When it’s time to say goodbye: Mourning and coping with grief

11. December 2019

Everything has its time: there is a time of joy, a time of silence, a time of pain, sorrow and a time of grateful remembrance.

Our lives are an interplay of beginnings and departures, new things and permanence, bright and dark hours. The ups and downs and the change that comes with them is a natural part of being human, yet we can find it very difficult to accept the way things are.

Especially the loss of a person to whom we feel particularly attached, fills us with pain and sadness. It is hard for us to believe that the beloved person has passed away. However, like all of our lives, grief is a journey that we must take, and it is made up of different stages.

Difficult Times

The loss of a loved one turns life upside down. We find ourselves in an extreme situation, whether it is a sudden death or a death after a long illness.

Differences in expressing grief
How we react to and process a loss depends on the individual. For example, religion, background, or current situation can have a strong influence on the grief response.

  • Origin and culture: In some cultures, there are so-called “mourners” who lament the loss together with the family after a death and help express the grief. The color associated with loss also varies by culture: while in the Western world the color black is associated with mourning, in other cultures it is white.
  • Religion: Religious affiliation has a significant influence on how mourning is handled. The design of the funeral and the grave also depends heavily on religion.
  • Education and socialization: The upbringing and the social environment influence the handling of sad experiences.
  • Personality structure: Everyone has a unique personality that also affects how they deal with loss.
  • Situation: Age and situation can greatly affect the initial grief response. For example, parents openly display their grief in front of their children during a loss.

Although dealing with death and loss varies so much, psychologists have tried to determine phases of grief. For example, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a model that describes the phases of grief (adapted from: Hucke, 2017).

The stages of grief

The important thing to remember when considering the phases is that they only represent empirical values of how a grieving process can occur in people. Not everyone goes through all the phases. In addition, the length of the phases can be quite different. More on this later.

1. Denial

Shortly after the loss, bereaved people are in a phase of denial. There is a feeling of “not wanting to admit it”. Emotions such as anger, despair and horror often arise.

2. Anger

Emotions such as anger and rage surprise many grieving individuals because they are not expected at first in the grieving process. However, it is normal for some anger to arise toward the person who has died or toward other people who are still alive. This anger can startle and unexpectedly affect the grieving person’s environment, but it should be consciously processed.

3. Negotiate

According to Kübler-Ross, this is a phase, often very short, of struggling with fate or a kind of buying one’s way out by taking certain actions, according to the motto “if I now do this, then…”. There is increased action, aimless action and flight into extreme forms of religion.

4. Depression

When the deep realization of the death of a loved one pervades, the pain is sometimes physically palpable. The symptoms then resemble those of depression: there is deep dejection, listlessness, strong negative mood and loss of all joy. Sometimes this phase lasts for a very long time and a depression develops from the grief.

5. Acceptance

When some time passes and grief is given the space it needs, attention can slowly turn back to other things. It won’t happen overnight, but most grievers experience an acceptance of the loss. The view widens and new plans can be tackled very gently.

What it means when grief may not end

It is very difficult to decide whether a grieving process is “too long” or “not normal.” This is because there is no set threshold for when grief is pathological. In addition, the diagnosis “grief or grief disorder” does not exist in current psychology books. However, the inclusion of this diagnosis is being discussed, because it would give people who suffer unusually long or severe losses access to medical and psychotherapeutic help.

Chance or Stigma?
The question of whether there is a way of coping with grief that is more like an illness is profoundly important. The advantage of such a diagnosis would be that people who suffer from it could take advantage of special psychotherapeutic support services, the costs of which are covered by health insurance. The disadvantage is that it could lead to a stigmatization of mourners, who would thus be denied the right to their grief or whose grief would be labeled as “pathological”.

Grief that makes you sick: When should grievers seek professional help?

It is natural for people to suffer from a loss. It is also natural for that suffering to last a long time. But when feelings of impotent anger or extreme bitterness are added to the mix, professional help may be appropriate.

The same applies in the case of suicidal thoughts or “self-abandonment,” i.e., apathy so severe that the bereaved person is hardly capable of action. If such symptoms occur, it is possible that the grief has passed into depression . At the latest, professional help should be sought, because depression can become entrenched and make actual grief management impossible. To cope with grief, people need all their resources, which are difficult to activate in a depression.

Important: But even if the suffering and grief do not take on the extreme proportions mentioned, professional grief counseling by specialists can be useful. Show the pain of a neutral person, reflect on the loss in a protected and private space and thus gain acceptance can be a very healing experience.

What can be done in dealing with grief?

As a grieving person yourself:

  • Create space and time for grieving: Grief is a natural process that happens differently for everyone. Allow yourself to grieve.
  • Express feelings, whether in conversation, pictures, poems, movement.
  • Gather mementos that have great meaning for yourself and create a box with memories.
  • Practice gratitude: Reminisce about beautiful periods of life and situations with the loved one.
  • Walking in nature is calming and does you good.
  • Strengthen your own resources: What was good for you before the loss? Where are your strengths? Which ones can help you in this situation?
  • You may accept help in this situation of grief – whether from friends, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues or professionals.

In dealing with grieving persons:

  • Addressing the loss, even if words fail you. “I don’t know what to say,” is usually better than saying nothing at all.
  • Offer practical help, such as organizing the funeral service or helping with household chores.
  • Be there and offer time, but also accept the desire to retreat.
  • View grief as a natural process and also express this acceptance.
  • When the situation fits, ask about beautiful experiences with the deceased person and listen to narratives.
  • Watch for signals if the grieving person’s condition is worsening and seek professional advice in case of emergency.

Especially if you are in mourning or are faced with the issue of grief, we wish you at this point a process of mourning, in which you – according to your personal rhythm- can look at the past with gratitude and greet the future with confidence.

References

(1) Hucke, V. (2017). With diversity and fairness to success. Springer Gabler, Wiesbaden

(2) Kübler-Ross, E. (2009). Death: the final stage. Simon and Schuster.

Categories: Depression

Friederike Reuver
Autor:in Friederike Reuver
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