Monday, May 27, 2013

What Does Grief Look Like? (Part 1)

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

Just exactly what does grief look like? While there appear to be common stages to grief, with probable, distinct emotions likely in each stage, not everyone experiences the grief process exactly the same way. It is helpful for the grieving person and their family and friends to be familiar with the stages and emotions.

SHOCK. Shock or denial is the first emotion grieving people experience: the feeling of numbness or unreality. A grieving person’s mind seems unable to accept the new reality. It has been described as “God’s anesthesia,” a built-in psychological protection to help us absorb the initial trauma. It gives us adjusting time. In this stage, grieving people may appear as though nothing has changed, and they are unaffected by their loss; they go forward “with unusual calmness and composure.” They often act as if they are unbothered by their loss. And they may personally feel as though they are living someone else’s life, or, as I described, like an actor in a play. This numbness stage soon wears off and anger and anxiety replaces it.

ANGER AND ANXIETY. In this stage grieving people look at the world continuing uninterrupted around them and lash out at its normalcy. Their world has altered immeasurably, but the larger world doesn’t (to them) seem to notice or care. Remember my near meltdown and suffocating anxiety experience during a grocery store visit I described in a previous blog post? Consider the following example experienced by a woman who lost a friend: “How can the sun still be shining? How can these people act as if nothing is wrong? I wanted to stand up and yell at them. I wanted to grab someone and just shake them. I wanted to burst into tears.” In this stage, the grieving person wants to drag the world into their grief and suffering; they become angry at, or jealous of others’ seemingly pain-free life.

Their emotions may swing quickly from anger to guilt to worry to fear. Then they’ll swing back to guilt again. They don’t want to feel that way about other people; they don’t want to be constantly thinking about themselves. Yet they can’t reconcile why they lost and others didn’t; they don’t know why they survived and their child died. One powerful, gripping feeling after another rips through a grieving person’s psyche, threatening to dismantle them emotionally, to destabilize them permanently. The shear variety and extremity of emotions can produce indescribable emotional pain, a feeling as though one’s heart will actually shatter. They feel as though they can’t possibly go on, keep living.

When bearing up under these unrelenting emotions threatens to become too disabling, the grieving person becomes mad. Sometimes really mad. They blame others, themselves, God. They may rebuke themselves for what they didn’t do, the mistakes they think they made that could have changed the outcome. They might even get angry at the child who died, or the surviving children for living. Additional fear simply feeds this anger. (If you have been taught, or feel, that anger is a sin, please read my previous blog addressing the fallacy of that belief.)

We like to feel as though we have control over our lives, that we are the ultimate "captains of our ships,” which of course we are not and never really have been. Losing control is unnerving; questions about the unforeseeable future may preoccupy the grieving person’s thoughts. The best thing you can do is let the grieving person know you, as their friend, will be there for them.

DEPRESSION. This stage actually signals a transition. When the grieving person can’t sustain such intense, volatile emotions of anger, guilt, fear and anxiety, the mind and body seem to settle into a state of exhaustion and succumb to depression.

In this stage the grieving person may feel as if everywhere they turn something arises to remind them of their baby or their loss. They can’t seem to get away from it. They may also find it difficult to perform normal daily activities, and they may not care to do so. It may take every ounce of energy they possess to get up in the morning and put one foot ahead of the other to keep going. They may feel unnaturally tired and sleep a lot. They may be disinterested in anything in life, even the simplest, life-sustaining activities. They may feel ineffective and foggy-headed, unable to concentrate. Tears may come easily and often. They may avoid others, going out, enjoying life. They may not care if their broken heart stops beating, finally ending their excruciating heartache. 

“Often, depression is anger turned inward. The anger may be toward someone else or toward oneself. Guilt is one of the most common emotions that fuels anger toward oneself. ‘Why didn’t I…? Why did I…? If only I had…’ But guilt has a double whammy;: it comes when the bereaved person forgets her grief, if only for a moment. She will find herself laughing, enjoying a meal, or just relaxing. AS you counsel with a grieving person, be aware that this false guilt is normal and that part of her depression at this stage may, in fact, be anger at herself.”

Usually a person swings between anger/anxiety and depression, sometimes to the extreme and within the same hour. Being with the person when they want your company, encouraging them, showing gentleness, kindness, patience and good listening skills go far in helping the grieving parents through this stage.

ACCEPTANCE. The pain of loss will linger, but, over time, it becomes different. There will still be those moments of, “I wish I had,” “if only,” and a desire to retrace steps and relive moments prior to the loss, but the pain becomes less acute and more bearable. Life starts to normalize, and the grieving person starts to look more to the future, not just surviving the moment or day. This is truly the beginning of healing.

The grieving person need not worry that their feeling of acceptance is selfish or equates with dismissal about their lost baby. Acceptance simply recognizes that you must no longer live in the past, which robs you of your future. You are satisfied that you said a proper goodbye. You don’t disregard the love and feelings you had for your baby, but you make a conscious choice to move forward with your life.

Grieving is important. Do not attempt to short circuit the process or avoid it. You really can’t bypass the pain. A grieving parent must be allowed to, and allow herself to experience the pain and walk through the valley to healing. Showing feelings is not a weakness; grieving parents must not be expected to deny their feelings.  As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Denying or delaying our feelings can delay our healing.

Yet know that not everyone experiences all of these stages, and they will unlikely go through them step-by-step in a neat little process. This is no time to pronounce that the grieving parent must pull themselves up by their bootstraps and just get over it and on with it. He should not rush himself or be rushed. Give your friend or family member permission to grieve and continue to let them know that you'll be there for them, loving and praying them through this difficult, often under-appreciated or misunderstood, painful process.

If allowed, time will heal the wounds loss inflicts and the grieving parent will once again experience that peace, happiness and joy they once found so elusive. 


NEXT WEEK: Unhealthy grief…

Thanks for joining me.

Until next week!



(Reference: The Counsel of a Friend: 12 Ways to Put Your Caring Heart Into Action by Lynda D. Elliot, 1993.)

(The Five Stages of Grief, by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross includes a stage of “Bargaining.” For more information see the home site: