Contrary to popular belief and teachings, there are no specific ‘stages of grief’ that a person will undergo after a loss. Rather, there are universal emotions that a bereaved person will experience, such as sadness, anger, guilt, disbelief and a great sense of longing for their loved one.
Grief is a multi-layered response to loss and therefore is not simply about having painful emotions, though these are generally the first to be felt. The sadness and pain of the grief journey are also often accompanied by heartwarming moments and memories, uplifting thoughts and revelations, as well as appreciation for life and the love received from supportive family and friends.
Here are some guidelines that could help you or a loved one cope with grief:
i) Grief has no time limit.
Expecting yourself to stop crying or missing your loved one in 6 months or 6 years after their death will simply put additional stress and other negative feelings such as guilt and anger on yourself (and sometimes others). Grief is a lifelong journey. Some people find that their painful emotions come in smaller and less frequent waves as time goes by; others maintain that these emotions stay the same. Everyone goes through a different process – there is no ‘too short’ or ‘too long’ duration to grieve.
ii) Give yourself permission to feel.
There is no wrong or right way to feel after the death of a loved one. Some people feel relief after a long and tumultuous caregiving journey, while others could feel numb and emotionless. Some feel disappointed with their loved one for ‘giving up’ after all their efforts for treatment. Others feel angry with God for allowing their loved one to die. Do not blame yourself for feeling what you may think are ‘inappropriate’ emotions. Should these emotions be overwhelming and disturb you greatly, talk to someone whom you know would be emphatic and non-judging.
iii) Give others permission to grieve in their own way
Perhaps your spouse seems unaffected by your child’s death, going to work and watching soccer matches as if nothing has happened. Or perhaps your children do not want to talk about their recently deceased grandparent at all, and you wonder if they even miss him or her amidst their busy school life. Not seeing others grieve the same way as us may feel isolating, confusing or upsetting. Keep in mind that everyone grieves in their own way, and copes with their grief in their own way too. Give them time and space, just like how you would appreciate your own time and space to cope with your grief.
iv) Spend time with yourself and others
The sadness of grief can be overwhelming physically, emotionally and mentally, and some people prefer to fill their day with activities in order to distract themselves from the pain. Try to take some time to be with yourself and your emotions. This can be scary and painful, but suppressing grief constantly could be damaging to your grief journey in the long term. At the other end of the spectrum, you may find yourself wanting to be alone all the time because you feel that nobody would understand you anyway. Giving yourself the opportunity to experience love and support from those who care about you can be a great source of comfort. Some people who are not ready to meet up with family and friends find comfort in simply connecting via text messaging or social media.
v) Be aware of how you are responding to your grief
While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are times when the pain can be so intense that you may find yourself responding in ways that are harmful to yourself or others. This can include binge-drinking, being reliant on drugs and medication, having thoughts of harming yourself or others, or being unable to perform basic care for yourself (eg. bathing, eating). Talk to someone you trust or a social service professional if you find yourself or your loved one responding to grief in harmful ways.
The loss of a loved one can be a life-changing experience. It brings unchartered pain, renewed self-discovery, meaning-making and unexpected insights. It is a journey that pays tribute to the life and memory of someone we love dearly, a voyage that is both painful and precious.
Think of your own grief journey. What are some things that have helped you, and what have you learned?