In light of the recent fires in California and the many deaths we have witnessed over the last year I turn this blog over to the topic of grief. As always, the goal of my blog is to educate and simplify. In order to do this, I have decided to split the subject up into two posts. The first type of loss I will be focusing on is sudden loss or loss that was unexpected. In a later blog, we will discuss the anticipated loss or loss that is expected. For that blog see: Grief part 2 – Expected Loss
What is Sudden Loss
Sudden loss is an event that was not planned or predicted and that changes the individual’s life in some permanent way. In these situations, the individual does not have time to prepare for the loss they are about to face. This can include, but is not limited to:
- Loss of job
- Ending of a relationship
- Destruction from a natural disaster
- Death from accident, suicide or violence (non-long-term medical)
What Causes Grief
In all of these situations, the individual is left without something they once had. Grief comes from that sense of incompleteness and the sadness of the loss mixed. Although this is true for every person, this is where grief becomes inconsistent. What we grieve for and the intensity of our grief may be determined by:
- The type of loss – Death and disaster will likely have more impact.
- The closeness to the loss – Losing a job you didn’t like may not affect you as much as losing a job you loved and were in for 20+ years.
- Circumstances around the loss – Death of someone younger or due to murder or suicide can be more difficult.
- Personal experiences – Current stress, past loss, and experiences with grief may have an impact.
- Mental illness – Those with depression or other disorders may be more sensitive to grief.
Every loss will be different, therefore, it is okay not to grieve every loss the same.
What Grief Looks Like
Grief is one of the most complicated experiences a person will ever face. The emotions and process are unique to every individual and can change suddenly and frequently. I’m sure we have all heard about the stages of grief including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although these are all emotions an individual may experience, it is false to believe any person will move through them in any fluid fashion. Instead, a person will bounce between these emotions and more (guilt for instance). A person may bounce back and forth between denial and anger frequently for weeks or even months. Another may live in acceptance for a while before reverting back to depression. Some important things to remember:
- There is no time frame to grief – Many people may take 6 months to a year to even start grieving. This can be due to denial, dealing with the aftermath of a loss, or obligations helping another through grief. From there it can take months or even years to fully process.
- Grieving is personal and unique – Each loss is unique and each person experiencing the loss is unique. Whatever you feel is okay.
- Grief is fluid – Emotions can change and change frequently
*Grief and Trauma
In some cases, such as a natural disaster and unexpected death, an individual may experience trauma. This trauma can be due to the violent nature of the loss, the realization of one’s mortality or due to witnessing the event. Symptoms of trauma may include anxiety, fear, nightmares, and difficulty eating or sleeping. Individuals may also experience flashbacks of the event or have difficulty going places or doing things that could trigger memories. In the case of Trauma, it is important to seek help from a trained counselor.
Getting Through Grief
Unfortunately, there is no magic button to fix grief, it is simply a process. Eventually, a person learns to live with the loss, they may move on or find happiness in memories. Some things that may help or hinder an individual through grief may include:
- Support system – Who is helping you? Are you having to be strong for others or are you allowed to be vulnerable?
- Religious beliefs – What does your religion say about loss or why bad things happen? Are there any stigmas (example: about suicide)
- Coping skills – Do you practice self-care? Do you have unhealthy coping such as substance use?
- Family History – What are the family beliefs about dealing with loss? Is emotional expression considered improper or it is accepted?
Some advice for helping a person grieve: Everything you think you are supposed to say is wrong. It’s harsh but true. “Everything happens for a reason”, “They are in a better place”, “It was their time”…to the people grieving this is not true. To a grieving person, it shouldn’t have happened and the person is better with them. Instead, offer words of support such as “I’m sorry you are experiencing this” and show love in the ways you can. Be a shoulder to cry on, pick the kids up from school or run to the store for them. These are little acts that give the person time to cope and let them know they are not alone.
My Own Story
May 6, 2013 – Shari was 27 when she was hit by a man who ran a red light. She died at the hospital. Shari had been one of my best friends since Junior High. I couldn’t tell you how we became best friends, only that she suddenly started showing up in pictures. We shared many things in common and went through a lot together. Our friendship was personal between us, rarely shared with other people. In truth that may be because she was the most like me of any friend. I never had to explain how I was feeling, she just knew, because that is how she would have felt. I still remember every moment of the day I found out she had died. It felt like part of me was dying as well. Despite all the struggle I had been through in my life this was a foreign pain and deeper then I had ever felt. I wanted to call her because she would be the only one who would understand…but I knew she wouldn’t be there to answer. I suddenly remember the text I had gotten earlier in the week from her. She had decided to finally pursue a career as a Preschool teacher and had asked for my help since I had taken the classes before. She had wanted to pick up the book I had set aside for her and go over them while she was waiting to pick up her little sister from school near my house. My excuse was stupid, something about having to prep dinner. Guilt, regret, sadness, anger, and pain where what I lived in for nearly the next year. It was overwhelming and consumed every part of me. I sorted through each memory I had, morning them and crying, trying to make them as real as I could in my mind. I eventually snapped back into reality. Seeking help from a counselor, friends, and family. Slowly I began to heal, finding joy in those memories rather than sorrow. I would be lying if I said I had completely moved on, I don’t think I ever will. I will spend the rest of my life missing her. But today I can be happy I knew her and grateful for the time I had.
If you or someone you know is experiencing grief and in need of support I encourage you to seek help from a counselor. You do not have to go through it alone.