Death is a universal truth – the inevitable end of any biological form. Grief, or the process of grieving, serves as a recovery path for an individual or survivor to come to terms with their loss. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
While death of a loved one evokes the strongest of grief reactions, abstract losses — including relationship breakups or loss of employment — can also result in grief.
The severity of grief is determined by the individual or survivor’s strength of attachment with what or who they are losing, and its perceived importance to them. It can also depend on how the loss happened, and whether it was sudden or unexpected or drawn out.
What are the other factors that influence how the grieving process unfolds? Human nature, individual personalities, cultural expectations, norms or values, religious beliefs and social circumstances. And like our personalities, the grieving process is a very individual one. That means it can’t be generalized for a community or society.
Commonly experienced emotions following a loss are feeling stunned or emotionally numb. This can be followed by feelings of yearning or agitation or even feelings of survival guilt. During this phase an individual can also experience symptoms of depression. They may become socially withdrawn, burst into tears for no apparent reason, experience sleep difficulties or problems with their attention and concentration.
However, these symptoms gradually improve with time. Eventually, each individual reaches a stage of “letting go,” which is the final phase of grieving. This helps them start their new life.
How to help a grieving friend or family member
There are various cultural and religious rituals that play an important role in the healing process. While crying is a normal part of grieving, lack of crying can also be considered a normal or resilient response. Support from family and friends helps the recovery process. This allows an individual to share their feelings of distress or emotional pain. A person who is grieving may repeat their stories again and again, but this too is part of the recovering process and can be encouraged. Special occasions, such as a festive season, and anniversaries, can be a particularly difficult time for someone immersed in grief. Support and acknowledgement from family and friends can make this time less stressful. Sometimes, practical help from others can help reduce the burden of day-to-day living and help them cope better with the demands of daily life.
When to seek professional help for grief
The duration of grieving can be variable, and each grieving individual should be allowed enough time to recover from his or her loss. Most individuals recover well through the process of grieving within a year or two. However, in some cases, the recovery can be prolonged. This is particularly true in individuals who are unable to grieve properly for interpersonal or social reasons. Perhaps they had family responsibilities and had to get on with life, or they were working at a physical distance away, which is the case for many professionals of the present era.
Unresolved grief can result in repeated episodes of depression or chronic symptoms of grief – occurring years after their loss. Others who are not able to grieve – or don’t allow themselves to – may develop maladaptive ways of coping with their loss, developing alcohol or substance misuse. These complications can significantly impact day-to-day interpersonal as well as professional functioning.
At this point, professional help can prove beneficial for these individuals. They can learn how to manage their mental health needs, either through medication, psychological therapy, or both, to move through and conclude the necessary grieving process.
Featured photo: Shuttersplash.
Dr Neeraj Kabra is a consultant psychiatrist at Maudsley Health, Abu Dhabi. He received his postgraduate degree from Grand Medical Collect, University of Mumbai, completing general and specialist training at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust in London.