As a psychologist, I have had many occasions to help people who are dealing with the loss of a loved one, and of course like everyone else, I have had to deal with my own grief at times. I have learned a few “truths” about grief that I may be helpful.
First, I never try to help someone stop grieving. Grief is a healthy response to the experience of loss. In fact, grief is essential when dealing with the major losses of life. I tell people that trying to avoid, block or stuff grief is unhealthy. I warn them that the feelings will just come out later, in a less healthy form, like depression, anxiety or anger. I use the analogy that grief is a bit like plumbing. It works best if it’s not stopped up.
Second, there are two types of grief, simple and complicated. In simple grief, the person experiences a loss and grieves. The grief is normal and healthy, as noted above. In complicated grief, the loss is complicated in some way. It may be that the person had a negative or love-hate relationship with the deceased person. Feelings of loss accompanied by anger toward the deceased can definitely complicate the grief process. It may be that the grieving person feels there was some unfinished business that now can never be resolved. It can also be that the survivor somehow blames himself for the death of the loved one. In any case, these complicated feelings can complicate the grief process.
Simple grief gradually gets better over time, but the amount of time varies tremendously from person to person, with no proper time period. In simple grief, there are up-and-down days, but there is a gradual improvement. Complicated grief doesn’t improve over time, and sometimes even gets worse. Complicated grief has a greater tendency to lead to depression or anxiety symptoms. If your grief doesn’t seem to be improving, or seems to be getting worse, you may want to talk to a professional about it.
Finally, one’s reaction to grief is sometimes impacted by where the person focuses attention. Many times, we tend to focus our attention on the death or the experience of watching the illness progress to the point of death. We visualize the hospital scene or the dying moment. It is possible to think so much about the death, that we don’t think about the life. The visual images of our loved one in the hospital or dying can fill our minds. We can repeatedly experience those moments. In doing so, we can lose touch with the precious moments of the person’s life. We may have lived with the person for thirty years, and experienced their dying for three months, but tend to think about the three months to the exclusion of the thirty years.
So, it is healthy to let yourself grieve. If your grief is complicated by other factors, talk with someone to work that out. And finally, deliberately focus your memories on the life rather than the death. Be deliberate and persistent in the effort.
COMMENT: Please share your insights regarding healthy vs. unhealthy grief reactions.