Grief and loss

Grief is one of the most common experiences of everyday life. We not only experience it when someone close to us dies but in many other situations too. Grief is the personal response to any loss.

It can come when we lose a loved one through death. But we experience it with other losses, too. It affects the whole person. It changes how we feel physically and emotionally. It affects our energy level and our activities. People grieve in different ways and we need to make allowances for this.

One thing we have learned about grief is that it takes a long time to get over it. And it's like a journey. When we experience a loss such as someone dying, losing a job or leaving our country or city the first reaction is often shock. We can't believe it. It takes our feelings a while to catch up with what has happened. One person when their husband died said: 'I felt like I was watching a play. I felt this was happening to someone else but not me. I couldn't believe it was me.' These reactions can last for several days after a loss, and occasionally for longer.

As the numbness wears off we begin to feel the pain. We realise this really is happening to us and that it hurts. People at this stage may need someone who will let them express their painful feelings. They may also want to talk a lot about the person or situation they are missing, or their lost dream. Talking and expressing feelings helps them face what has happened.

Remember, that people express painful feelings differently. Not everyone cries or finds it easy to talk about their grief, but this does not mean they are not hurting. Some people lack energy to do anything. Others push painful feelings away by being very busy. How long people feel the pain of their loss depends on many things including how important the loss was to them. But it may take weeks or even months before they are ready to let go of the person or situation they are leaving behind.

When they are ready to let go, people are also more open to accepting the changes. At this stage, a person may need help not only in accepting change but making changes. For example, it may involve a decision to retrain, find new interests or meet new people. We can help people explore options and make decisions.

Grief is like a painful wound. At first it hurts so much that anything which touches the wounded area is painful - almost too painful to bear. Anything which reminds you of the person for whom you are grieving can be like someone bumping a wound.

Healing takes time. The most helpful thing we can do for people at this painful stage is to let them express their painful feelings and be supportive. It does not help to try and cheer them up or tell them they will soon get over it. In fact, most major griefs take months to get over and the death of a loved one can take up to two years to work through.

Expressing the feelings can help the grief to heal. And as the wound heals, people will be ready to rebuild their life. It is rather like a broken limb. We need to give it time to heal before it will be strong enough to walk on again.

External links and resources

Grief Link is a collaboration between SA government, Adelaide University and National Association for Loss and Grief

Loss and Grief: Reachout is a Melbourne based site which provides mental health information to young people

Books

Didion J., The Year of Magical Thinking: New York Knopf 2005: This is both a personal memoir and a study of grief

Bridges W., Transitions: making sense of life's changes. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004: This explores responses to other kinds of loss and change.