Understanding grieving

What is grief?

Put simply; grief is an emotion that comes about when we feel any significant loss. It is mostly associated with bereavement, but people feel the symptoms of grief for all sorts of other reasons. A good example can be the sort of grieving that goes on after a relationship breakdown or when an adult child leaves the family home for the first time. There again, some people will grieve for a friend who moves away or for a job they no longer hold down that had provided a sense of fulfilment. Therefore, for grief to come about, the loss involved must be more significant to an individual. When we feel bonded at an emotional level – whether that is to a person, a pet, a building or even a situation – loss will be significant, and that means grief is likely to be the outcome.

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Are grief and mourning the same?

Mourning relates to grief that comes about as the result of the death of someone you care about. Since death is final, this is necessarily a severe form of loss and a trauma for those left behind. However, grief is not the same as mourning since it can be felt in many other situations other than following a bereavement. Sometimes, recently retired people go through a form of grief as they adjust to life without a regular regime and the camaraderie of the workplace. Parents who lose custody of their children following a divorce or because they have gone into care will also often going into a state of grieving even if they know their kids are alive and well. It is also common to grieve a relationship after dealing with breakup or managing divorce.

What does grief feel like?

Grief is an extreme motion that is very challenging to go through no matter what type of grief it is. Many people feel physical symptoms of pain that can range from headaches to pains in their chest, notably around their heart. Crying and feeling anxiety, both emotional and physical, is perfectly normal when you are grieving, and nothing to be alarmed of. It is also common to feel anger, fear, guilt, frustration, and denial. Depression is also a known side effect and something to be cautious of as you might need extra support to deal with that. Grief can bring on feelings of loneliness, but in some cases, particularliy when grieving a loved one who passed away, it also seems as if it actually brings people together.

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How can you overcome grief?

One of the keys to overcoming it is to accept that you need to go through all of its different stages before you return to something like normal. Overcoming it may not be wanted if you want to cling onto the sense of loss for some reason – many people do so when they are mourning, for example. For some people it might feel like they abandon the person they are grieving should they try letting go of the grief. Seeking professional support will help, including group talking therapies and hypnotherapy to name but two of many options. It is also important to try and find support around you, sharing what it is that you are going through with family members or friends that you trust.

Who are grief counsellors?

Counsellors who get involved in the grieving process are usually psychologists or professionals who have been trained in the specifics of offering psychological support to people who are grieving. Most counsellors will operate with a style that reflects the aforementioned five stages of grieving, as popularised by Dr Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Many people who are not qualified psychologists but who offer this sort of counselling will have completed an academic qualification to at least a diploma level. Ensuring that you only see someone with the proper training is essential when dealing with the grieving process because improper advice can set you back. Equally, people are vulnerable when grieving, so they need to be assured that the person they are talking to about their feelings is professionally distant. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy is a good place to look for accredited counsellors in the UK, but there are other, similar organisations around the world.

What does grief do to your body?

Someone who is grieving will usually describe it through mental anguish and the pain that they metaphorically feel in their heart. And yet, grieving also causes physiological reactions in people as well as emotive ones. For example, it is common to detect an increase in blood pressure among people who have recently lost a loved one. This may account for why the heart comes under greater strain at such times, which is why we often refer to the sensation as heartache. Some scientific studies have also detected that the immune system will underperform when we feel grief-like emotions. Many people catch colds or suffer from inflammation at such times, for example. Furthermore, the effects of negative hormones in the body can cause physiological responses that are associated with stress, such as muscle tightening, stomach cramps and headaches, to name but three.

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How does grief affect the brain?

As mentioned above, grieving is often associated with neurological responses, such as the release of chemicals like cortisol into the brain. This will inevitably affect the way we are able to think. When grieving, concentrating may be harder as may be performing cognitive tasks that would usually be mere child's play. The release of neuro-chemicals can also lead to other undesirable behavioural outcomes, such as the inability to get to sleep, a loss of appetite, greater fatigue during the day and even an increase in the levels of anxiety you may feel. However, it is important to add that many people will find that these sorts of brain activity fade with the passage of time. Although the sense of loss you may feel may never go away, these sorts of neurological reactions tend to pass. Only in rare cases do they lead to a more permanent or chronic form of mental disorder.

What is disenfranchised grief?

