How do we identify the process of grief? What is it and when do we experience it?
Most of us, over the pandemic, have experienced grief around our lives, jobs or people that we lost. When we lose something…when something or more importantly, someone, is taken from us, we experience a myriad of emotions. This emotional process is called grief.
And these emotions can take time to process.
While we understand that grief is natural and normal, it’s a mess of emotions that can be difficult to navigate amidst the pain that’s inevitably present.
The stages of grief.
Whether a loss occurs suddenly or with some advanced notice, it’s possible to experience shock. You feel emotionally numb and may deny the loss.
In the first stage of the grieving process, denial helps us minimize the overwhelming pain of loss. As we process the reality of our loss, we are also trying to survive emotional pain. It can be hard to believe we have lost an important person in our lives, especially if we have seen them recently. In this way, there may be varying degrees of shock involved in this stage.
During this stage in grieving, our reality has shifted completely. It can take our minds time to adjust to our new reality. We reflect on the experiences we’ve shared with the person we lost, and we might find ourselves wondering how to move forward in life without this person.
This is a lot of information to explore and a lot of painful imagery to process. Denial attempts to slow this process down and take us through it one step at a time, rather than risk the potential of feeling overwhelmed by our emotions.
Denial is not only an attempt to pretend the loss doesn’t exist, but we are also trying to absorb and understand what is happening.
- If you’re facing the death of a loved one, you might find yourself fantasizing someone will call to say there’s been a mistake and nothing really happened.
- If you’re dealing with a breakup, you might convince yourself your partner will soon regret leaving and come back to you.
- If you lost your job, you might feel your former boss will offer you the position back after they realize they’ve made a mistake.
At some point, you could feel like nothing matters to you anymore. Life as you once knew it has changed. It might be difficult to feel you can move on.
Denial is a temporary response that carries you through the first wave of pain. Eventually, when you’re ready, the feelings and emotions you have denied will resurface, and your healing journey will continue.
While not always present, anger can be a difficult phase of the grieving process. You may lash out at people you love or become angry with yourself. Or you might try to “strike a bargain” with a higher power, asking that the loss be taken away in exchange for something on your part.
We are trying to adjust to a new reality and are likely experiencing extreme emotional discomfort. There is so much to process that anger may feel like it allows us an emotional outlet.
Keep in mind that anger does not require us to be very vulnerable, and in this way may be a protection mechanism. However, it may feel more socially acceptable than admitting we are scared because anger allows us to express emotion with less fear of judgment.
Anger also tends to be the first thing we feel when starting to release emotions related to loss. This can leave us feeling isolated in our experience. It can also cause us to be perceived as unapproachable by others in moments when we could benefit from comfort, connection, and reassurance.
You could feel suddenly angry at inanimate objects, strangers, friends or family members, or simply feel angry at life itself. You might start asking questions like “Why me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?”.
When coping with loss, it isn’t unusual to feel so desperate that you are willing to do anything to alleviate or minimize the pain. During this stage in grieving, you may try to bargain to change the situation, agreeing to do something in return for being relieved of the pain you feel.
During this internal negotiation, you could find yourself thinking in terms of “what if” or “if only”: what if I did XYZ, then everything will go back to normal; if only I had done something differently to prevent the loss.
When bargaining starts to take place, we often direct our requests to a higher power, or something bigger than us that may be able to influence a different outcome. Bargaining during the grieving process can come in the form of a variety of promises, including:
- “God, if you can heal this person, I will turn my life around.”
- “I promise to be better if you will let this person live.”
- “I’ll never get angry again if you can stop him/her from dying or leaving me.”
There is an acute awareness of our humanness in this stage of grieving; when we realize that there is nothing we can do to influence change or create a better end result.
Bargaining comes from a feeling of helplessness and gives us a perceived sense of control over something that feels so out of control. During bargaining, we tend to focus on our personal faults or regrets. We might look back at our interactions with the person we are losing and note all the times we felt disconnected or may have caused them pain.
In this way, guilt might be an accompanying emotion during this stage as you inadvertently might be trying to regain some control, even if at your own expense.
It is common to recall times when we may have said things we did not mean and wish we could go back and behave differently. We also sometimes make the drastic assumption that if things had played out differently, we would not be in such an emotionally painful place in our lives.
As you reflect on your loss, you may start to feel depressed or lonely. It is in this stage in grieving that you begin to truly realize the reality of your loss.
During our experience of processing grief, there comes a time when our imaginations calm down and we slowly start to look at the reality of our present situation. Bargaining no longer feels like an option and we are faced with what is happening.
In this stage of grieving, we start to feel the loss of our loved one more abundantly. Our panic begins to subside, the emotional fog begins to clear, and the loss feels more present and unavoidable.
In those moments, we tend to pull inward as the sadness grows. We might find ourselves retreating, being less sociable, and reaching out less to others about what we are going through. Although this is a very natural stage in the grieving process, dealing with depression after the loss of a loved one can be extremely isolating.
