Everyone who loves is vulnerable to the pain of grief, for love means attachment and all human attachments are subject to loss. As the initial paralyzing shock of the loss wears off, the bereaved person may feel like they are recovering from frostbite: feeling returns and with feeling comes pain. But to recover properly, he or she must first come to terms with the full extent of the loss – it is grieving that accomplishes the recovery. Although an intense and powerful emotion, grief should not and need not be a destructive emotion. It is a normal reaction to a distressing situation.
To feel pain after a loss is normal – proof that you are alive – a sign that you are able to respond to life’s experiences, and along with this pain, depression and sadness it is also common to experience other reactions to loss that are not so obvious, such as:
v Changes in appetite, sleep patterns or sexual drive
v A tendency to be more fatigued, error-prone and slower in speech and movement
v Experiencing a loss of concentration, hope, motivation and energy
v Feeling helpless, hopeless, despairing, pessimistic, irritable
Self-esteem may suffer during this time and thoughts may be full of guilt, worry and condemnation. These thoughts are just symptoms of the stress being endured and any or all of these feelings are to be expected during and after the experience of a loss. It is part of the body’s natural healing process. Bear with these changes. Don’t fight them. It’s OK.
Recovery is a process in three recognizable phases. Most people know these to be shock/denial, anger/depression and finally understanding/acceptance. It’s good to be aware of these phases of recovery and to know that each of them is necessary and natural.
When death becomes personal and not merely something that happens to other people, it undermines our sense of basic human security. The initial reaction to this is most often shock whereby the person is temporarily anaesthetized against the overwhelming experience. This can be useful because then the person does not have to comprehend the magnitude of the loss all at once.
Next, the individual may experience a time of emotional release as it begins to dawn on the person how dreadful the loss really is. There is a tendency to respond with irritability and anger towards friends and relatives.
Then there is also the feeling of utter depression, loneliness, and isolation, a feeling that there is no help. This is the depths of despair. At this stage, those concerned and able to help should reach out to the bereaved person and be patient with them. For more information, telephone counselling and referrals to mental health professionals and support groups around the country, contact the Depression and Anxiety Support Group, between 8am and 7pm, Monday to Friday, 8am to 5pm on Saturdays on (011) 783 -1474 or (011) 884 -1797.
The recovery process is long and individuals may experience panic, where they are convinced there is something wrong with them as a person. They concentrate primarily on their loss and sometimes fear they may be losing their minds. There may be a dread of being alone and unreasonable fears of danger. Another major symptom of grief is guilt. It is important to remember that although some of the guilt you may be feeling is fairly realistic, we all make mistakes and most of it is probably unrealistic. Examining your self-reproach and balancing it out with all the positive, appropriate and loving things you have done for the deceased should help you. The sooner guilts are dealt with the better.
Some people may also exhibit physical symptoms of distress. Common to many are a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, fatigue, loss of appetite, and insomnia.
Most grieving people experience hostility at some stage. At this time the mourner begins to feel better and to express their feelings. Unprovoked anger is common and expresses the need to find an outlet for all the emotion and their outrage - Why did this happen to me?
Eventually, most people overcome their grief and come to an understanding or acceptance of what has happened, especially if they are supported and encouraged by friends and family. The duration of grief normally depends on the success of the "grief work" that the person does; namely achieving independence from the deceased, readjusting to the environment and forming new relationships. Recovery may be less successful and longer when people deny grief its full display. The intensity of the symptoms gradually declines after one to six weeks, although for many years reminders of the loss may precipitate occasional brief periods of yearning.
Finally, the bereaved readjust their lives to reality, and although no-one is ever their "old self" after such a loss, they can be stronger and deeper people and better able to help others through the experience. Bereavement presents us with a ‘make or break’ choice. We can grow through the experience, working creatively through the pain of loss, or we can accept the wounded state and remain in it.