As the title suggests, this post will be devoted to a topic that we generally do not like, we do not seek it out in conversations, and we act as if it does not exist. It is a paradox, as it more or less often appears in the life of every person, and the only certainty we all have right now is that we will personally encounter it someday. I am talking about death.
In recent times, our society has focused more on the cult of life, health (or rather pseudo-health, which chemicals in the form of cosmetic products and medicines are supposed to ensure for us…), and delaying aging. We focus more on the length of life than on its quality. However, death chooses according to a formula that is often incomprehensible from our perspective. It takes the old and the sick, but also the young and healthy, and unfortunately sometimes even children. It comes slowly and insidiously or suddenly, unexpectedly. And even though we know that one day it will appear when it takes away a loved one, it causes us pain and suffering. What are the expressions of this suffering? What influences its course? And what can help us cope with it?
Grief and its stages
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross is the name of an author who, by publishing her book “On Death and Dying” in 1969, contributed to the taboo of these topics. She worked with patients in the terminal stages of illness and divided the dying process into stages. At first, a person denies the event, followed by anger, bargaining (with oneself or with God), the stage of depression characterized by feelings of emptiness and indifference, and finally the stage of acceptance, the acceptance of reality. These stages later began to be perceived by experts as stages of reaction to the loss of a loved one. Critics argue that their application to the grieving process has not been scientifically confirmed. Furthermore, it is said that we experience more feelings of longing for the return of the deceased than depression or anger, and that we are aware from the beginning of death that the person will never return.
Any categorization of human experience offers at least a rough, but at the same time simplifying view. The stages of grief can last for varying amounts of time for each individual, they do not necessarily follow a specific order, and a person can return to previous phases multiple times or not experience them at all. Furthermore, the spectrum of experienced reactions and emotions is much broader.
Grief as a process
Grief after the loss of a loved one is currently seen as a process, a journey that has an end. Loss is permanent. Grief is not. However, during the course of the journey, we often do not see the end and only realize it once we have reached it, when the manifestations of grief no longer return to our daily behavior and experience. This journey can last longer for some people, shorter for others, and can be more exhausting and rough for some than for others. For some, it can even ultimately lead to a positive change in their personality. The task of grief is to heal the wounds caused by our loss.
To create a cohesive but sufficiently broad idea of what the grieving process may look like, we can describe three periods of grief:
- The period when we are confused, experiencing shock from the loss of a loved one, and are shaken.
- The period in which we intensely express our sorrow and grief, ventilating our emotions.
- The period in which we return to our functioning, to the ordinary life we lived before the loss, but which will be changed as we learn to live without the deceased.
Why don’t we all grieve the same way?
The experience of grieving after a loss manifests individually for each person. We often have expectations of how our reaction to loss should look, or how it should appear according to others’ expectations. These expectations can be deceiving. It happens that they are not fulfilled, and then in the context of losing a loved one, we are burdened not only by the loss itself but also by the thought that we are not grieving as we “should.” For example, we may believe that expressions of grief are unhealthy or inappropriate, and so we try to hide them. Or conversely, no intense emotions come to us, we are sad, and the deceased is missed, but we have no need to break anything, shout, cry, or stay in bed all day. If grief does not occur, we may experience guilt and sometimes begin to question our humanity, considering ourselves insensitive or even evil when it may simply be shock. We compare ourselves to others who appear more saddened. However, the way we react to the loss of a loved one is not directly proportional to how much we loved the person or how much we miss them.
The death of a loved one is a very stressful event. In the past, two American psychologists, T.H. Holmes and R.H. Rahe, ranked 43 life events that cause stress in our lives. The death of a spouse was identified as the most stressful event that a person can encounter in their lifetime. The death of a close family member is in fifth place, and the death of a close friend is in seventeenth place. It cannot be universally stated that every person experiences the death of a loved one equally stressfully, but the scale at least offers a rough idea of how significant the loss of a loved one is in a person’s life. Stress is caused not only by the painful loss and the upcoming new life in which we will have to live without the loved one, but also by practical matters that are urgent and that someone must arrange after the death. Arranging the funeral, managing the deceased’s estate, inheritance proceedings, many phone calls, etc.
If we manage to cope well with the period after the loss of a loved one, we owe it to so-called resilience. Resilience is a person’s ability to withstand life’s obstacles and adverse conditions that we encounter. A resilient person can appear cold after the loss of a loved one. Resilience is related to the ability to recover from an adverse situation and return to normal functioning. A resilient person can activate their coping mechanisms even when they face difficult life situations.