Disenfranchised grief is a term that relates to a sense of loss – usually, although not exclusively, a bereavement – that goes unnoticed or that is not sufficiently well acknowledged by wider society. An example of this may be the nascent grieving emotions of a toddler who might have lost a parent, a grandparent or a sibling. In these situations, it has often been regarded as something that children beneath a given age will not be able to understand or cope with emotionally. Although such a view may be partially correct, if they are not invited into the grieving process, then they can be disenfranchised from it altogether, leading to later psychological problems as they develop. Another form of disenfranchisement from the grieving process might come about when a pet dies. The sense of loss can be very great, but sometimes people do not allow themselves to view their emotions as grief simply because they relate to an animal.

Will grief affect pregnancy?

Yes, in some cases, grieving can have an impact on pregnancy. Although this is not the case for every mother-to-be, the stress hormones that are known to be part of the grieving process can have an effect on pregnant women and their unborn child. When the loss of someone or something is very acutely felt, perhaps because it was sudden, then the chances of feeling stronger initial shock are that much greater. Any unexpected life events can lead to shock, which, in turn, can cause pregnancy complications among some women. More serotonin in the body can be unwelcome when you are pregnant, a time when your hormones are different than they usually are, of course. As such, seeking professional medical advice may be advisable if you begin to worry about your health or that of your baby. Good coping strategies, like taking time out and being as calm as you can by avoiding other pressures, are useful in helping your pregnancy to proceed without further complications.

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What does grief do to relationships?

Many people realise that grieving can put their romantic relationship under more stress than would otherwise be the case. Just like anything that causes anxiety and feelings of stress, grief can make people snappier with one another, less likely to offer an empathetic ear or simply be less available to their partner. When a couple is going through the grieving process together, the situation can be even worse. Generally speaking, relationships that already have problems will worsen when the grieving process is being gone through. However, moving through each stage together means that the relationship is more and more likely to blossom once more. Some people even find that grieving and recovering together can rekindle their relationship and show a side of their partner they didn't know existed before.

Can grief cause dementia?

There are several already known factors that mean it is more likely that dementia and related conditions like Alzheimer's disease will come about. These include, for example, conditions such as diabetes, hearing loss and hypertension. What doctors also now know is that dementia is also linked to stress. This can mean that stress caused by grief may play a part in the onset of it. A recent European study into Alzheimer's disease took a control group and compared them to people with the condition who had it at its mild to moderate stage. Both groups had an average age of people in their mid-70s. What it found was that three out of every four of the Alzheimer's group had suffered from severe emotional stress and that around a quarter had reported being in the grieving process within the three years prior to the study. Although grief is a part of the mix – some people also cited stress from financial worries, for example – it does appear to be a factor in dementia.

Do animals feel grief?

Although it used to be thought that grieving was a higher emotion that only humans could feel, modern zoological research is overturning some of this assessment of the natural world. Elephants have been shown to display grief-like behaviours when a member of the herd dies, for instance. The same sorts of behaviours have also been noted in wolves and goats. Some apes also appear to grieve for their departed troop members. Bonobos, for example, have been known to stay around the bodies of dead family members long after they would have been expected to move on under other circumstances. Some scientists also believe that certain species of birds have the capacity to grieve and cite the behaviour of mute swans following the death of a cygnet as an example. Whether or not this behaviour is true grief or something like it is likely to remain a mystery for some time to come, however.

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Grief in summary

Loss and grief are closely related. They should not be considered to be the same thing, however, or even two sides of the same coin. When we feel a loss, it can last a lifetime. However, when we grieve, we are likely to recover from it as the passage of time progresses. According to the five stages model, grieving needs to happen at its own pace, but we can assist it in moving on by our own actions and our mental attitudes. Feeling guilty about your loss, for example, may stop you from progressing onto the next stage of the grieving process if you are unable to let go of such emotions.

Remember that grieving is normal and something that everyone is likely to go through at some point in their lives. Indeed, the more we understand about it, the more we realise that it is something that is a part of the natural world and not entirely human-centric. Disenfranchising people from their sense of loss will usually mean that they are not able to grieve in the way that they should. In turn, this can have a negative impact on the progress they might otherwise make toward recovery. No one is too young to be bereaved even if they do not understand concepts like the finality of death properly. Equally, grieving for a job, a social relationship, or even a pet is perfectly normal and something that should not be questioned unduly, especially if you want the person concerned to recover.

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