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Overview of Grief


Grief is ChaosPinwheel_index

Grief is that universal experience we have following a loss; bigger losses or several smaller ones in a row result in bigger grief. Although everyone experiences grief, we all experience it in different ways and so there is not a "one size fits all" answer for how to cope with the devastation you are feeling.

There is no easy way to get through a death but there is no need to add the additional burden of suspecting you are going crazy, and so the first thing you need to know is that you are not going crazy! You might feel that way but it is temporary and you will be okay again. Grief feels like insanity - but it is not.

Grief is chaos - in every possible way. Do you feel like you have fallen into some crazy, mixed up world? Does everything feel confused and wrong and meaningless? If so, you are NORMAL. Yes, NORMAL in capital letters. This is where you are supposed to be right now - do you really think being forced to say good-bye to someone so special should leave you in any other place?! If that person did not matter, you would not be feeling the way that you do.

The paradox of grief is that it is both universal and very personal. In other words, it is something we all experience and yet when it happens to us, it is our own personal and private hell. One of the hardest things about grief is that we live that private hell within our "normal" lives. And so we have to shop for groceries, go to work, take kids to school, and all the other things that make up our lives - but we do it with our insides feeling as if we have been through a blender.

Grief is Emotional

Most everyone recognizes that sorrow is part of grief, but it is so much more than sorrow. It is because we know so little about grief that we suspect we are losing our minds. If we know what normal grief looks like, then we can cross, "going crazy" off the worry list.

Grief is an emotional experience. We are separated from someone we treasure and as a result, we feel a variety of feelings. There is, of course, the profound sorrow - you probably feel sadder than you ever thought possible. The sadness is aching and deep, and seems to sear through your whole being. It will ebb and flow like the tide, and waves of it will hit you when you do not expect it. A song on the radio or just a thought that passes through your mind and suddenly the tsumani of sorrow rolls over you, leaving you leveled and sputtering for breath. This is normal. It is also awful and hard and terrible - and temporary. You will not always feel this way - but right now you do.

There are other emotions that make up the experience of grief, and these should not surprise you. Two that are particularly hard to handle are guilt and anger. You have not lived a perfect life - you were not a perfect son, daughter, wife, husband, whatever and so guilt will be part of your grief experience. Let me just say right now that guilt is a choice, and not a very productive one.

Anger - that seething black rage that consumes us is a normal part of the grief experience. What part of the death of a loved one is okay?! It is normal to be mad at the unfairness of it all, but that rage will eat your soul and so it is best not to hang on to it. Yes, it is normal but you do not want anger to hang around your life any longer than necessary. I am not suggesting that anger is wrong - it is not - but I have seen how destructive it becomes and so it is worth paying special attention to this particular emotion.

There is really no emotion that is not part of grief. It is normal to be frustrated, despairing, and even relieved. Why would anyone feel relief at a death?? Some deaths end suffering and so there is relief - but that is usually followed by guilt for feeling relieved. It is okay to feel relieved that someone's suffering is over - it is not the only emotion you feel, I am certain, but it is sometimes an appropriate one. In fact, all of the emotions that you feel are appropriate.

Something that often surprises people is the intensity of the emotions. All of the emotions seems so big and strong, and yes, this normal. Consider the depth of the loss, and you can understand why the emotions have such strength. Again, without that profound bond and connection you would not be feeling anything at all - the depths of the emotions are in direct proportion to the depth of the love you had for that person. This pain - this grief - reflects your love.

Grief Impacts Our Thinking

Grief is emotional - and that is Emotional with a capital E. But it is more than that, and knowing this helps you know what to expect and also gives ideas for coping. Grief also impacts us cognitively or in other words, it affects our mind. I think the degree to which our thought processes are affected by grief catches many of us off guard. It is so normal to feel confused and not able to think clearly following the death of someone we love. Our minds seem to be operating in slow motion, and very little makes any sense. Perspective is gone - things seem like a REALLY big deal or else they do not matter at all.

Motivation will seem to have left the building, and in its wake is a big hole of blackness and apathy. Life is piling up and you just do not care - all you want to do is sit in bed, eat cookie dough and watch soap operas. People have needs and wants around you, and you just do not care. In fact, you probably feel like you are not really part of that world anymore and are suspended someplace just watching - a disinterested observer of your former life. This is normal - and temporary.

