as human beings will experience grief but what we will do when it comes,” Daral adds.
Add to that the contemporary phenomenon of complicated grief triggered by what Dr. Pauline Boss calls ‘ambiguous loss’. That could cover things like an adult child of a parent with dementia who is still physically here but mentally and spiritually absent. “The term encompasses the opposite as well—physical absence but psychological presence, as suffered by the families and friends of passengers on Malaysian Airlines flight 370 that disappeared without a trace in 2014,” Daral explains.
Types of grief
Grief can manifest in different ways. Understanding the different types of grief can help us better understand and cope with our emotions:
- Acute grief: For most people this type of grief is the first association, their first thought when they hear the word. Acute grief is the immediate and intense emotional response that happens right after a loss. The person who experienced the loss may feel shock, disbelief, and intense sadness. This type of grief can last for a few weeks or months and typically subsides over time.
- Complicated grief: When a person finds it difficult to move on from or has a hard time finding meaning in their life after a loss, ‘acute grief’ may turn into what is referred to as ‘complicated grief’. This type of grief is most often experienced by those who are affected by a very sudden and unexpected loss or if the person has not had the chance to say goodbye. It may feel to the individual as if they are stuck in their grief.
- Chronic grief: We speak of chronic grief when the grieving process lasts for a long time, sometimes even years. People who experience chronic grief may have difficulty accepting the loss and therefore feel unable to move on.
- Anticipatory grief: This refers to a type of grief that occurs before the loss has taken place. It can happen in situations such as when someone is terminally ill or when there is a high likelihood of a loss on the horizon. This type of grief can be challenging because it can be hard to know how to prepare for a loss that has not yet happened.
Regardless of which type of grief you are experiencing, it is important to remember that the experience of it is always unique to every individual and how we heal from a loss is deeply personal. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. A good place to begin, though, is by allowing yourself to feel your emotions and to give yourself time to grieve and accept as well as process the loss.
The five stages of grief
First set out by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, ‘the five stages of grief’ has become a universally-recognised blueprint for the psychological and emotional experience of grief. Those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
“The list sounds linear and sequential but the actual experience of grief is not,” Daral notes. “Instead, we may cycle through the stages in an essentially patternless pattern. Emotions may show up in pairs or all at once.” As with all emotions, grief is innately personal and your journey through it might look totally different to someone else’s, even if the cause of the grief is the same.
Quite simply, the denial stage is where you refuse to accept that something has happened and where ignorance becomes your defence mechanism. For instance, you might brush off a break-up by convincing yourself you’ll be back together by tomorrow or you might refuse to believe that a loved one has truly died.
Burying your head in the sand and averting your attention from the potentially upsetting situation or event buys you time to gradually get to grips with this new information. While denial might arise again in your grief journey, unsurprisingly, this stage can only last so long before those buried emotions start to rise to the top.
Rather than simply hiding from your feelings, the anger phase is when all your emotions manifest in fury and you might lash out at loved ones, colleagues, strangers or even inanimate objects. It’s where irrationality takes over: if you were to truly take a second to think about the situation, anger might not be your emotion of choice. You might even find yourself getting angry at people and things totally unrelated to the original upsetting incident. The problem is, all the emotions you’re feeling are so intense, the only way your mind knows how to channel them is through anger.
Bargaining can also be thought of as the ‘if only’ stage of grief. In this period you might play past experiences, events and situations over in your head and think about how the outcome might have been different ‘if only’ you’d have acted or spoken in a different way. In some ways, this is the mind’s way of regaining control, of convincing yourself that you have the power to affect certain events. Take losing your job for instance. During the bargaining stage you might rethink meetings or tell yourself that if you had just worked a little faster, harder or longer, you might not have lost your job after all.
Depression is the stage in which you start to sit with your emotions. Rather than letting them bubble up and boil over as in the anger phase, depression is where you might feel more reflective or weighed down by your feelings. You may begin to wonder what the point in anything is anymore but by this stage, you might also be ready to work with and move through your emotions in a healthy, productive way.
While acceptance might sound hugely positive, it doesn’t necessarily denote sunshine and flowers. Rather, acceptance is understanding why something has happened and reconciling with it. The polar opposite of denial, in this stage you are more able to face the situation head on, by accessing services like grief counselling, even if it is still painful.
To add to the five stages, death and grieving expert David Kessler, who has co-authored many books on grief with Kubler-Ross, now suggests that there is also a final stage – meaning making – making up the 6 stages of grief. Furthermore, other experts disseminate the grief process even further, into the 7 stages of grief or the 12 stages of grief.
How long does grief last?
As unhelpful as it may be, there’s no real timeline for the process of grief. You might have an expectation around when you should feel better, grounded in social norms, experiences you’ve had before or from what you’ve seen of other people around you. However, each experience of grief (and each person experiencing it) is completely unique. Rather than asking yourself when things will be back to normal, allow yourself time to work through the motions and invest in practices and experiences that can benefit your journey in a healthy way, like seeking professional support.
Symptoms of Grief
Depending on the severity of the loss, grief may feel like one of the most difficult and overwhelming experiences of your life. It tends to come over us in waves and can manifest in various ways. If you are experiencing some or most of the following symptoms of grief, please be reassured that there’s nothing wrong with you. These are all natural responses to losing someone or something very dear to us. Learning about the different symptoms of grief can help us to better cope with our emotions:
- Emotional symptoms: When you experience a significant loss it’s normal to feel a whole range of emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, and loneliness. Try not to judge yourself for having them. Allow yourself to truly feel these emotions rather than trying to push them away or numbing them out. At times, it may feel overwhelming. Remember to be as kind and compassionate as well as patient with yourself as you can.
