We all know death is an inevitable part of life. However, merely understanding this inevitability in our heads does not reduce the pain in our hearts when death takes away our loved ones. Recovering from loss is a long, arduous journey, but most of us can heal through the passage of time and see light at the end of the tunnel.
Everyone expresses and experiences grief in different ways. Learn more about grief and bereavement on how you can cope with loss.
What are grief and bereavement?
Grief is a natural process to respond to loss. Apart from physical losses (i.e. death), grief may occur in response to symbolic or social losses such as divorce or a job loss. We express grief when we are overwhelmed by loss as well as accompanying emotions, such as emotional pain and sorrow.
Bereavement is the period following the death of a loved one, during which grief and mourning take place. The duration of bereavement depends on the circumstances of the loss and the level of attachment.
Grief and bereavement are different. Bereavement begins the moment an individual suffers a loss, whereas grief may not come immediately after the news is announced. The way we react to the news is an expression of grief, which can appear in the reactions of shock, anger and sobbing. Although the intensity of emotions may fade over time, there is no fixed schedule for how long we grieve; it can last from several weeks to years. Initially, people in grief may be unable to function at work and school and need to take bereavement leave. While returning to work or school does not necessarily mark the end of their grief, bereavement ceases when the first part of suffering ends.
Process of grief
Psychologists and psychiatrists often describe the process of grief in stages:
Stage 1 - Denial
Denial is the first stage and often the first reaction to the news of a loved one’s demise. It may start even before an expected loss actually occurs. In other times, it can begin immediately or shortly after the loss of a loved one. The emotional response generally involves fear, shock or numbness, which may last from a few hours to weeks, depending on the triggers that remind us of the deceased. In the denial stage, people may avoid talking about the loss or even communicating with others to shut themselves off emotionally from social situations. They may also question the results and find themselves falling into a psychological state of disbelief.
Stage 2 - Anger
In this stage, anger, loneliness or uncertainty will emerge to replace the earliest feelings or immediate emotional response. The stage may last from days to months. Anger, if well-controlled, can be used as a tool for people to energize themselves in the fight against a target, which subsequently prevents them from thrusting themselves into the unknown. Anger helps people gain some sense of control over their future even though ultimately they cannot control the loss. It surfaces as an outlet for them to vent and express dissatisfaction about the unfairness of life. They may express anger over any person, their religion, or indiscriminately towards the world. While anger can be the most heated stage of grief, it may come with agitation, fragility or intense crying as well. People may also hold on to thoughts and memories of the deceased.
Stage 3 - Bargaining
A grieving person may seek meaning for the loss of their loved ones. Typically, this stage is shorter than the rest, when the person may try different tactics to address the loss, such as telling their life story to others. This process enables them to reflect more deeply on the changes and impacts brought by the loss.
Stage 4 - Depression
Depression may ensue after realizing life changes, as one’s attention falls back into the present and grief takes over one’s lives on a greater level. People may find themselves feeling helpless and overwhelmed by the intense sadness and immense emptiness. They may express extreme distress and wish to withdraw from life, when grief surges in waves of despair.
Experiencing depression after a loss is normal, it is a crucial step for people to feel the full weight of loss, dig deep and get in touch with the deepest of their feelings in the healing process.
Stage 5 - Acceptance
Acceptance may look like saying to yourself: “It’s okay not to be okay.” It is not about denying or putting a stop to distress, emotions or trauma, but rather giving grief the time to heal. This stage marks a new beginning for people who come to terms with what has happened and what is happening after a period of time ranging from a few months to a year.
In this stage, people will set off for a new journey, reorganizing their life, exploring ways to accept the “unacceptables”, adjusting to daily life without their late family or friends. Over time, they understand that they must move on, grow, and live on.
Seeing the whole picture
While grief is often described in phases, it is not a linear healing process. In reality, individuals coping with loss may experience ebbs and flows in behavior and in mind, similar to a roller coaster ride. There will be moments where they regress or feel that things are stagnating or going wrong, making it hard to make any progress. They may feel better for a few moments before going back to feeling low.
Such complexity and extensiveness of the grieving process can be explained by the dual-process model of grieving, which addresses the swings of grief and acceptance in life by looking into the interaction between loss and restoration. A bereaved person shifts back and forth between feelings of loss and reestablishment of roles and activities associated with their loved one.
Grief can be different for different people: Some may not go through all the stages, some may move back and forth between phases, and others may even be trapped in a phase indefinitely. In fact, the cycle of grief works as a mechanism to process uncertainties and protect us when adapting to a new reality.
Grief can be a long, demanding journey but it is not never-ending. Several factors can affect the intensity and length of grieving. In particular, the relationship and attachment to the loved ones may impact the magnitude. Circumstances of the loss and one’s own life experiences may also affect the grieving process.
Although it is normal for people who are grieving to feel emotionally involved and attached to the deceased after years, they will eventually adapt to the emotional and life changes.
How to cope with grief?
We can relieve grief by creating a continuing bond with a lost family member or friend. Previously, the bereaved were encouraged to overcome losses by detaching themselves from their loved ones on an emotional level. Once freed from grief, they can reinvest their energy into daily functioning. However, those unable to do so may suffer from “pathological grief”, despite the passage of time. A new model proposed by American psychologists Klass, Silverman and Nickman brought grief to a new light by suggesting that healthy grievers are freed from grief upon creating a new form of relationship. The deceased does not disappear from our lives. Instead, we learn new ways to relate to them: The relationship endures through the future as we grow and evolve.
The continuing bond can be expressed through tangible means like a memorial, and intangible means as simple as a bittersweet thought of missing the deceased. While death marks the end of life, it does not entail the end of a relationship. There is no need to detach ourselves from our loved ones, throw away items related to them and forget the memories you once shared just because they are physically gone. Losing someone we love is agonizing, but it does not mean “the end of the world”.
Note that this continuing bond has to be healthy but not maladaptive. A maladaptive continuing bond is formed when we hold on to the wish to connect with the deceased physically, which in turn only intensifies our feelings of frustration and misery.
Healthy continuing bonds can be established through rituals, which aim to draw focus to our whole life by mining and refining significant memories. By routinely setting aside some time in remembrance for the deceased, our emotions can find a way out so that we can reorient ourselves to seeking meaning in life instead of dwelling on bottled emotions.
Rituals need not be sorrowful, nor necessarily be on a large scale. The ultimate goal of rituals is to effectively express our emotions for our loved ones and reestablish the continuing bond with them. Rituals can take any form you prefer, be it literature, music or video, etc.
Through expressing emotions for our loved ones who have passed away, the emotional connections are perpetuated. Bereavement does not always equate to letting go and saying “goodbye”, more often than not it means holding on.
You don’t have to go through the process of grief and bereavement alone, reach out to the professional services below for support and guidance:
Tel: 2361 6606
Email: [email protected]
Facebook: The Comfort Care Concern Group
Tel: 2331 7000
Email: [email protected]
Tel: 9688 7658
Email: [email protected]
Facebook: Heart-to-Heart Life Education Foundation
If you need immediate support, please do not hesitate to reach out for professional help. Below is a list of hotlines with 24-hour support:
Hotline: 2896 0000
Available languages: English, Cantonese, Mandarin
Hotline: 2382 0000
Available language: Cantonese
Hotline: 2389 2222
Available language: Cantonese
Bereavement is the period after a loss during which grief and mourning occur. The duration of bereavement depends on the circumstances of the loss and the level of attachment to the lost person.
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This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and is not sponsored. It is informative only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be relied upon for specific medical advice.