Author and Grief Expert Paula Shaw discusses how grief is a journey, not an event, and how one must fully experience whatever dimensions present themselves, in order to heal.
Everyone's grief experience is unique and powerful. A significant loss or transition affects your head, your heart, and your spirit, and the resulting emotions are varied and unpredictable. It is a misunderstanding that these emotions occur in orderly stages. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross taught us about the stages of death and dying, and unfortunately these have been misinterpreted as being the same for the grieving loved ones left behind.
Rather than stages, grief happens in dimensions or phases. These dimensions are usually experienced in waves, some small, some huge; some dimensions you will never experience at all. The most important thing to remember is that they don’t come in any particular order!
SHOCK, DENIAL, NUMBNESS, DISBELIEF
These emotions are the protectors, the insulators, keeping you from the full reality of the loss until you are ready to accept it. They may last only a short time, or they may stay longer. This constellation of dazed, stunned feelings will be more intense if the loss was unexpected. However, even if it was expected, the feeling of being in a fog – of being there, but not there – will be experienced to some degree. These emotions may manifest in hysterical crying, outbursts of anger, laughter, or staring off into space.
DISORGANIZATION, CONFUSION, SEARCHING, YEARNING
After a significant loss, it’s normal to feel a sense of restlessness, agitation, impatience and ongoing confusion. It's like being in the middle of a raging river, unable to grasp onto anything. Disconnected thoughts race through your mind and strong emotions overwhelm you. It may become difficult to complete tasks due to confusion, disorganization and forgetfulness. Early morning and late at night can be especially difficult. At these times disorientation, fatigue, hopelessness, confusion, and lack of initiative can be especially strong. Often experienced is a restless searching for the person who is gone. Yearning can become so strong, you actually think you see the person on the street, or hear them coming into the house. Another part of this emotional dimension is experiencing visual hallucinations: you may have a real sense of the person’s presence, or catch a fleeting glimpse of them across the room. This is not abnormal! You are not crazy!
Other common experiences at this time will be difficulties with sleeping, loss of appetite, or overeating. Dreaming of the person who has been lost is another normal thing to do. Embrace the pleasant dreams and be careful not to over-interpret the unpleasant ones. While these dimensions of grief can be strange, they are normal and necessary. Following a loss, disorganization precedes reorientation.
ANXIETY, PANIC, FEAR
As the realities of life set in, anxiety can increase. These feelings are a perfectly natural response to the trauma and upheaval experienced following a loss.
Questions like, "How will I survive?" "Will my life ever have meaning again?" "How will I tell the children?" will come up in a swell of panic and fear. Financial concerns, housing changes, parenting worries and other such "real life stuff" can exacerbate this emotional dimension. Your energy is drained and you can feel overwhelmed. It is critical at this time to talk over these fears with someone safe. Processing them will help keep them from growing into real problems of their own. Isolating yourself, feeling shame, and keeping these anxieties to your self is a sure way to give them the power they need to grow and become detrimental.
You may be shocked at how strongly your body responds to the impact of a loss. One of the most prevalent problem areas is sleep. Many people have difficulty getting to sleep. Others wake in the night and can't get back to sleep. Sleeping normally is an act of giving up control. When you experience a severe loss, you feel a loss of control. The need to stay awake sometimes relates to the fear of additional losses occurring while you are asleep and out of control.
Another contributing factor to insomnia may be fears of overwhelming painful thoughts and feelings that might be expressed through dreams, or fears of being alone in bed if you’re not used it. The truly frustrating factor is that your body needs more rest than usual when you are grieving, and being unable to sleep well leaves you feeling tired most of the time.
Other physical manifestations of your grief can be muscle aches and pains, shortness of breath, feelings of emptiness in your stomach, tightness in your throat or chest, digestive problems, sensitivity to noise, heart palpitations, queasiness, nausea, headaches, increased allergic reactions, changes in appetite, weight loss or gain, agitation and generalized tension. Should any of these symptoms be part of your grief journey, don't be alarmed. The key is to take good care of your body. With proper nurturing it will heal as you do the work of grieving. Remember, however, to listen to your body. If it tells you something is really seriously wrong, see a physician. Give yourself whatever peace of mind you can.
Some people feel more comfortable expressing explosive emotions than expressing the pain, helplessness, fear, and hurt that underpin them. This can be particularly true for men. Society as a whole still tends to discourage or censor explosive emotions. We need to remember these emotions are not good or bad, right or wrong. They may not be logical, but they are real, and we are just as entitled to feel them as we are any other emotions we may have.
One of the most common feelings in this dimension is anger at God. This is very real and very painful, yet incredibly difficult to express, due to deeply ingrained fears of condemnation by the church, society, or even God.
There are two ways to express your explosive emotions: outwardly and inwardly. Outward expression will lead to healing; inward expression can lead to the creation of even greater problems. This doesn't mean it’s okay to go around screaming, raging, and abusing people in your life. To express outwardly in a productive way, you must find a safe person (or persons) with whom you can express your feelings before they build up into destructive explosions.
This isn’t always easy to do, because there is so much societal pressure to repress explosive emotions. However, repression is a dangerous path to walk, because explosive emotions turned inward can lead to chronic feelings of low self-esteem, depression, guilt, physical conditions and even persistent thoughts of suicide. An important thing to remember about these emotions is that they are a normal important part of the grief journey. Like all the other dimensions of the journey, if we are to heal, we must accept these feelings, experience them, and express them.
