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Peter Griffiths Columns Print This Page
Grief Can Be Meaningful

Daily Herald September 8, 1978

Grief cannot be avoided. We all face losses in our lives, the loss of people who have been very meaningful to us.

To be in acute grief is like being a fish tossed out of the water onto land. It is in a foreign environment. It struggles and gasps as it tries to survive. People must work through the grief of those losses to back into the regular stream of life again, and at times it is also a time of struggling and gasping.

If you understand what grief is and how to work through it, it can help you to assist your friends and loved ones when they are grieving. It can also help you when you are grieving.

Grief is experienced in different ways at different times of your adjustment.

The first reaction to loss is usually shock, which may last from a few hours to several days. A grieving person may seem stunned, as if in a trance. This shock phase is a temporary escape from reality. The person can't face so much at once. Friends can help by merely being with a person. The person may be almost paralyzed and able to do very little. It is important not to do things, that the grieving person can still do for themselves. Keeping a person busy with the simple tasks that need to be done around them helps them to come out of this shock. Be there with them as a friend, but don't take over.

The second reaction is in the release of emotions of pain and anguish. Yet some people, particularly men, feel they shouldn't show emotions. Don't try to shut down a grieving person's emotions. They may be embarrassed by them. Assure them they need not apologize for showing emotions. It is normal. It is healthy. People who don't let their emotions out, but bury them deep within themselves, often have much more difficulty with them, even years later.

The third reaction, or level of adjustment, is that of depression and a deep feeling of loneliness. Sadness and unhappiness is normal in grief. Most people go through some depression, when they can't concentrate, their thoughts and actions slow down and they have difficulty in handling life's challenges.

You help best, again, by being available, and by showing your concern. Don't tell the grieving person to cheer up. Show them you realize and accept their being depressed, and that it is part of the work of grieving. Grieving is work. Some may have to be done alone. But much can be done with the support and assistance of friends and family. If the depression becomes severe, or lasts too long, encourage the person to see their doctor. They may need some brief professional help. Another phase people commonly experience is panic. They may worry they are cracking up or losing their minds. They may become pre-occupied with their loss, to the exclusion of everything else in their life. Help them focus on their daily responsibilities. If possible, involve them with people.

Meeting new people or doing new things, in time, will fill the gap created by their loss. But lead the person into activities, don't push them.

Guilt is another emotion experienced in grief. "Why didn't I......?, or "If I had only......" may haunt a person in unhealthy ways for years. Encourage a person to talk about any guilt feelings they have. Help them to become objective and realistic and about these feelings. Point out that their guilt is related to their feelings about what happened, which may be quite different from the actual events.

Hostility, anger and resentment at other people or at one's religious beliefs are also common in grief. Having lost something, a person looks for someone to blame. You don't need to agree with everything a hostile grieving person says. But acknowledge and accept that the grieving person has these feelings. Hostility and anger is part of the process of grief which needs to be worked through.

Friends sometimes avoid talking about the person who died. They don't want to remind the survivors of their loss. Reminding a person about the past good times is helpful. It gives meaning and purpose to the grief they are experiencing, and the hard work they are having to do.

Being unable to return to one's usual or previous activities, or routines, is a normal experience in grief. Friends can help by showing patience and understanding. Involve the grieving person when they are able to establish themselves again in regular activities.

This is very important when a person has lost a husband or wife, since so many of their activities were couple oriented. Again, don't push, but encourage strongly their involvement in something at some level. At times, almost insist that the person does something socially, however little it may be.

Grief is an emotional journey which requires a lot of energy and effort. Everyone must work through their own grief, but friends and family who understand the process and the stopping points on this journey can provide much guidance and support.