Good grief: what is grief and when to seek help

We will all lose people close to us and experience loss – it is a natural part of life. But when should you seek help with a bereavement from a counsellor or other mental health professional?

What is grief

Grief is a natural response to losing something or someone important to you. We often think about grief being a response to losing someone close to us. However, we can feel grief after any loss – the loss of a relationship, a job, a serious illness or loss of mobility, even moving house.

We used to believe everyone went through the stages of grief (denial,anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) but actually everyone experiences grief differently and you are likely to experience some or all of these stages but you are more likely to go back and forth between them. 

Grief isn’t something that is felt in isolation. You can feel grief and joy at the same time when remembering a happy memory of a lost relative, for example.

Normal grief vs complicated grief

Normal grief and complicated grief start in the same way and are indistinguishable from each other. However, while normal grief gets easier after a few months, complicated grief doesn’t and can feel like its getting worse with time. 

There are always moments where grief can hit us – when we hear a song a person loved or smell their perfume for example, and Christmases, their birthdays and anniversaries of their death can all be difficult times, especially for the first few years. However, in complicated grief these feelings are longer lasting and more constant. It is also more likely that you will be unable to keep up your normal routines, like work and housework. You may also be overwhelmed with feelings of depression, guilt and hopelessness. 

The current pandemic has made grief more complicated because we have been unable to say goodbye to loved ones in lockdowns or visit them in hospital. At times we have been unable to attend funerals and say our goodbyes either, which is often part of our processing of the loss. 

Learning to live with grief

The way we look at grief has changed over time and a recent model of grief (proposed by Dr Tonkin) suggests that rather than the grief getting smaller over time, over time we grow our lives around it. You will meet new people and experience new things and the grief will become a smaller part of your life. This is the natural process of moving forward and explains why certain triggers (like birthdays, photos) can still bring back some raw emotion, which can get easier with time but never goes away completely. 

I personally subscribe to the belief that grief is love persevering which means that you learn, with time, to take it with you and hold onto it.

When to seek help

A good support network can help you to talk about and manage your grief, as well as looking after yourself and giving yourself time to recover. A good therapist can help you understand your grief and process your feelings of loss in a healthy way. There are private counsellors who specialise in bereavement or in the UK there is CRUSE (https://www.cruse.org.uk) who offer support online and in person to those who have lost someone close. You don’t need to experience complicated grief to reach out for help.

“But what is grief if not love perservering”

Jac Schaeffer (Yes I know this is from a Marvel TV show but it is no less true!)

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