When we are bereaved we have suffered the loss of someone close to us (or a pet), through death. Bereavement is an experience that affects us all at some point in our lives, however, how we are affected and how we process our grief will differ from person to person.
When we are bereaved we can feel overwhelmed by a whole host of feelings such as sadness, anger, pain, hopelessness and depression. However, it is also possible to feel what may be confusing feelings such as relief or peace, for example, when our loved one has suffered for some time, or we have felt consumed by their illness.
Feeling relief at the loss of someone we care about deeply is no more ‘proper’ than feeling sadness and loss, but it may feel a lot less socially unacceptable than grief.
What does it mean to grieve?
To grieve is an emotional, psychological and physical process whereby we come to terms with the loss of somebody to whom we felt close. The initial experience of a loss can feel very unsettling whereby we can often get a felt sense that something is wrong and missing from our world. It can be as if our body and psyche need to ‘catch-up’ with how our world has changed. Everything around us may look the same but feel different somehow.
Grieving means to allow ourselves to feel the myriad of emotions that accompany a loss. Classically these are summarised as being: denial; anger; bargaining, depression; and acceptance – based on The Five Stages of Grief by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.
Whilst this model and others can be useful, it can be easy to think that grieving means moving through the stages, on-by-one, until acceptance is reached. In practice though, we can often find ourselves moving back-and-forth between stages, or feeling the emotions of multiple stages all at once!
How do I do it?
How we are affected by our grief dictates whether we will need help in processing our experience. And how we process our grief is, in turn, affected by a host of other factors such as our natural coping strategies, our relationship to the deceased and importantly, how we dealt with earlier experiences of grief.
Human beings are relational and thus processing our emotions successfully requires contact with other human beings. We would suggest that there are three main additional components to successful grieving:
- Feeling whatever emotions are present whilst also staying present in the here-and-now so as to not become overwhelmed;
- Accepting that there is no right or wrong emotion to feel when we have lost someone close to us and that each merits as much attention as the next – we cannot choose what we feel.
- To find our own way through our grief and in our own time without getting caught-up in other people’s ideas of what we should be feeling and doing, and when.
The process of grieving used to be observed in society and ‘held’ as a community. Those days have passed and it can feel very isolating to be grieving, especially where we tell ourselves that we are just supposed to ‘get on with things’.
How does a relationship influence how we grieve?
Most people who struggle with their grief either had complex relationships with the deceased or complex relationships with their caregivers when growing up (and sometimes both).
Grief propels our emotional system back in time and many earlier losses can end up revisiting us during grief if they were never processed. Grief work therefore means to work through our feelings in relation to losing our loved one and any feelings that we may be experiencing that are triggered by losses earlier in life.
How will I know when I have finished grieving and can leave counselling?
‘Acceptance’ is the last stage in grief, however, this can mean different things to different people. In our view, the loss never goes away and the grief never fully ends, however this is not to say that we cannot carry our loss with us in a manageable way and move forward in our life.
Whilst you may only need to work on your grief for some months, it is generally accepted that the first full year after a bereavement is the most challenging – especially around anniversary events such as birthdays, Christmas and the date your loved one died.
All psychotherapists and counsellors are trained to deal with the many losses that clients bring to their sessions. Bereavement is about loss, however, grief work is a specific process that can be challenging to many clinicians unless they are trained and able to work specifically with issues around death.
Symptoms of grief can often look and feel a lot like depression and unfortunately some GP’s prescribe anti-depressants when their patients are grieving, which can do a lot of damage and delay the grieving process, sometimes for years. It is important therefore that you work with a counsellor or psychotherapist who can help you understand that what you are feeling is not depression and that it can be worked through.
At Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy, Mark Vahrmeyer has worked as a clinician in palliative care for many years specialising in psychotherapy with both terminal patients, and with their family members before and after the death of their loved one. He is trained to apply grief models, identify complex grief and to help people of all ages move through their grief, so as to be able to continue their lives or, in the case of those with terminal illnesses, come to terms with their death
If you would like to know more about how Brighton & Hove Psychotherapy can help you come to terms with the loss of a loved one through bereavement counselling, then get in touch today.