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«Living with Loss & Grief Introduction Loss: A Given In Life Dealing with loss is part and parcel of living. Loss will happen to all of us, sooner or ...»

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Psychological Medicine

Living with

Loss & Grief


Loss: A Given In Life

Dealing with loss is part and parcel of living. Loss will happen to all of us,

sooner or later, and none of us can escape. Loss can take various forms. It

can include the ending of an important relationship through separation,

divorce or death; the loss of a baby through abortion, stillbirth or miscarriage;

the loss of health or limb and subsequent loss of independence; the loss

of job, income, status, a particular role; the loss of a pet, dream or anything that means a lot to us.

In this leaflet, you will find information about the reactions that people often experience after a loss, how people can get stuck in the grieving process, and about the help that is available.

Grief: A Normal Reaction To Loss Grief is the normal and natural set of reactions that we often have in response to losses in our lives. Although there are similarities in our reactions to these different types of losses, the intensity of our reactions to the death of a loved one is often the most intense and most prolonged. Thus, we often cope with minor losses quite well but major losses, such as the death of a loved one, can rule our lives for years with feelings of helplessness, confusion and overwhelming sadness.

This leaflet has been written especially for those who have lost someone to death. However, even if you are grieving for a loss due to other reasons (e.g. divorce or deterioration of health due to an illness), you are still likely to be able to identify with many of the grief reactions described in this brochure.

2 Grieving: Its Reactions & Stages Grieving takes place after any kind of loss but most powerfully after the death of a loved one. The grief we experience at the death of a loved one is the consequence of living and loving, of our meaningful connections with this person. Grief is the emotional response that we have as we cope with the significance of this loss, begin to adjust to the changes in our lives, and make some sense and order out of the chaos that has resulted from this death.

There are many grief responses, and they vary from individual to individual, depending on, amongst other things, our personality, our past history of losses, our culture, our upbringing and our relationship with the person who has died. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, nor is there a set pattern or time frame to the grieving process. Some people will openly express their emotions when they grieve, while others will prefer to keep their thoughts and emotions to themselves. Some people are able to move through the grieving process relatively quickly, while others will take a much longer time.

Grieving is not just one feeling but a whole succession of feelings which can take a while to get through and which cannot be hurried. Although we are different individuals who are likely to grieve in different ways, the feelings that we experience after a loss can be very similar. Grieving may, in fact, occur in arbitrary ‘stages’ and different emotions may be experienced during the different stages of this process.

–  –  –

Numbness In the few hours or days following the death of a close relative or friend, many people simply feel shocked, stunned or numb, finding it hard to believe that the loss has actually happened. They may feel like this even if the death has been anticipated. They may notice physical reactions, such as trembling, nausea, difficulty breathing, muscle weakness, dry month, or difficulty with sleeping and eating.

–  –  –

Guilt Another common feeling is guilt. People in grief may find themselves going over in their minds all the things they should have said or done (or not said or done). They might consider what they could have done differently that might have prevented the death. Death is, usually, beyond anyone’s control and a bereaved person may need to be reminded of this. Guilt may, also, arise if a sense of relief is experienced when someone has died after a particularly prolonged and painful illness. This feeling of relief is natural, extremely understandable and very common.

Sadness & Depression Several weeks after the loss, people in grief may enter into periods of quiet sadness or depression, social withdrawal and silence.

These sudden changes of emotion, which can be confusing to friends or relatives, are just part of the normal way of passing through the different stages of grief.

These periods of sadness and depression can become more frequent and intense during the first four to six weeks.

5 In fact, episodes of strong feelings of sadness can occur at any time, triggered by people, places or things that bring back memories of the deceased.

Other people may find it difficult to understand or be embarrassed when the bereaved person suddenly bursts into tears for no obvious reason.

During such periods, it may also appear to other people that the bereaved person is spending a lot of time doing nothing constructive except looking preoccupied or lost in his or her own world, crying or wanting to talk about the deceased.

This is, in fact, a very important stage during which the bereaved person is mentally and emotionally processing the loss, thinking about the person he or she has lost, relieving the good and bad times they had spent together, as well as processing and integrating the various strong and often confusing emotions.

As Time Goes By As time passes, the fierce pain of early bereavement begins to fade. The sadness lessens and it is possible for the person in grief to think about other things and even look forward to the future. However, the sense of having lost a loved one, and, thus, a part of oneself, can never go away completely.

Anniversary dates (e.g. wedding, the person’s death) and special occasions (e.g. birthdays and festive seasons, such as Christmas) may continue to trigger strong emotions in the bereaved person, even many years after the loss.

6 Final Phase of Grieving These various phases of grieving and their accompanying emotions often overlap and may show themselves in different ways in different people.

Many people recover from a major bereavement within one or two years, while others may take many years. Grief usually lasts as long as it takes the bereaved person to accept and learn to live with his or her loss.

The final phase of the grieving process is often a ‘letting go’ of the person who has died and the start of a ‘new life’. The sadness tends to occur less frequently, sleep and appetite become much better, energy returns to normal, and the person is able to return to his routine, such as the resumption of work and relationships. And the person can, eventually, enjoy life again.

It is important to remember that there is no standard way of grieving.

All of us have our own particular ways of grieving. The goal of the person dealing with a loss is to move through the various ‘stages’ of loss; to process both factually and emotionally, learn from and appreciate the impact of the loss, and to achieve some sort of closure, so that life in the future can be experienced more fully with integrity, insight and wisdom.