- Psychological symptoms: You may feel confused or have difficulty concentrating. You may even experience memory loss. Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and despair are very common as well. Your loss may also trigger nightmares or flashbacks. Please remember that it’s okay if you need extra time and space to process your thoughts and feelings.
- Physical symptoms: Grief may lead to sleeping problems which in turn causes fatigue. Many people experience changes in appetite as well as aches and pains. Changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion are also common physical symptoms of grief. Take care of your body as best as you can by getting enough sleep (try creating a soothing and relaxing bedtime routine), eating well and exercising. Acknowledge that all of you – including your body – is going through a difficult time and practice self-compassion.
- Behavioural symptoms: It is very common for people who are grieving to withdraw from family and friends as well as from social activities. It can also feel like a huge struggle to do simple things like combing one’s hair, having a shower or brushing your teeth. In short: You might neglect your personal care even if you’d usually never dare to even lounge around your own home without being well dressed. Some people start engaging in risky behaviours when they’re grieving. Other behavioural symptoms of grief include a lack of motivation, a loss of interest in things they once enjoyed, and difficulty making decisions.
Take care of yourself as best as you can during these difficult times. And if the above mentioned symptoms start interfering with your daily life or if they persist for an extended period of time, please ask for or seek (professional) help. There is no shame in struggling with grief as there is nothing that can prepare us for the impact of a major loss in our life.
How to deal with grief
The treatment for grief is likely to be different not only depending on the individual but also on the stage of grief they are currently experiencing and how long the grief has continued.
“For those working with the grieving, the question is not what is being experienced in any given moment, but whether a person becomes stuck in any one state, their grief distorted into a single, perhaps dysfunctional expression of anger or denial or depression,” Daral explains. “This kind of stuck grief is often evident in behavior such as the abuse of alcohol, ongoing commitment problems, or chronic anger. Stuck grief also shows up physically and mentally, in symptoms as diverse as inflammation and difficulty concentrating.”
While seeking specialist and tailored help and advice is key, “suggested treatment may start with these outward signs of inner dysregulation and work its way in, or down, to underlying grief.”
As for the sixth stage of meaning making? “This is essential for anyone who chooses not just to survive but to thrive following loss. Like all forms of posttraumatic growth, meaning making can be transformative, integrating the memory of what has been lost into the fabric of a future life,” Daral advises.
How to talk about Grief
You are not alone if grief is a difficult and uncomfortable topic for you – may it be your own or someone else’s. If you have recently experienced a significant loss in your life you may not feel ready to talk about it. That’s okay. It can be scary because it may feel as if the loss would become more real if you acknowledge it in a conversation with someone. Speaking about it may also bring up painful memories or difficult emotions that you are not ready to deal with yet. Some people also worry that talking about their grief might burden others. Or they feel ashamed or guilty that they haven’t gotten over the loss and moved on yet. Regardless where you are at in regards to talking about grief, please be patient with yourself but also know that opening up to someone you trust is part of the healing process and can help you cope better. Here are some tips on how to talk about grief and find the words to express your feelings:
- Start small: If you don’t want to talk about your grief yet you could start by expressing your feelings in writing, for example in a journal or as letters to the deceased. If you are a musician or singer, you could express your grief through music or dance first. Or you could try and draw your emotions. Even if you are not in any way artistically inclined, finding creative ways to express yourself can be really helpful.
- Find a supportive listener: When you feel ready to talk about your loss, choose someone you trust and know will not judge you or try and fix your feelings. This can be a loved one or a friend. Maybe you know someone who has experienced a similar loss or struggled with grief in the past. If you are more comfortable talking about grief with a professional you could find yourself a counsellor or therapist. Another safe place to talk about grief is a support group where you will meet people who are dealing with a loss themselves.
- Be honest and authentic: When talking about grief, it’s important, to be honest and authentic about your feelings and where you are at. Please remember that grief is a unique experience and everyone will process and cope with it differently. There’s nothing to be ashamed of as there simply is no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s also okay to not have all the answers or to not know what to say. Being open and honest about your grief can help others understand and support you the way you need it.
- Use “I” statements: When talking about your grief, try to use “I” statements. This means expressing your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences rather than making assumptions about others. For example, instead of saying “You don’t understand what I’m going through,” say “I feel like I’m not being understood.”
Grief counselling at New Life Portugal
Here at New Life Portugal wellness retreat, our counsellors are experienced and well-equipped to guide anyone wondering how to deal with grief.
One of the most key factors in our offering is our community-based approach. “Grief work, while deeply personal, is often best done in community. Not just any community, however, will serve but one that allows the grieving individual to show up without expectations, to be as they are without the need to care for others, to be sad or not as the journey suggests,” Daral explains.
“There are many tools available at New Life Portugal that can help with the grieving process, tools such as grief counselling, journaling, groups and solitude. Most of all, NLP offers undistracted time set apart from the exigencies of everyday life as the central element in healing,” she adds.
For more information about NLP and the wellness retreat pathways on offer, click here.