GUILT AND REGRET
Usually when we think we feel guilt, what we are really experiencing is a wish that things had been different, or better. Real, justifiable guilt following a loss is a rare occurrence. Most of the time even if we regret an action later, we were doing the best we could with the level of growth and consciousness we had at the time.
Guilt is more about knowing the correct course of action, and making a conscious choice to act otherwise. This is very different from thinking at the time that a given action was correct, only to learn through time and experience that it was a mistake. That said, some people do experience very real feelings of guilt , and it is important to acknowledge and express them. Don't let someone intellectualize you out of your right to the full spectrum of your feelings.
When a person has done a great deal of the work of mourning and begins to re-enter life, they sometimes experience Joy-Guilt Syndrome. Experiencing joy again can bring up feelings of guilt or disloyalty to the person who is gone. We often have the misconceived idea that our pain is a kind of monument to the love and loyalty we felt for the person lost. Suffering is not an expression of love; it is an expression of pain. It is normal and healthy to reach a point where a person feels alive again and becomes desirous of new relationships. If this kind of guilt comes up, it is important to talk it out so it doesn’t hold you back from fully experiencing your life.
LOSS, EMPTINESS, SADNESS, DEPRESSION
These emotions are natural expressions of the pain of grief. Yet often people are cut short on the time they need to feel these feelings, because of the expectations of others. They are made to feel defective if they can't "get it together" in what others deem a reasonable amount of time. Your sadness is a symptom of your wound and it will only lessen as your wound heals. Emptiness is bound to occur as you adjust to a life without whomever or whatever was lost. You must be patient with yourself, give yourself time to feel and grow through these feelings. Sometimes the full depths of your sadness and emptiness don't hit you until some time has passed. Know that this is normal, and surround yourself with compassionate people who will understand, not judge.
Temporary depression is to be expected after experiencing a loss. However, occasionally the feelings of sadness and loneliness can become so overwhelming that they lead to "clinical depression." This can be difficult to detect because grief and mourning go hand in hand with many symptoms of depression. It would be wise to seek professional help to work through this kind of depression.
Temporary fleeting thoughts of suicide can occur while in the depths of sadness and depression. It’s natural to experience such thoughts. However, it is not natural to actually want to take your life. If you have persistent thoughts of taking your life, seek professional help immediately.
This dimension is experienced at the time a loss becomes reality, if the experience in the relationship has been one of suffering. This is best exemplified by a death where a long-term illness has occurred and the death brings an end to suffering. However, it is just as applicable in the case of a divorce where the final months of the relationship have been miserable and the divorce brings closure to that ongoing pain. In both these examples it is important to note that the process of grieving didn't begin at the time the loss actually occurred. It began with the transition of the relationship from one state to another. While we tend to associate the words “relief” and “release” with a positive experience, it doesn't mean that once these emotions are experienced the pain is over. Any of the other dimensions can occur or reoccur after this one. There is no shame in feeling relief at the end of suffering. That is a normal human response and, as stated before, you have a right and a need to express it.
Of course, there are many more manifestations of grief that are possible to experience and it’s important to remember they can also be normal and natural. As long as a given behavior doesn’t consume your life or last an inordinately long time, it can definitely be part of the huge constellation of emotions that encompass grief.
Remember grief is a journey, not an event. Many feelings and experiences are possible. As they come up, feel them and process them with a safe person. This will keep you moving in a productive, forward manner. You will heal sooner and in a more productive way.
Take a moment to reflect on a grief journey of your own and see which of these dimensions you may have experienced. They will be discussed in even more depth in my soon to be released book, When Will This Pain Ever End? Meanwhile, be sure to subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss further excerpts and helpful tips on moving beyond your grief.
PAULA SHAW, CADC, DCEP is an author, Energy Psychology specialist, therapist, speaker, Reiki Master and Grief Counselor. For more than 20 years, Paula has been passionate about empowering people who are dealing with profound loss, so they can reap something truly beautiful from their pain. She also helps clients who are going through major life transitions or seeking freedom from self-destructive addictions. She has degrees in Education and Communications from Long Beach State University, as well as graduate counseling credentials from Loyola Marymount University. She is one of the founding members of the Association of Comprehensive Energy Psychology and currently serves on its board of directors. Paula is the auther of Chakras, the Magnificent Seven (2002), as well as the upcoming book When Will This Pain Ever End? Finding Your Way out of the Pit of Despair after Suffering Profound Grief and Loss, which will be released in the spring of 2015.
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PAULA SHAW, CADC, DCEP is an author, Energy Psychology specialist, therapist, speaker, Reiki Master and Grief Counselor. For more than 20 years, Paula has been passionate about empowering people who are dealing with profound loss, so they can reap something truly beautiful from their pain. She also helps clients who are going through major life transitions or seeking freedom from self-destructive addictions. She has degrees in Education and Communications from Long Beach State University, as well as graduate counseling credentials from Loyola Marymount University. She is one of the founding members of the Association of Comprehensive Energy Psychology and currently serves on its board of directors. Paula is the author of Chakras, the Magnificent Seven (2002), as well as "Grief...When Will This Pain Ever End?" Finding Your Way out of the Pit of Despair After Profound Loss.
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