Understanding Grief

beautiful 35 year old woman stands in front of the windowGrief, the suffering that comes with loss, is a painful reality that is a part of the human condition.  Grief will be felt by most of us more than once in a lifetime.  It can happen for many reasons, and may take many forms.  Most people experience grief with the death of a loved person, or a beloved pet.  Grief can accompany a painful breakup or divorce, or the loss of a career, or of a dream.

Sometimes the signs of grief are obvious and easy to understand.  We see the person cry, her face is sad, she talks endlessly of the one who is gone.  Other symptoms are harder to recognize and may be misinterpreted: she is irritable, flies into rages, or seems to withdraw.  After a loss, the person may appear to be easily overwhelmed, or have difficulty accomplishing anything, while others may literally withdraw into work.  Often, the person will deny having any difficulty; some people even deny that the loss has occurred.  It’s important to remember that everyone grieves differently – and may grieve differently from day to day.  There is no “right” or “wrong” way to mourn a loss.

Grief may last for a few days, for months, sometimes years.  It may lead to, or become part of, clinical depression.  About 15% of people who are grieving are still experiencing symptoms of depression a year after a loss.  If the loss is particularly traumatic – for example, a violent or unexpected death, especially death by suicide – the grief may be very complex and may interfere with the survivor’s functioning for a quite a long time.  If the mourner has underlying depression, grief is also more likely to cause worsening of symptoms.

It can be very helpful to talk to someone who understands.  A shared grief is usually easier to bear.  But sometimes, well-meaning friends or family  may say just the wrong thing. It’s often best just to sit quietly with the grieving person.  Ask “Do you want to talk about it?” and show that you can accept whatever they say or don’t say.  It’s often not very helpful to say “I know how you feel” and then talk about your own loss.  And many people won’t want to hear well-meaning reassurances like “He’s in a better place” or “God wanted another angel.”

Holidays and anniversaries are often especially difficult for people who are grieving.  At holiday gatherings, grieving families may find it useful to honor the person who has died, for example by saying a few words of remembrance, even leaving an empty chair.  This may be a good time to visit the cemetery, light a candle, or say a special prayer.

Here is a link to an excellent article which lists useful things to say, and some things it’s important NOT to say, to people who are grieving: Supporting a Grieving Person.

A helpful website and online community is Griefnet.Org.  For those who have suffered the tragic loss of a child, another website and organization to try is The Compassionate Friends.

Click here to see a companion blog inviting discussion of handling grief over the holidays.


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