Grieving In Children And Adolescents Even though children may not understand the meaning of death until they are three or four years old, they feel the loss of close relatives in much the same way as adults.

It is clear that even infants grieve and feel great distress when encountering a loss.

Children can have great difficulty grasping the finality of death, as they may see death as temporary and reversible due to the belief reinforced by cartoon characters who seem to ‘die’ and are able to ‘come back to life again’. They may, also, have great difficulty dealing with the unfamiliar emotions associated with the death of a loved one, often a grandparent.

7 In the face of the death of a loved one, they may, thus, become very confused, manifest symptoms of grief presented earlier in this leaflet, and, furthermore, show regressive or difficult behaviour (e.g. thumb-sucking, bedwetting, temper tantrums, misbehaving in school, becoming very clingy and insecure).

They may also fear that other loved ones, such as their siblings or parents, will die soon after.

Young people may not speak about their grief for fear of burdening the grown-ups around them. The grief of children and adolescents, and their need for mourning, should not be overlooked when a member of the family has died.

Children and adolescents often look to important people in their lives to learn how to grieve.They are sensitive to the moods and behaviour of the adults around them and will not share their thoughts and feelings of the loss unless these adults are willing to do so.

Children and adolescents are frightened by what they do not know or understand, so it is very important to explain to them what has happened, as simply and as clearly as possible and to offer lots of support and reassurance. Encourage them, if they are ready, to verbalise their thoughts and feelings, and to be ready for questions and demands for detail. Although you may find these questions painful, try to answer them as honestly as possible, avoiding vagueness and euphemisms. It may not be helpful to conceal your own sorrow from them (because it can send the wrong message that it is ‘bad’ to show emotions). On the other hand, it can be helpful to involve them in healing rituals, such as funerals.


1. Allow yourself to grieve There is no right or wrong way to think or feel about a loss. Allow your feelings and thoughts to be what they are and do not be pressured by people’s ideas of what you should or should not do, think or feel. Crying, talking, writing or doing physical activities can be helpful ways to express your grief.

2. Reach out to people you trust This is the time to lean on friends, family, counsellors and other supportive people who can accept your thoughts and feelings, no matter what they are, without judging you or giving you unnecessary advice. During times of loss, you need to talk and share the intense thoughts and feelings you experience when you are alone. Other people often want to help but do not know how. It may help for you to simply tell them what you need.

3. Accept your loss gradually to get through it Some people try to ignore their loss and refuse to think about it or to feel any strong emotion. They may feel that time itself will heal their pain but this is not necessarily true. Learn to accept loss as an inevitable part of your life and give your permission to work through your grief.

4. Realise that the intense feelings are normal and expected You may feel, during times of loss, that you are losing your minds and that you will never be the same again. Your anger, tears, guilt, loneliness and nightmares may be more pronounced that you have ever experienced before. Sometimes, you have not achieved closure on past losses, so another loss may mean having to deal with both the current and previous losses, making the intense emotions seem unbearable.

9 If you allow yourself to process your loss productively, these strong feelings are likely to lessen with time.

–  –  –

A programme of exercise or relaxation may lessen the enormous stress of bereavement and the accompanying physical problems, as well as helping to relieve anxiety and counter depression. This programme can include doing one or more stress-reduction activities, such as brisk walking, playing a game of tennis, swimming, massage, spa treatment, yoga, tai chi or meditation.

Be gentle with yourself. Comfort yourself with little rewards or treats. Just taking the time to have your hair done can be therapeutic. So can buying for yourself a nice present, or reading a feel-good novel, or watching an uplifting movie. If you like to set high standards for yourself, this is the time to lower them for the time being and to indulge yourself.

Avoid the use of alcohol and other drugs to drown your sorrows. Although these chemicals may seem effective in numbing your pain in the shortterm, they do not resolve but, instead, postpone and delay the effects of your grief.


6. Avoid unnecessary changes The stress of grieving typically affects your powers of judgement and concentration. Change (any type of change) causes stress and the last thing bereaved persons need is additional stress and sorrow when they are grieving. People in grief can try to get away from their grief by selling their house and starting afresh somewhere else, but they can end up burdening themselves with the extra stress of adjusting to a new life and the regret of having made a hasty decision. It is, thus, important not to make major decisions in a crisis atmosphere and to postpone all decisions that can be postponed for the time being. Give yourself time to consider what you really want and need. Allow yourself time after a loss to consider your needs carefully before making any major decisions and, preferably, only after you have consulted people whom you trust.


Family and friends can help by spending time with the bereaved person. It is not so much words of comfort that is needed but more the willingness to be with them during the time of their pain and distress.

When a loved one dies, the bereaved person usually wants to talk about the deceased and to mull over memories, repeatedly. Your sympathetic ear and a willingness to listen carefully will be extremely helpful to the bereaved person at this time.

–  –  –

Men, who are traditionally taught to bottle up their emotions, can react more angrily than women, who often seem more able to express feelings of sorrow and confusion when facing a loss. Friends and relatives may be inclined to withdraw from bereaved people, especially men, who lash out verbally at others in response to their grief. When anger is expressed by the mourners, it helps for their supporters to remember that this emotion is normal. The supporters should not abandon the bereaved persons at this moment but to continue to provide emotional support to them.

Festive occasions and anniversaries (not only of the death but also birthdays and weddings) are particularly painful times for the bereaved. Friends and relatives can make a special effort to be around during these times.

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