I've been talking a lot about grief recently, so it seemed like a good time to do a blog on this difficult topic - this week we'll talk about what grief often looks like (with apologies to Bastille for the title!)
Grief is something that we'll all experience at some point in our lives, and it's also something that nobody wants to experience. For the purposes of this blog post I'm referring to grief specifically around bereavement, but the process of loss and grieving that loss can be applied to many different things (loss of a friendship, a change in your physical or mental health, being laid off from a job). Grief is never pleasant, and it's fairly inevitable, but what does it look like?
Lots of people quote Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five-stage model, which was based on her work with terminally ill people in the 1960s. Whilst it was initially designed to consider how people who are dying might face this difficult reality, it has also been applied to how others around them might cope with their loss. It's not perfect, but I think it encapsulates some of the emotions you might feel when you're grieving pretty well.
The first stage discussed is usually denial. You may think that it can't be true, that the person you care about can't possibly be gone, and you might isolate yourself from people who try to force you to accept the reality of the situation. People can also be in shock a lot of the time, and can struggle to move forwards from the event.
Grief is stressful - of course it is, it's a horrible situation to be in and activates the body's stress response, or "fight or flight" response. One response to feeling stressed all the time is anger, and you might find yourself feeling angry at the person who has died, or at yourself, or being more snappy and irritable with those around you.
This is where you start to wonder if there's a work-around, so that you don't have to feel this horrible emotion and experience this terrible loss. Bargaining often refers to people trying to make a deal with a "higher power" (e.g. "if you bring her back I'll do anything"), or trying to find a compromise. Unfortunately, there isn't one to be had if someone has died, and that can lead to...
When grief feels all-encompassing, it's not surprising that it would affect your mood. You might find yourself feeling that there's no point to anything, or becoming more tearful than you normally would be, or even feeling numb.
At some point, we hopefully move to acceptance of the situation. That doesn't mean that we have to like it, or that we forget about the person we've lost, but we recognise that life moves forwards and that, whilst they can't move forwards with us, we can still remember them whilst we try to navigate life without them.
It's really important to remember that the model above is a bit of a roadmap or a template, rather than a concrete version of what you will definitely experience during grief. There's a lot of criticism of the model, and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that I don't think it should be intended as a linear model (moving from anger to bargaining to depression, etc) - I think you can move fluidly between those states on any given week or day whilst you're grieving. What I do believe is that acceptance should be state we're trying to spend the most time in, but acceptance in itself is a process rather than the end of the journey, and some days it will be easier to accept loss than others.
The thing to remember is that it's normal to feel like the world is crashing down around you. It's normal to feel numb, or tearful, or in shock. You might feel overwhelmed, you might struggle to eat or sleep, you might be angry or sad or feel a strange sense of relief at times. None of this is "wrong," "bad" or "abnormal," and none of it makes you a "bad person." You're grieving. Give yourself some grace, and some time.
Next week I'll talk about how to support someone who is grieving (even if that's yourself), and what support might be out there if you feel that you need help with grief. Let me know if this has been helpful in the comments.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects