Managing Grief: The roller coaster ride

May 2, 2012

Recently I watched SBS’s Insight program “Good Grief” and was inspired to reflect on some of the themes discussed in this thought provoking program. For those of you who haven’t seen it, have a look at this preview showing one of the interviews with a community member.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkKzJ6BHjRg&feature=relmfu[/youtube]

 

It was an insightful discussion providing insight into the similarities and differences between people’s experience of grief and how they manage it. Cultural differences, expert opinions on treatment and the challenges of different types of losses were all discussed. It was great to see the topic discussed openly as it is a topic that still has a stigma attached; one that does not help educate people on the process of grief. It was also great to see people sharing their experiences, coping mechanisms, cultural traditions and debating whether it should be pathologised as a disorder or treated as a normal process. There was much food for thought!

Grief is certainly one of those universal human experiences that affect all of us across the world. From personal and professional experience, I can honestly say that losing someone close is one of the most challenging life events, whether it be sudden or after a long illness. Grief often brings a new feeling of emptiness and an intensity of distress that has a quality like nothing else. It challenges us to reflect on our relationships, on what we stand for in this life and our own mortality. It challenges us to face the need to accept what is out of our control, to face discomfort and pain, to face the uncertainty of the future. It challenges us to face our faults and the faults of others , to grieve honestly by giving ourselves permission to be angry as well as sad, to be disappointed as well as proud of the person, to be relieved sometimes as well as distressed. It challenges us to grieve multiple losses – for all the roles and functions that person played in our life, good and bad.

Our main task is to accept the reality of the loss, face the feelings that come with the process and then adapt to a life without the person. These are not easy tasks by any means. If they were, as psychologists we would never see any one with these issues, but every day we hear stories of grief and loss and do our best to guide people through this roller coaster of emotions. I often say to people – strap yourself in as this is going to be a rocky ride with twists and turns that are unexpected. Prepare yourself for the challenge of an entirely new full time job on top of the one you already have. Make room for the feelings as they will be intense, but know that you have someone who can bear witness to whatever you need to express or explore, no matter how challenging.

Over 15 years of clinical practice as a psychologist, I have had the privilege of counselling many people facing loss and grief. It is indeed a privilege to listen as someone shares their experience of loss, and I have heard many stories. There have been moments where sitting with that distress and pain has been immensely challenging and distressing, as the feeling in the room is palpable, but it challenges us to model the skill of being fully present in the face of immense pain.

Our job as therapists is to provide a safe space to allow you to express what is sometimes hard to share with others in your social world, as a means of breaking down the sense of isolation that occurs when someone dies. Too often people are frightened to speak about grief, too scared to cry for fear of falling apart or upsetting others and often feel frustrated by other’s reaction to their grief. When others say things like “He had a good life” or “It will get easier”, or “You will get over it”, we know they mean well, but we also know they just don’t get it. No one who has been through grief generally responds that way for they share an understanding that can provide comfort to those who are going through it for the first time.

On reflection, I recall the intense feeling of my world stopping still when I lost my grandmother at 20. Everyone else seemed to be carrying on as if nothing had changed. But it had changed to me, and it would never be quite the same again. No one prepared me for those feelings and for what it would mean for my world then and in the future, but like everyone else who gets grief thrown at them, our experience teaches us very quickly and we learn with each loss more about ourselves and our coping mechanisms.

The loss of someone you love often marks an important turning point in your life – a marker that may bring different changes for different people. Your response to it makes all the difference as to how you adapt. Some people get stuck as they struggle to meet the first task of grief, to accept the loss while others move through the tasks successfully and over a long period of time grow to adapt and are able to talk about the person, honour their memory and keep their spirit alive in their daily interactions.

Others reflect on their values and realise that it is not worth sweating over the small stuff. Sometimes this larger perspective lasts for weeks or months, in other cases people make big life changing decisions in order to live more in the moment and enjoy each day as best they can.

Everyone’s experience of grief is different, but talking to a psychologist may provide an anchor in a stormy sea where everything seems rocky and unpredictable. If you are struggling to adapt to the grief of someone close to you, seek support from friends and family, your GP or consider making an appointment with a psychologist. We are here to make what is a challenging process that bit smoother. We can’t take away the pain, but we can help you understand what is normal, what you can do to move through the process effectively and adapt. We can teach you strategies that will allow you to cope more effectively and manage daily activities more easily. Most of all we can provide that safe space for you to express your grief honestly and openly without fear of burdening others or being judged.

Remember, look after yourself and take the time to grieve. Find your own way forward with support. Feel free to leave comments or questions if you choose. We always appreciate feedback.

Alex Frost


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