Understanding our Grief Reactions After A Death Of A Loved One
I took a few moments to ground myself before meeting a new client. I knew it would be an emotional first meeting because her child recently died. She sat across from me sharing her dark, scary thoughts. She couldn’t hold eye contact because she buried her head while tears flowed from her eyes. As she told me her story, she shared I was the second therapist she met. The first one told her there was nothing she could do for her and maybe she could come back in a few months when her grief wasn’t so intense. I sat in my chair stunned, trying to disguise my shock. In shock, not by my client’s intense grief but because of the words from this therapist.
Sadly, I hear some version of this often. “I will get help when I am feeling better” “When my feelings aren’t so raw, I will talk with someone”. I have clients cancel because they are “too much of a mess”. When should one come into therapy, especially grief therapy? When they are better? I think this is the expectation that is often reflected in our society. When I am able to ‘make sense’ of my feelings and look presentable, then I am I okay to be seen.
I delivered a message similar to the first therapist but added something important. I told this grieving mother, “There is nothing I can do for you to make this better. To make this go away. But I can be with you as you walk this path of grief. I will show up and see you just as you are. All of you can show up. The scared, sad, overwhelmed and messy parts can sit across from me and I will see you and hear you. You will not be alone. That is what I can do for you.” This client told me my initial words were helpful months into her grief. She wasn’t getting ‘better’. Different layers of grief were unfolding. She referenced these words several times to remind herself, “I am not suppose to fix this. I am not failing. There is nothing wrong with me. I am learning to find a way to live in a world that I can no longer hug my child. This is grieving”.
As we provide support to our loved ones, we cannot take the pain away but we can make it less scary if we hold space for them, allowing these feelings to come and go as they need. Trying to make sense, compare, minimize or find solutions controls and manages our feelings. There is no release. They don’t go away. They become recycled energy stuck in some internal compartment within ourselves, labeled something like “Time to get over it” “Move on” “Stop it” “What’s wrong with you” “It could be worse”.
When grieving, it’s never too soon to get support from a therapist, a friend, family members, clergy or other grievers. As long as those people understand you are not too much. Your grief isn’t too much. Your grief is normal and natural. Sadness’ purpose is to show us how much we love someone and how important someone/thing is to us. Sadness needs to share the story it holds. It does not want to live in one of those dingy compartments often set aside for feelings such as guilt, disappointment, anger, hopelessness, or pain.
I am not scared when someone shares their dark, hopeless thoughts. They are not crazy. There is nothing wrong with them. Their heart is broken and it needs love and understanding to sit with it. By inviting people to tell me these thoughts, they get the message, ‘I am here with you. You are not alone”. I see people take a breath and relax, when I explain these thoughts they hear is grief talking, not crazy. They unravel the story and judgment attached to their grief. These intrusive images you have about dying and death are symbols of your grief. We explore what these images might be telling us. They are very different than having a plan, intent or means of actively hurting yourself. The latter does require immediate attention and intervention but often, in grief, it is the former that people contain and keep secret, holding them in silence, shame and judgment. These thoughts are scary enough. Silencing them can be dangerous. Words help us understand and make meaning of an experience. Sharing these words creates the human connection our neurobiology tells us we need for survival.
Yes, some grievers seriously believe they are going crazy. And when they finally share how hard it is for them, they are told to come back when things are "less intense"or “Don’t think that way. That is crazy talk”, reinforcing the belief “something is seriously wrong with me” When they have a thought about how they want to die or how they see themselves dying, they can learn to recognize, acknowledge and become present with their grief. Many learn these thoughts about dying are really about wanting to stop the pain they feel, not about hurting themselves. We gain understanding and compassion by listening instead of reacting or avoiding. Grievers learn to notice these thoughts, identify them as grief and choose their reaction to them. Have you ever noticed a random, irrational thought and wonder; where did that come from? It happens. Can we change our thoughts? Not really. But our relationship to them? Yes, yes we can change that. Finding a more understanding and compassionate response rather than a judgmental or controlling one does impact and influence our thoughts. Here is a common shift communicated in session, after one’s grief is supported and witnessed: “What’s wrong with me” “I should stop thinking this way. This is crazy” “I should be more…” becomes “Of course, I am in pain. I hurt so much. I am grieving. These feelings are okay”. One of these thought processes creates an armored response riddled with tension and shame. The other creates spaciousness and openness. Guess which is which?
Grieving someone you love is hard enough. Arguably, the hardest thing anyone goes through in a lifetime. Adding suffering through isolating, judging, minimizing, comparing and silencing our losses is unnecessary and damaging.
Some common reactions to recent loss may include:
- Sleep and appetite changes
- Loss of concentration, focus and memory
- Irrational and intrusive thoughts and images
- Rollercoaster of emotions
- “Walking around in a fog”
Ways to create a safe space when someone shares their fears, worries or scary thoughts
- Can you tell me more about your pain? I want to hear how you are doing.
- Of course, you are scared. That makes sense. I am right here with you. Would you like to talk more about this?
- I hear you are worried about _______________. Worries are normal when you are dealing with so many unfamiliar experiences and changes. Of course, you are worried. Do you want to talk more about your biggest worry you have?
- Those are scary thoughts to have. I want you to know you are not alone. I hear you are scared.
When should I get help or refer my loved one for help?
Having thoughts about death and dying after your loved one dies is a natural response to a abnormal situation. Not everyone will have these thoughts. Again, every grief response is different. If your thoughts become scary please talk with someone. Don’t be alone. If you start making plans, have intent to harm yourself and have the means to do so, please seek help immediately. (National Suicide Prevention number 1-800-273-8255)
How to find a grief therapist?
Many therapists state they work with the grieving population because yes, they do. All day and every day, therapists sit across from people grieving. Grieving is in death. It is in the things we want that we don’t have. It is in our relationships and expectations for self and others. It is in saying good bye to our dreams. It is in our health changes. However, just because someone sees people grieving does not mean they have learned to sit with someone as they grieve. They may have some really good strategies to deal with grief so that it may be filed away in one of those compartments but how do they do when your grief shows up across from them? Things to consider:
- What is their training in grief? Have they had advanced training?
- What are their beliefs about grief? And how do they support someone grieving?
- What happens in session when your clients cry?
- What is your response when clients share heavy or hopeless thoughts in session?
- How much of their population is working in bereavement? Have they worked with others experiencing child, spousal etc loss?
“Grief is not a disease, disorder or a sign of weakness. It is a physical, emotional, and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.” Earl Grollman
No one can walk the path of grief for you but they can be with you. If you feel alone in your grief, please consider contacting someone in your support system. You can search Psychology Today for therapists in your area, who specialize in grief. You may also want to call your local hospice and see if they provide referrals. If you have a plan to hurt yourself and the intent to do so, please call the National Suicide Prevention number 1-800-273-8255.