Even if you can push past your apathy on occasion, you are likely to find that your ability to think is greatly diminished. It is normal to be confused and not be able to focus on things. You might feel like you are in a fog and just cannot think clearly. Mental capacity following a death is reduced - plain and simple. There is not a lot to be done about it and no sense of making it worse by beating yourself up for not being able to function at your usual level. You have a bad injury and your brain is affected - recovery will happen but it will take some time.

So, grief is reflected in our feelings and it impairs our mental processes - is there more? You bet. Grief affects every aspect of our being - no part of our life escapes the suffering that comes with a death.

Social Impacts of Grief

Grief changes how we relate to other people, and our desire to be with other people. For the first few weeks after a death, our friends and family are very attentive but unless their world was also shaken by the death, they move back into normal life - and this is both infuriating and isolating.

And so grief tends to cause us to isolate ourselves because it is too painful to be around other people who have moved on. What is front and center in our lives is not even on their radar screen anymore, and so it seems like we have nothing in common and no connection. This social isolation creates more losses, as we move away from former friends because they cannot bear our grief and we cannot bear their ordinariness.

Grief is Physical

Our bodies are not immune from grief. It is very normal to have physical symptoms of grief. That said, it is important to see your physician if you have any concerns about physical symptoms. Grief is a huge stressor on the body, and so people will have a variety of physical symptoms. Headaches, stomach aches, feelings of panic including shortness of breath, tightness in the throat - these are all normal experiences people sometimes have after the death of a loved one. The one that I think is most common is exhaustion - people describe feeling as if they have no energy and are just fatigued all the time. This makes complete sense - grief is hard work.

People who are grieving get sick more often, again reminding us that the body is taxed by our loss. This is made worse by the normal experiences of difficulties with sleep and appetite. Some people can't sleep or are afraid to sleep because of nightmares and dreams, and others report that they sleep all the time. Some people stop eating because they feel sick, have a big lump in their throat or just are not hungry. Other people, especially those with a history of using food for comfort, over eat as they try hard to find solace in chocolate. Disturbances of sleep and appetite are normal with, but poor eating habits and not enough sleep do tend to make it harder to cope with grief.

Grief Impacts Religion/Spirituality

People confuse spirituality with religion, and so bear with me - these are not the same thing and the topic is important when talking about grief. Spirituality is what we use to find meaning in our lives, and almost everyone does this. One does not have to believe in a Creator to seek meaning - it is a normal thing to wonder about our existence and look for answers to questions that haunt us at 2 a.m. when we cannot sleep.

Grief brings those questions out of the middle of the night and suddenly we are wide awake, confronted with DEATH. We cannot pretend it only happens to others when someone we know and love no longer exists in a body on this earth. And so the questioning begins, and we are forced to examine what we believe and what we do not believe. It is normal to mentally take apart one's religious and/or spiritual belief system during grief, and to stop believing some things or perhaps believe other things even more.

It is alarming to some that their faith or spirituality, which provided comfort in simpler times, now no longer meets that need. Again, this represents another loss in a life already turned upside down. It is made worse when others continue to suggest that faith or belief in something or someone will make everything better - good job not hitting people when they suggest it was God's will that your loved one died.

And so grief challenges our spirituality, in whatever form that takes in your life, and forces us to deal with questions about meaning, afterlife, and other tough things - all at a time when we are exhausted, not thinking clearly and perhaps even planning a new life as a hermit.

Grief Reactions are Normal and Temporary

You don't need me to tell you that there is not one single part of your being that is not impacted by grief. Your emotions are all over the map, your body feels like lead, your brain seems to be operating in slow motion (if at all), your family and friends annoy the heck out of you, and if you knew where the Creator was, you would just kick him or her in the shins. And somehow in the middle of this, you are supposed to function - good luck with that! Grief sucks.

But all of those things are NORMAL - you are not going crazy. I know you may have gone days without a shower, your eyes are permanently swollen and red, and all you have eaten is cookie dough for three days - I am still telling you that you are normal. Yes, you probably think you deserve a gold star for getting dressed today - I agree! But that is normal - that is an important word for you to remember and here is the other important word: TEMPORARY. You will not always feel this way -- really.

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