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The Experience Of Grief

“Into every life some pain shall come…”

It is a truism to state that although there are general commonalities to the “grief experience," every bereaved person will experience their grief in a unique way. Grief is the personal experience of the loss, and it can begin immediately following news of a significant loss, or at some later point, perhaps days, weeks, or even months later. The experience may be quite intense for some, yet quite mild for others. For some, grief will subside in a relatively short period of time, while for others their grief will last for a very long time. Each of us will grieve in our own uniquely individual ways, depending on a host of important factors. Indeed, we are well to be aware that our own grief process must be honored and that whatever form the overall experience takes for us, it is as personally meaningful and valid as any other person’s response to loss.

Dr. Therese Rando, an internationally respected scholar on the topics of bereavement and the treatment of complicated mourning, wrote that the term “grief” refers to “the process of experiencing the psychological, behavioral, social, and physical reactions to the perception of loss.” In this definition, one finds many important concepts that can deepen our understanding of grief.

First, note that grief is a “process.” This means that the grief reactions that you experience will evolve over time. It means that the emotions that you have now will likely be re-experienced many times over, though at each time perhaps with a subtle difference in the nature or intensity of the reaction. Grief is not static, it does not stand still. In this respect, grief can be likened to the water that flows in a winding river. Although the water never completely stops flowing, it may at times move very slowly, while at others times and places, it may race ahead faster and faster yet.

Second, note that the grief reactions that you experience will depend in large part on your perception of the loss. That is, your grief results, in part, from the unique and entirely personal ways in which you come to understand aspects of the loss. For example, do you view the death as timely? Do you believe that the death could have been prevented? What degree of blame, if any, do you place on the deceased for the fact of the loss? Your grief reactions will vary depending on how you “frame” the loss in your mind. Actually, this is one reason that persons experience different grief reactions, even after a similar loss. As an example, Ben and Sarah were both very close to their mother. Their mother was an active lady, full of life and laughter, before her death from lung cancer. After the burial, Sarah began to feel at first somewhat angry, and eventually furious. She believed that her mother had contributed to her own death by being careless with her health. Ben, on the other hand, did not experience this reaction of anger and rage, as he did not attribute her death to her own behavior. Sarah believed that she was robbed of her mother’s loving company prematurely, viewed the loss as preventable, and came to blame her mother for her own death and for the pain that she was now forced to endure. This example was meant to illustrate that the way(s) in which we construct meaning out of the experience of loss will have profound effects on the way(s) in which we experience our grief and subsequently cope with the loss.

Third, we see that grief is experienced in many ways. Grief is pervasive. It can come to affect many aspects of our life. We can experience our grief through symptoms in our bodies. We may see that our behavior patterns have changed after a loss. We may find that our emotions have changed as well, and that the things we find ourselves thinking about are different than they were before the loss. Our thoughts may seem confused, and we may have a difficult time planning, or concentrating. Even the most minor of decisions may seem beyond our capacity. We may find that our spirituality has been affected. Our social lives may undergo major changes. Given that grief can so completely change our typical ways of functioning, it is no surprise that after a loss we may come to feel so utterly at odds with ourselves. We may have a difficult time dealing with all of the painful emotional reactions that we might feel. And if dealing with our feelings of sadness, emptiness, or loneliness were not enough, we may in addition have to contend with changes in the functioning of our body, or disrupted daily routines, or changes in the way we interact in social settings. It is no wonder that acute grief can be the cause of so much pain and disruption in our lives.

Research has shown that a significant proportion of bereaved persons will experience “complications” as they attempt to adjust after a loss. In fact, some have estimated that as many as one in three bereavements may result in significant complications during grief or in terms of the “outcome” of mourning.

A challenge for us all then, after any significant loss, is to be aware that we can exert some degree of control over the grief that we experience. This is not to say that we should be able to escape its clutches, for that is just not how we are built, but rather to suggest that there are some things that we can do for ourselves. One of the most important things that we can do is to take as good care of ourselves as we possibly can. We must be gentle with ourselves, accepting of our reactions, and continually strive to do what we can to nourish ourselves. As one example, maintaining or working toward a lifestyle that includes proper attention to adequate nutrition, sleep, and exercise can go a long way to help us to cope with this most difficult of situations. Many also find benefit and comfort by reading, and in this regard I highly recommend to you a book entitled “How to go on Living when Someone You Love Dies” by Therese A. Rando, Ph.D. (1991; Bantam Books). This book can be ordered online at Books.

Extending this effort to care for ourselves may be difficult, especially as we frequently feel powerless in the face of loss. After all, this death occurred despite what we would have wished. Our sense of our ability to exert control in this world may be dampened or shattered. However, by being aware that there are things that we can do to take care of ourselves, we can work to make our grief more manageable and our lives a little less chaotic.

Grief Counselor, Dr. Steven Bailley
Grief Counselor
The purpose of these articles is to provide interested readers with information and thoughts about loss, grief, mourning, and grief counseling. A variety of grief-related topics have been covered. It is my sincerest hope that you will find the information presented here to be of interest and assistance to you. If there are specific topics of interest that you would like to see added in the future, I welcome you to email me with your suggestions. If you have a need to talk with me, please call me at my office at (713) 914-9944.
Collection of papers and articles on grief, and coping with grief
The need to express our grief… Grief is Different For Each of Us The emotions of grief: Guilt
Grief, Mourning and Grief Counseling The Experience of Grief The Emotions of Grief: Anger
Reactions from others… The Seasons of My Heart The emotions of grief: “I feel like I’ve lost control of myself.”
The Closeness of Mortality Ambivalence
A 'Grief Journal' Grief After Suicide
Research and clinical experience support the idea that many bereaved individuals gain benefit from grief counseling. Ideally, counseling can help people to cope as adaptively as possible during difficult times that follow a loss, and can also assist in bringing grief to a more adequate resolution. Should you decide to explore the possibility of seeking professional assistance, at any time following your loss, I welcome you to contact me to explore this option (appointments and fee schedule are available upon request). Every person is unique, and I will work with you to assist you in coping with your specific needs. At this most difficult time in your life, I wish to extend to you my sincerest condolences for your loss.

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