This intense sadness could cause you to feel different in other aspects too. You could feel:
- confused and distracted
- not wanting to move on
- not hungry or wanting to eat
- not able or willing to get ready in the morning
- not able to enjoy what you once did
In this final stage of the grieving process, you begin to accept the loss and feel hope for what tomorrow might bring. It’s not that all your other feelings are gone, just more so that you’ve accepted them and are ready to move on.
When we come to a place of acceptance, it is not that we no longer feel the pain of loss. Instead, we are no longer resisting the reality of our situation, and we are not struggling to make it something different.
Sadness and regret can still be present in this phase. But the emotional survival tactics of denial, bargaining, and anger are less likely to be present during this phase of the grieving process.
Common misconceptions about grieving
Because everyone mourns differently and for different reasons, sometimes you might feel your own grieving process isn’t going “according to the norm.”
But remember, there’s no such thing as a right or wrong way of coping with a loss.
These might be some of the thoughts that could cross your mind when looking at your own or someone else’s way of grieving.
1. ‘I am doing it wrong’
One of the most common misconceptions about grieving is that everyone goes through it in the same way. However, when it comes to healing from a loss, there’s no correct way of doing it. You might find it useful to remind yourself there’s no “I should be feeling this way.”
Grieving isn’t about going over or following a set list of steps. It’s a unique and multidimensional healing journey.
2. ‘I should be feeling…’
Not everyone experiences all the above-mentioned stages or even goes through these emotions the same way. For example, maybe the depression stage feels more like irritability than sadness for you. And denial could be more of a sense of shock and disbelief than an actual expectation that something out of the blue will fix the loss.
The emotions used to contextualize the stages of grief aren’t the only ones you’ll experience. You might not even experience them at all, and that’s natural too. This is no indication that your healing journey is faulty in some way. Your healing experience is unique to you and valid nonetheless.
3. ‘This goes first’
Remember, there’s no specific or linear order for the stages of grief. You could move along the stages one by one, or you could go back and forth. Some days you might feel very sad, and the very next day you could wake up feeling hopeful. Then you could go back to feeling sad. Some days you might even feel both!
In the same way, denial isn’t necessarily the first emotion you’ll experience. Maybe your first emotional reaction is anger or depression.
This is natural and part of the healing process.
4. ‘It’s taking too long’
Coping with a loss is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience. Many factors affect how long it takes.
Some people navigate through grief in a few days. Others take months or longer to process their loss.
You might find it useful to not set any deadlines to your process.
In grief, you’ll experience some of these emotions in waves of intensity. In time, you’ll notice this intensity decrease.
If you feel your emotions stay or increase in intensity and frequency, this might be a good time to seek professional support.
5. ‘I’m depressed’
Going through the stages of grief, particularly the depression stage, isn’t equivalent to clinical depression. There’s a distinction between having clinical depression and grieving.
This means that even though some symptoms might be similar, there are still key differences between both.
For example, in grief, the intense sadness will lessen in intensity and frequency as time goes by. You might even experience this sadness at the same time you find temporary relief in happy memories from times before the loss.
In clinical depression, on the other hand, without the proper treatment, your mood would stay negative or worsen with time. It would likely affect your self-esteem. You may rarely experience feelings of pleasure or happiness.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t a possibility you could develop clinical depression during the grieving process. If your emotions progressively increase in intensity and frequency, reach out for support.
6. ‘I need to shake this off and get back to normal’
Often we start to ridicule ourselves for taking too long or being entrenched in the grief process. There’s a sense of ‘get on with things already’.
However the stages of grief are individual and depend largely on the circumstances of the experience.
Give yourself time to heal. Fully processing those emotions will serve you well in moving through the stages of grief to a new understanding and acceptance.
7. ‘This isn’t a big deal – why am I so sad?’
Grief is not a competition.
You don’t have to prove your loss to anyone.
You also don’t have to perform grief in a certain way. Your grief is personal to you so you get to direct what that process looks like. Some types of loss are harder for others to understand because they have no similar frame of reference. But that is irrelevant. You don’t have anything to prove. Your grief is your own.
What can I do to help myself through this process?
- Sit with uncomfortable emotions. Don’t allow yourself to numb out with work, substance or another distraction. See this for what it is and be ok with being uncomfortable with the feelings that are washing over you. Allow yourself the space to grieve properly.
- Journal. Log your feelings and emotions around the situation. Allow yourself this safe space to write down all that you don’t want to say. Allowing your thoughts to rest within the pages of your journal will free your mind and move you more quickly towards healing.
- Reach out. Allowing yourself time is necessary, however knowing when to reach out for help is mandatory. Support from a friend, family member or professional can make all the difference.
When it comes to grieving the process is individual and effected by many factors. Any loss is significant, so allow yourself to move through this process and heal. If you are trying to help someone else through their grief, it’s important to just be present and listen.
If you or someone you know would like support through this process, please reach out here or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katrina Murphy is a Professional Intuitive Mindset and Confidence Coach in Ontario, Canada, serving clients across Canada and internationally. Katrina helps professionals to change the relationship that they have with themselves so they can reconnect both in their relationships and at work. She’s been featured in various publications and is the creator of the Power-Passion-Purpose Framework.