By Carrie Kerwick
Four years ago, I lost my husband of 18 years to suicide. It was tragic and unexpected and left our family shattered. Losing him came with a pain that I thought would never go away (and it never really does). I wondered if I would ever be able to survive it. As time passed, I questioned how I and those around me were handling the grief.
I’m not a counselor or an expert on grief except for my own personal experience and I decided the best way to help myself was to study and learn from those who were.
Here are some of the things I learned: Grief is an extension of love – so long as you love, you will also grieve. We are predisposed to form loving bonds- like those with our spouse/partner, our families, friends, and even our pets. It’s part of our nature. There is a chemistry in love, a chemical bonding influenced by hormones like dopamine and oxytocin which are known as the “feel good” or “love” hormones. The brain encodes these bonds and it becomes “wired” for the relationship, creating a “we” – helping to build a life of shared experiences.
It requires time for our brains to accept and reconcile the bond that is broken by a significant loss whether it was expected or not.
Grief is the deep sorrow experienced after such a loss. Grief can also be a result of other significant losses like divorce, miscarriage, a job, etc.
There are different types and intensities of grief. Typical grief reactions include psychological and somatic, or physical, responses. These can manifest as a range of feelings including sadness, despair, anxiety, guilt, anger, shock, yearning, and numbness. Grief can also lead to loss of appetite, insomnia, difficulty in concentrating, loss of interest in favorite activities, and even physical illness. These types of reactions usually lessen in a few months to a year as the loss is integrated into a new life of resiliency built around the loss of a loved one or relationship.
Complicated grief, also known as prolonged grief disorder, can last much longer and manifest in more intense psychological and somatic responses.
Symptoms of complicated grief can include a strong yearning for and preoccupation with the object of the loss, most especially a loved one, and a fear of moving on with one’s life. Symptoms can reflect those of major depressive disorder like hopelessness, intense despair, lack of interest in everyday activities, lack of energy and appetite, difficulty concentrating, and even suicidality. Physically, complicated grief can manifest in many ways including headaches, chest pains or tightness, upset stomach, numbness, fatigue, tension, and illness. It can lead to serious physical conditions like a heart attack- or a condition known as “Takosubo cardiomyopathy”, or broken heart syndrome. Complicated grief is usually associated with those who experience the loss of a loved one (or loved ones) in an out-of-order death like the loss of a child, an unexpected or violent death, or suicide. People who think they may be suffering from complicated grief should be evaluated by a clinical psychologist so they can receive the proper grief support.
Contrary to popular cultural belief, grief is not linear and cannot be confined to Kubler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief”– denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model of grief was based on a compilation of conversations with terminally ill patients as they came to terms with their own end of life rather than the loss experienced by those left behind. This formula was known to engender a “just move on” approach to loss and it was believed by many to be an effective way to deal with grief.
In the years following my husband’s death, I thought I was “doing grief wrong” because I didn’t follow the Five Stages of Grief model. I can’t tell you how many times I was told I should feel angry about my husband’s death, and I began to feel inadequate and isolated. Many well-intentioned people would tell me to “remember the good times” and “at least you had 20 years together” or they try to ascribe some meaning or positivity to my loss, “Everything happens for a reason.” What was intended to comfort me instead felt like an admonishment for grieving my husband and the life we had and a subtle judgment for who I was before my loss- as if I somehow needed this loss to be a better person or to appreciate life. I was admired for being so strong and yet at the same time I had feelings of suicidality. At night, before going to bed, I prayed that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning because it would be the easiest way to escape the pain. It seemed to me that no one really listened or heard me – that they could not reflect the reality of my loss back at me nor could they bear to be witness to my pain.
I suffered from complicated grief for about 2 years after the loss of my husband. I experienced many of the associated symptoms including broken heart syndrome. It sent me to the hospital twice thinking I may have been having a heart attack.
Over the past four years, I realized some things for myself: Time may soften but it doesn’t heal. Grief is visceral- it’s raw and enervating and awful. It cannot be overcome – it’s carried. Grief is something I learned to integrate into a new life; one where pain and beauty can coexist. It’s okay to not be okay all the time. Self-care is imperative and must be practiced daily. For me, self-care is journaling, exercising, and hiking. I have learned that as I shut out the noise of the world around me through this journey and stop trying to control it, I discovered how resilient I am.
Loss and grief are profoundly personal and there is no right way to do it and no panacea that fits every circumstance or reaction. Grieving is a natural process that needs to be allowed to run its natural course.
There are many different influences in the grieving process– both positive and negative.
Positive influences in the grieving process can include culture, religion, and spirituality. We have beliefs in the meaning of death and what comes after death. We have traditions and rituals that can provide ways to process grief and for people to know how to support the bereaved. These influences can provide a sense of “balance” in a world that now seems off-kilter.
Negative influences can be especially psychologically damaging and may prolong the acute grieving experience. Grief can be treated as an aberration – a problem to solve. Some well-intentioned people, including close friends and family and even a doctor, may respond poorly and attempt to cheer up or medicate the bereaved focusing on letting go of bad feelings and moving on rather than letting the process take its course naturally.
How to Help a Grieving Friend
If you’re not sure how to support a grieving friend, you’re not alone! I can only tell you how I felt about the “help” I received; and although I was appreciative of the intentions, the messages were so often irritating, intrusive, and unhelpful. So may I offer a few tips from my personal perspective:
- Follow their lead- it’s their journey and you are only there as a support.
- Giving unsolicited advice on how to grieve is NOT helpful. Just because it worked for you, doesn’t mean it’ll work for another. Grief is an individual and personal experience.
- Don’t try to cheer them up. It’s OKAY to be sad!
- Stay in the present moment in conversations. Let the griever take the lead on talking about the future when they are ready.
- Compliments like “You are so strong” are not helpful. To the griever, it may feel like admonishment for feeling bad or not showing how badly they are really feeling.
- Grief isn’t a competition. This isn’t the “Me Too” Olympics. This time of grieving is about them, not you.
- Don’t say “I understand how you are feeling.” You don’t. Every loss and every griever’s journey is personal.
- Anticipate basic needs and follow through. Don’t say “Call me if you need anything.” They won’t! At times, it may be beyond their capacity to remember to eat breakfast or brush their teeth- let alone reach out and ask for something. Instead, make an offer to do something specific like pick up their children from school, walk their dog, mow their lawn, or run an errand.
- Reflect their reality back to them. If they say, “This really sucks,” you can say, “Yes, it really does.”
- Ask questions. As a friend and support, it’s okay to be curious about their experience. Respect them if they don’t feel like sharing.
- Be present and listen. The support provided just by listening helps create a foundation for healing.
- Show love.
Please visit our podcast episode Navigating Through Grief with life coach, author, and fellow podcaster, Troia Butcher. Here, she discusses the inspiration behind her incredible book SoulTies: Letters of Love and reveals her own struggles with PTSD and grief, and offers advice on navigating the loss of a close friend, family member, or pet.