Grief is a part of the human experience none of us can escape. When it comes it can feel like the world has been pulled from under us and we may never experience joy or normalcy again. Knowing this experience is universal doesn’t prevent us from feeling utterly alone. As the shock subsides and the intense rollercoaster of emotions set in, you may wonder if grief counselling will help.
The Hard Work of Grief
At first you may feel nothing. The body often protects us from the shock of a big loss with an emotional anesthetic that can last days or weeks. In this place you are able to make plans and go about daily activities with relative ease. You may wonder why you feel as okay as you do. The reality is that your mind and emotions haven’t yet been able to process the magnitude of your loss.
As the anesthetic wears off and the enormity of the loss sets in, the hard work of grief begins. Sadly, this is also the time when you are likely have to go back to work. In a society that expects us to compartmentalize and deal with our grief both privately and quickly, bereavement leave is either non existent or severely lacking.
It is hard to know how your particular grief journey will unfold as grief is experienced differently by everyone. Typical questions may include, ”How long will my grief last?” and, ”Is what I’m feeling normal?” The truth is, your grief will change over the months and years but it may never actually leave you. So much depends on the circumstances of the loss and how close you were to that individual. How you process the loss also depends on your comfort level with painful emotions. Those who allow themselves to ”feel” their grief will move through it more quickly than those who bury it.
The Myth of the 5 Stages
The five stages of grief are often referred to when someone loses a loved one. Google anything about the grief journey and you will likely be told that you will experience five stages in consecutive order: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
The five stages of grief were developed by grief expert Elizabeth Kubler Ross, an American psychiatrist who studied and worked with people who were dying. In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Kubler Ross proposed that people go through five stages when faced with their own mortality. At the time, these stages gave language to what dying people were experiencing. However, over the years Kubler-Ross’ theory has been taken out of context and adapted for any person going through grief, which was never her intention. Many people experiencing grief will go through any or all of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, these cannot be broken down into linear stages and we cannot say that all people will experience each “stage.”
Grief counselling is less about making the grief better or taking the pain away and more about accompanying you on the grief journey. Because the reality is that the pain can’t been taken away. However, what many people find is that their community is there for them for about three months and then they stop checking in. This can be when the hard work of the grief journey really sets in because there is no longer a support system to lean on. At this point, your counsellor may be the only person you feel you can really talk to about the loss.
If you are experiencing any of the following you may find grief counselling helpful:
- You have no one to talk to about your feelings and feel generally unsupported
- You don’t want to ”burden” your loved ones with your grief
- You feel extremely depressed and are struggling to get through daily activities
- You are having suicidal thoughts
- You blame yourself in some way for the loss
- You feel numb to the loss several months or years later
- You are using substances or addictive behaviours to deal with your pain
- You believe you have no identity without your loved one
- You are not adjusting to life without your loved one several years later
- The circumstances of the loss were traumatic and difficult to process
If none of the above apply, you are likely going through the normal expressions of grief and need to be patient with yourself.
One of the best writers I have found on the topic of grief is Megan Devine. Devine approaches grief with the accuracy of someone who has so obviously endured great loss in her life. She also discusses society’s approach to grief and how it sorely misses the mark. Read her book ”It’s Okay that You’re Not Okay” and buy her guided journal “How to Carry What Can’t be fixed.”
Some additional helpful resources include the following:
- Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief, by Joanne Cacciatore.
- The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses by John W. James and Russell Friedman.
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion