What does the word grief mean?
Grief involves the range of responses we experience to loss, most commonly, the loss that occurs following the death of another human being. The reaction to loss may feel unfamiliar or overwhelming for some, to the extent that getting on with life feels near impossible; for others it may be characterised by feeling a numbness of feeling; some may feel nothing much at all and have a sense of ease at moving on with life.
Given that the experience of grief is so unique for each person, the experience can potentially feel isolating and alienating, to the extent that it feels like at times no one understands. Grief that results from the death of another person is familiar to most people, but individuals grieve as a result of a variety of losses throughout their lives, such as the end of a relationship, unemployment or illness.
The Pendulum of Grief
Let’s get a better understanding of how grief works. Imagine two different moods hitting you in the same day.
In the morning you are struck by how sad, regretful, helpless and disoriented you feel, constantly longing for the return of what you have lost. It may even feel like your heart is aching or breaking and all you can do is get through the day. These moments are experiences of loss.
In the afternoon, for no particular reason, you feel quite distracted from your feelings: you feel like doing new things and getting on with life quite happily while you adjust to your new circumstances. These moments are experiences of restoration.
It is often useful to think of our experiences in grief may be moving like a pendulum between these experiences of restoration and experiences of loss. The pendulum may stay in one state for hours, days, weeks or months and then move to the other state for hours, days, weeks or months.
What can I do if a family member or friend dies and I'm struggling?
1. Validate It
If you find yourself feeling wobbly with grief, the first step you can take is to acknowledge to yourself the following:
whatever way you are feeling right now, it’s normal and understandable.
Feeling pain and loss is normal, given the bond you may have had or given the hopes you may have held for its place in your future. Even if a person was only in your life for a very short time, it may have held a unique meaning for you, resulting in a strong grief reaction.
Also, feeling numb or like you want to get on with life - both of these reactions are normal given the exhaustion that it would take to feel so much grief for the rest of your life. Both experiences are not catastrophic or signs you are not coping. While it may seem like a small step, it is often vital to validate to yourself whatever is there in your mind or bodily state at this present moment.
2. Take the Pressure Off: Discarding Timelines
How long should one take to “get over” the loss of another? If we consider the pendulum model of grief, it is likely that as time goes on grief will never be fully present, nor will it be fully absent. It is always changing and adapting throughout life.
Consider to yourself if it is helpful for you to set a timeline of when you should be moved on from feeling grief. Does having a timeline result in a greater struggle with your emotions and experiences? If old feelings resurface, it may be more useful for people to acknowledge that the pendulum has temporarily swung again, as it does for almost everyone, and to think about what you are going to do next.
3. Choose to grieve in whatever way is comfortable or meaningful to you
Feel free to tick off in your head whatever response below is useful for you.
For experiences of loss that may feel overwhelming, many people have found it useful to:
- Write a letter to who you have lost (an unsent letter).
- Write for 10 minutes about the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing right now.
- Read about the ways other people get through their grief (Reddit is great for this), keeping in mind that other people have had different bonds, different lives, and therefore different styles of coping that work for them.
- For at least one part of the day, allowing yourself to cry as an experiment.
- Re-connect with meaningful places, objects, songs, or people connected to the loss.
- Organising to talk to a person who will listen supportively and who will not insist on providing token advice.
For experiences of restoration that assist us to have the capacity to live life with some vitality, many people have found it useful to:
- Organising to talk to a person or doing shared activities with people who can give you space from your grief.
- Cooking a budget friendly recipe (a search on your web browser will make this easy).
- 10 minutes of exercise
- prioritising daily tasks: it is often useful to schedule more frequent breaks if it’s harder to concentrate
- creating room for new interests, activities, and places to visit
It may help to fill out or think of answers to the below questions:
- Which person in my life is the best listener if I need to talk about what is hard?
- Which person in my life is the best distraction from my grief?
- What form of exercise at this point is the easiest to start or maintain?
- What is an activity that helps me to reconnect with what I have lost?
- What is an activity that will provide me with a sense of feeling revitalised?
4. Getting unstuck
It is useful to remember that adaptive coping in grief involves flexibly moving between these two types of experiences. If you notice that your experiences are focused only on one side of the grief experience, it can be useful to think of ways to increase the experience on the other side of the pendulum swing.
When would someone see a psychologist about their grief?
Like many things in life, it depends on your wishes and preferences - there is no right time. A number of years ago it was suggested that some grief counselling may be unnecessary (Neimeyer, 2000), but a more recent paper has concluded that the idea of grief counselling being unhelpful was based on poor study design and unverified data (Larson & Hoyt, 2009). The most comprehensive study of grief to date has suggested that it produces beneficial outcomes which are more modest when compared to psychotherapy for other problems (Allumbaugh & Holt, 1999; Larson & Hoyt, 2009). This makes sense given that grief counselling does not aim for cure or remission. Counselling aims to help people with grief experiences to eventually be able to (i) adjust to the loss and (ii) be able to continue remembering the person without being overwhelmed by the sense of loss.
If you have tried the strategies above and are still experiencing difficulties with grief, have a think about whether it will help to talk to a clinical psychologist to work through grief in a different way.
Allumbaugh, D.L. & Hoyt W.T. (1999). Effectiveness of grief therapy: A meta-analysis. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 46, 370-380.
Larson, D.G. & Hoyt, W.T. (2009). Grief counselling efficacy. Bereavement care, 28, 14-19.
Neimeyer, R.A. (2000). Searching for the meaning of meaning: Grief therapy and the process of reconstruction. Death Studies, 24, 541-558.