Society

July 14 2016

Understanding grief

Chris Hall MAPS
By Chief Executive Officer, Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement

The experience of grief is very individual, and while death may end a life, it doesn't end a relationship.

For too long, we have suffered from a narrow definition of grief. We’ve viewed grief largely as the human response to death but grief is really the human response to change.

It’s a multifaceted response that involves our emotional life, our cognitions – the way we think about ourselves, the world and our relationships, as well as the impact of grief on our bodies, our relationships, our spirituality and even our broader frameworks of meaning.

It may be a change that is unwelcome, an adverse life event such as a loved one’s death or a floundering relationship. It may even be a welcome change, such as adjusting to a new work culture or moving to a new location.

Change is a fundamental part of life. It plays a central role in the work of psychologists, as we help our clients adjust to change or transition.

Theories about grief

People often refer to Kübler-Ross’ 1969 model of grief which suggests that people passively go through five emotional stages – from denial through to anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance. While this cookie-cutter model brings a sense of order to a complex process, it has been widely rejected for failing to reflect people’s own unique experience of grief.

Freud’s initial work suggested that the task for bereaved people was to say goodbye and let go – a process of breaking emotional bonds.

We now acknowledge that grief is different for everyone. Bereaved people do not tend to break emotional bonds, instead they continue these bonds with the deceased. We know that death ends a life but it doesn’t end a relationship.

Keeping the connection

Much of psychology’s work is in how people can maintain, in an adaptive way, a connection to the deceased and their relationship, while not preventing them from living fully in the world.

We move from a relationship of physical presence to a relationship of memory. This continuing bond can manifest in a variety of ways. It may be that the person has relocated their loved one to heaven and their heart or that they remember the person on their birthday and light a candle.

It may be that they keep that relationship alive through raising research funds, a foundation in their memory, or even pursue a change to legislation.

Most importantly, it can be a creative and dynamic connection. Just as our relationships in life can be complicated, so can our relationships with the deceased.

The therapeutic task is no longer about getting the person to say goodbye, it’s about developing a new relationship with the deceased. In a sense, the deceased still populates our head and our heart. They can still speak to us and we can still listen to them.

The grieving process

Grief has been described as the price we pay for love.

We know that in bereavement, grief will often come in waves. People can waver between the intensity and the pain of grief and finding times where they find comfort in activities that might distract or provide some avoidance of the loss.

We all have different ways of grieving. For some people, their grief is very private while for many, it’s instrumental – they grieve through action. People need to find a safe place where they can let the grief in while finding a home for grief in their world.

Grief is a process that can potentially last a lifetime. For the child who loses a parent in their early life, they will re-grieve this loss as they are able to think about the world in more complex ways or as they miss that parent at later stages in their life.

Grief is not about arriving at a point of closure, where all business is done and dusted. In many ways, it is a loss that will be revisited throughout life.

Historically, we have tended to pathologise people’s response to loss. We believed that if they hadn’t let go or said goodbye, that in some way their grief was compromised. We now recognise that grief is an experience that most people will respond to with resiliency.

We know about seven per cent of bereaved people will develop complications in their bereavement experience that will benefit from professional engagement. These are often, but not always, people who have a particular way of relating in the world that makes change difficult for them and people who experience deaths that are sudden, unexpected or traumatic.

While grief will always remain with us, we expect that around the six-month mark that people will begin to feel that they are able to manage their way in the world more effectively. If they are still significantly struggling, we may advise them to seek additional support.

How others can help

The silence or inaction of others following a bereavement can add to people’s experience of grief. It’s important that people surrounding the bereaved person be courageous and proactive.

Recognise that there are no best words or best actions. However, it’s imperative we don’t give the bereaved person our own meaning in the death. Be cautious about saying things like – ‘look on the good times’ or ‘they’re with God now’.

Support may come in the form of a written note or an opportunity for social engagement. Offers of assistance can help, as for many bereaved people a significant stressor are the day to day demands of living, particularly after the death of a partner.

Coping with grief

It’s imperative that people take good care of themselves physically and get plenty of rest. Seek out those things or activities that provide you with some degree of comfort or relief. These could be activities such as walking, yoga or meditation.

Many people want to read information about other people who’ve had similar experiences of loss. They might access online information, books or films about grief. They may consider joining a support group and meeting with other people who’ve had a similar experience or simply find company in supportive friends.

People grieve in the way that they tend to live their lives. Some people will find that returning to work or being occupied in activities is beneficial.

For many people, it’s about finding some kind of meaning in the loss, perhaps reflecting on those questions of why and how, and thinking about how this person has changed their life.

Ultimately, change is part of the world in which we live. Coping with grief is not about getting back to normal. It’s often about creating a brand new normal – a new life, in the wake of that event.

Disclosure statement: Christopher Hall does not receive remuneration from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. Christopher is a member of the Australian Psychological Society (APS).