This article is authored by Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell, a Grief and Trauma Psychologist with many years of experience in researching and treating Mental Health difficulties arising in response to difficult and distressing life events. Dr Chloe has worked in clinical and corporate environments and regularly gives talks to help organisations cope with and understand Grief.
Grief is our human response to the death of a loved one and when it happens – whether expected or sudden – it is painful, disorientating and knocks our sense of who we are, how we are and what feels relevant and meaningful again. In grief, the regular way of daily being is no longer relevant. People often talk about feeling lost and alienated.
With grief, comes a profound existential shake up which forces you to reflect on what life is, why you find yourself existing, and you may feel like life will never feel meaningful again.
Grief is devastating and requires a complete reconstruction of your sense of self. You may find that you withdraw, you reshape your friendships, you feel alone, you feel you don’t really want to engage with those people who don’t recognise your pain.
All are normal and human responses to the re-organisation that you are now called to attend to in pain and heartbreak.
Grief is awful and exhausting and completely inevitable.
Do not pathologise it. Do not medicalise it. Do not compare yourself to others. You have your unique journey into grief and that is nothing to do with anybody else’s journey. No two losses are the same. Remember you are having a normal response to what feels like an abnormal event and you need time, support and space to navigate this safely.
Your grief disrupts everything about your life
-Your relationship with yourself
-Your relationships with others
-Your relationship with being mortal
-Your relationship with the physical world
-Your relationship with the present
-Your relationship with the future
-Your relationship with safety
-Your relationship with what it means to live a purposeful and meaningful happy life
and so much more….
In order to understand your grief, you have to accept it for what it is. It certainly does not work to bottle it up, pretend it hasn’t affected you. If you do that, it will build up and come and bite you some other time when your defences are down.
But even if you are aware of someone’s imminent death, the actual experience of the event is still cognitively disorientating.
Alongside this cognitive freezing the body reacts as though it is independent to you. People often feel uncontrollable emotions with tears flowing, “crying rivers”, shaking, feeling cold/sweaty, vomiting or feeling nauseous, feeling dizzy, needing to sit down, not being able to sleep or sleeping non stop, loss of appetite. This is the shock of the news, the realisation of the loss – your body becoming flooded by cortisol and feeling the existential shock of such horrific news. This can go on for ages. it is normal. Do not panic. You are not cracking up. You are having to travel through the wilderness and you are in pain.
Waves of all sorts of emotions of grief are normal.
A sign to look out for is if you feel like you are falling into a static mood that extends to at least 2 weeks – just collapsed into darkness, depressed, anxious… The flatline space. This is a sign you need some more support.
Getting out of bed and doing what you can to continue with a regular daily routine is a good buffer at this stage.
People often talk about the stages of grief (shock, denial, pain, guilt, anger, bargaining, depression, reflection, loneliness, the upward turn, reconstruction, working through and acceptance) and all of these emotions will occur at some point or another. There is no right or wrong in grief and in most cases people fall in and out of each stage depending on their attitude and outlook. The suggestion that grief occurs in a linear fashion is not helpful, as it implies that somewhere, somehow you ‘re doing it wrong.
In my practice with Grief therapy I remain open to encounter and engage with the experience of the other as openly as I can. It seems that some people will feel rage, others anger, some will feel deep sadness others will be numb for ages. It is impossible to go through grief without some response and most people dip in and out of the various aspects of it. For many people, learning to accept the loss and finding a way to maintain a meaningful relationship with the deceased is healing and they find a way to continue living.
For others the journey is more complicated – especially if the death was sudden and there was unfinished business. In that case, the existential awakening is more pronounced and requires more reflective work.
Losing a loved one means truly learning to accept that life is finite, that who we are is determined by us, and life can be meaningful again if we identify and recognize what imbues us with meaning.
When grief is really complicated or pronounced, people feel they have no meaning in their life and describe feeling disoriented and confused. In order to overcome this, it is important to validate this experience, see it for what it is – a call to attend to meaning – and to reflect on our attitude towards meaning.
Can we accept that death is unpredictable, that the privilege of being requires us to invest our energy into those relationships and aspects of our life that we experience as meaningful? This is not easy to achieve when in pain and angry at the circumstances of our life.
Grieving requires us to navigate a complicated awakening to ourselves and re-invent and re-discover who we choose to be.
The message is not of doom and gloom one at all. Quite the opposite.
Encountering grief is not catastrophic but can lead to personal growth and an appreciation of greater meaning in one’s life. Grief therapy can be very useful in helping to guide you into an authentic appreciation of what opportunities life presents for you, what meaningful and significant relationships you need to nourish and where to invest your energy for meaningful life experiences.
Allowing grief’s message to emerge is powerful and leads to personal growth and greater awareness.
If you are in grief, take this message with you today.
Your experience is valid and expecting yourself to go through this alone is not good self-care. Reach out to a trusted person in your life and let them support you. If you really need to, get in touch with a professional.
There is lots of help available to you and with the right care and support you will heal.