Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Symptoms of Grief.

I've been co-facilitating another Grief group through the hospice organization I volunteer for. The participants of these groups are always so different in terms of age, and which of their loved ones died, and how. The thing that unites them, of course, is that they are grieving a loss. We have an even mix in the group of those who have lost a spouse and those who have lost a parent; however, all of them died after some sort of illness, and most of them were on hospice at time of death. I make this distinction because we have had people with sudden losses, accidental or otherwise, and it can make a difference in the grief, to a certain extent.

I've done these groups before, and I tell my husband a little bit about them in the six weeks they usually last. The other day, though, he asked me why people attend the group, which I thought was an interesting question. We don't talk much about grieving and loss in this country, which is to our detriment, I think. Unless they have done some research or reading or been exposed to grief before, most people don't know much about it, or what it looks like, or the course it can take. They can be confused at some of the things they think and feel after a loss. They can also be confused, and sometimes angry, at the response they get from other people, even those closest to them.

We don't teach people that there is no "normal" when it comes to grief. Pretty much everything that people feel is a part of grief. We don't tell people that grief can be a physical process. It can make you feel exhausted all the time, it can give you energy, it can make you cry a lot - or not, it can make you feel achy and sick, spacey and forgetful and disoriented. It can make driving difficult, or doing other tasks, or keeping a schedule - some people have said that they drive right past their houses, miss appointments, and forget how to do things they've done forever. Different people handle grief differently; some may find they get through the process quickly and get back to function, others take longer.

We talk about "ambiguous loss" and anticipatory grief, which essentially means that people have had at least a little time to prepare for the loss and start their grieving process. This can be helpful but it doesn't mean that they won't feel strongly when the actual death occurs. Loss can also bring out anger - at the loved one, at God, the family, doctors, or friends - and guilt at being the survivor, or because one feels they didn't do enough somehow. We also don't realize that our roles will change after a loss. We may lose roles we held, such as caregiver or spouse, and take on new ones, such as new head of family. We also may have to take on the tasks and specialties that the loved one did, since they are no longer there.

Unfortunately, we also don't teach people how to respond when someone they know suffers a loss, which leads to confusion and distress when the griever doesn't feel supported. People often don't know what to do, or how to help, so they disappear from the grievers life. Alternatively, they may be over-helpful, or bring up their own experiences with grief, or have too many suggestions on how the griever should be feeling or what they should do. People often feel uncomfortable witnessing grief and may want the griever to "be strong" or "get over it" - basically to be the person they used to be. I tell everyone who asks that the best thing you can do for a friend who is grieving is just to be there: be the voice on the end of the phone; sit quietly with them and listen to anything they have to say; make concrete offers of help and then follow up.

The more we talk about grief and loss, the better. Grief groups help people talk about their grief, their loved one, and their lives moving on. Groups help give people the tools to work with their grief, and all future losses. And, I realized as I answered my husband, learning about their own loss and what grief looks like, means they can spread the word and help the next person who suffers a loss. It feels good to be training unofficial grief counselors, who can help spread the word about grief and how to deal with it.


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