Grief does not have the same course in different people, nor in one person after several losses of loved ones. This is because the grieving process is shaped by several factors. For example, it depends on who we are, what qualities and abilities we have – such as the aforementioned resilience, anxiety; what gender we are – men more often try not to show their emotions outwardly, women more often want to talk about what happened, cry more; age is another influence – children are a special group, their perception of the finiteness of life develops and a young person perceives death as an adult only at the age of 12. How the loss will affect us also depends on how we currently feel, whether physically or mentally. Further influences include past experiences, religious beliefs, our social environment and relationships. It also depends, for example, on how the death of our loved one occurred and what kind of relationship we had with them.
How does grief manifest?
We can experience a variety of reactions associated with the grieving process. These can be observed in four main areas (here are a few examples for each area to help give a better idea):
-physical reactions: chest tightness, throat constriction, dry mouth, breathing difficulties
-emotional reactions: shock, sadness, fear, feelings of guilt, helplessness, relief, anger
-cognitive reactions: attention and memory disturbances, lack of trust behavioral reactions: sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, hyperactivity or apathy “Inside my body, I felt a kind of twitching, as if someone had torn a piece of my soul away… crushed it to dust and scattered it into nothingness…”
These reactions are examples of “normal,” uncomplicated grief that does not interfere with our daily lives. In some cases of grief, however, negative symptoms persist and worsen, interfering with our lives in detrimental ways. This is called complicated grief, which can include depression (deep, prolonged sadness), loss of meaning in life, substance abuse, phobias (irrational fear of something), feelings of worthlessness, panic attacks, hallucinations, where one sees or hears something that does not exist – often the deceased – and avoidance of social contact. Complicated grief is sustained by memories of the deceased, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. If we are experiencing complicated grief, we should consider seeking help from a professional, such as a psychologist, who can help us understand our experience, support us through our grief, and possibly recommend another relevant specialist.
How to cope with it?
There is no one-size-fits-all guide on what we should do to make the pain of losing a loved one hurt less, to recover faster, and to be okay again. It can be helpful to realize that we have survived a challenging life event, we have the right to feel how we feel, and we have the right to take as much time and space as we need to get back to ourselves and to normal life. In the grieving process, we can listen to ourselves, our thoughts, and our body, which will tell us what would be best for us during this time. Whether it’s releasing emotions in the form of crying, screaming, dancing, breaking something… Or having a conversation with someone close or familiar or on the contrary with someone unknown and uninterested, an expert or a layman, or with ourselves through writing or drawing. Or not talking to anyone if we don’t want to! Let’s take care of ourselves, indulge in pleasant activities, and don’t blame ourselves for feeling good for a while in this difficult period. The intensity of our suffering is not directly proportional to the degree of love for the deceased. Let’s go for a walk to a favorite place, have good food, take a vacation, remember the beautiful moments we spent with the deceased and allow ourselves to smile. For example, it helps me to imagine what the deceased person would say to me if they were here now and saw how I am struggling and how much I miss them. They would definitely want me to smile, enjoy life to the fullest, and fulfill my dreams. In short, they would want me to feel good.
A liberating part of the grieving process is to let the deceased “go.” Even though we usually realize rationally after the loss that our loved one will never come back and we say goodbye to them at the funeral, saying “goodbye” to them forever in our hearts can take longer. We can write them a letter or have an internal dialogue with them in which we say goodbye and allow ourselves to live on without them.
The metaphorical comparison of the grieving process to climbing a high and steep mountain is offered by author Špatenková in the book “Poradenství pro pozůstalé” (Advice for the Bereaved). Just like climbing a mountain, grieving is demanding and exhausting. We can imagine that immediately after the death of a loved one, we find ourselves in the cold and inhospitable valley of the mountain – the so-called valley of tears (the first stage of grieving). Initially, we do not know the way out of this valley, we do not have enough strength, and we do not believe that we could ever get out of there. Eventually, we gather determination and try to find the way towards the top of the mountain. However, the entire mountain is covered in ice, and there is always a risk of slipping and sliding back down into the valley. The more we repeat the descent, the better we know the direction of the path and its pitfalls. As we climb out of the valley of tears, we do not yet have a vision of the mountain top in front of us, sometimes we do not even believe that it exists, but we try to escape from the tormenting feelings of pain and sorrow (the second stage). When we manage to stay on the path and break through the dark clouds, we see that the sun is shining above them, illuminating the beautiful landscape. This view often motivates us to reach the top of the mountain (the third stage). The transition to this stage is not automatic, it is driven by our conscious determination. Our task is not to build some kind of “monument” to the deceased by constantly drowning in grief. Conquering the mountain often takes about a year, sometimes even longer, but it is not impossible.
When climbing a mountain, we carry with us, just like tourists, some load, a burden. We can look around for someone who can help us with the burden and lighten our steep ascent.
During the grieving period after the loss of a loved one, we may feel betrayed, desperate, helpless, weak, unable to continue living… we have the full right to feel that way. For a certain period, for a while, until we learn to function without the deceased person and live life fully. Because we are the ones who are left here.