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Grief: That helps in the difficult time!

by Josephine Andrews
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The loss of a loved one is one of the greatest emotional challenges in life. Grief is then important to process the loss. Read here what grief is, how it manifests itself and how you can find help when the pain is too great.

What is grief?

By definition, grief is an emotional response to loss. It is a coping strategy when we lose a loved one – whether through death or the breakup of a relationship. In a less pronounced form, however, people also mourn the loss of their home, their job or their health.

The grief is particularly great when it comes to separation from another person. Psychology speaks of a “relational self” that existed alongside one’s own self. This means that the other person had a great influence on one’s own identity and that dependencies can arise as a result. Typical for this is a sentence like “I can’t live without you”.

In the grieving process we need to detach from the lost relationship self and return to our own self. It’s painful – and some people don’t make it. They then do not react to the loss with normal grief, but with depression.

Then a natural grief, which is an innate, important coping format and runs in several phases, turns into a complicated grief. If this happens, psychotherapy is usually necessary because those affected can no longer get out of this black emotional hole on their own.

How is grief expressed?

On the one hand, grief manifests itself physically, in so-called arousal patterns. One of these is crying. On the other hand, it is also reflected in psychological reactions such as self-blame or apathy.

Basically, there are various symptoms that almost all mourners experience. More for one person, less for another. They sometimes change during the grieving process and are usually temporary, such as:

  • loss of appetite
  • listlessness
  • emotional instability
  • Empty
  • insomnia
  • guilt
  • self-incrimination
  • Cry

In some cases, genuine heartache from grief is possible. Because a major emotional burden such as the loss of a loved one can trigger the so-called Broken Heart Syndrome – a dysfunction of the ventricles caused by stress, which manifests itself similar to a heart attack.

Some grief symptoms have a biological origin. Grief is one of the basic or primary emotions that are the same all over the world. According to the “Facial Action Coding System” (FACS) by the scientists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, facial muscles are activated independently of one another when certain emotions are stimulated. For example, when grieving, people raise the inner base of their eyebrows while turning the corners of their mouths down.

In addition, there are various culturally determined rituals to express grief. For example, people in this country wear black clothes and commemorate the deceased with funeral speeches and a funeral feast. In Buddhism, the corpse is cremated and thrown into the water , in New Orleans, America, there is a funeral procession with jazz music, and in Judaism, there is a ritual ablution.

What are the stages of grief?

Depending on the reference work and the object of mourning, four, five or even seven phases of mourning are mentioned. What they have in common is that they make it clear that grief changes over time.

Four Stages of Grief

Psychologist and author Verena Kast defines four stages of grief that someone goes through when losing a loved one. This includes:

  • Denial : refusal to acknowledge loss, shock, inability to act.
  • Emotional bursting : acknowledgment of facts, emotional roller coaster ride (love, guilt, sorrow, fear, gratitude, anger, joy…)
  • Search and separate : the actual mourning process with many memories of the deceased. This is followed by a return to oneself and what remains in life.
  • New self and world references : Entering into new relationships is possible again, but feels contradictory. On the one hand fear of losing someone again. On the other hand, knowing that grief doesn’t break you down. Often more conscious dealing with the environment

Five Stages of Grief

You can also mourn for your health and your own life. People who are ill and know that they will die soon also go through different phases of mourning, which the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross helps to define

  1. Deny
  2. Zorn
  3. Negotiate
  4. Depression
  5. assumption

Seven Stages of Grief

The seven-phase model by Richard Streich Professor of Economics and Behavioral Sciences is often used in relation to career changes.

This is more of a coaching or management model to understand the reactions of the employees. It consists of:

  1. Schock
  2. rejection
  3. rational insight
  4. emotional acceptance
  5. Learn
  6. Try out
  7. integration of the new circumstances

However, experts repeatedly criticize such phase models because they convey that mourners only have to wait until they have gone through all the stages and then everything is automatically fine again.

According to recent findings, grief in most people does not proceed as linearly or in successive phases, but rather jumps between the poles “grief and loss” and “present and future”.

Coping with grief: top tips

Farewell and mourning are exceptional and uncomfortable. How long grief lasts varies from person to person. In the case of normal mourning, however, mourners all experience similar emotional worlds.

In a study by the University of Würzburg, for example, 500 people who had lost a relative reported how they experienced and processed this loss. It emerged that time plays an important role in the perception of grief and its processing.

We have tips for you on what can help in a grieving phase.

Accept grief

So first of all, it is important that you accept that you are grieving and allow yourself to feel that way – at least for a few weeks. Trust that things will change over time and eventually get better.

According to the study, unpleasant thoughts and the feeling of being close to the deceased still predominate in the first year and a half. That’s when the grief is at its worst. In the following 12 to 18 months, the intensity of these feelings decreases, people perceive the positive experiences again and are once again capable of sympathy and compassion.

Allow yourself all feelings

Know that you will always get better and worse. In good times, don’t feel guilty about feeling joy. Laughing does not mean forgetting the deceased.

Plan your days and activities

If the grief is still strong, it helps to plan the days in small steps so as not to feel overwhelmed. You should create a structure for yourself, especially on the weekends, so that you don’t fall into an emotional hole.

For example, move around, go for a walk or arrange to meet up with people close to you if you feel lonely or your thoughts only revolve around the deceased. Distraction can be useful, especially on special days, such as birthdays or anniversaries, when feelings tend to be most intense.

Look for an exchange

It helps to talk to other people. Some mourners like to do this with people who also knew the deceased. It’s good for them to reminisce about shared memories. If you find it difficult to talk to acquaintances, friends or family, there is also the option of joining a grief group.

What happens when you suppress grief?

Although grief is painful and most people would like it to pass as soon as possible, it is important to allow it. Anyone who represses and suppresses grief does nothing good for the body and psyche.

First of all, it is very draining to push aside such a powerful feeling as sadness. In order to be able to muster this strength, some people withdraw and become socially isolated.

Those who suppress grief also run the risk of expressing it physically. She does this, for example, with the overwhelming feeling of being drained, with loss of appetite or severe weight loss. Some people also get migraines, skin rashes, or hair loss.

Sometimes suppressed grief develops into depression or addiction, for example because the person concerned tries to control or numb the pain with alcohol, drugs or pills.

Some people also have the feeling that they cannot feel grief. It is difficult to say why this is so. In many cases, it may be self-protection from the pain. If the person is generally unable to recognize or express their own feelings or those of others, they could have sensory blindness (alexithymia). Around ten percent of people in this country are considered to be emotionally blind.

How can outsiders help?

Family and friends can best help a grieving person by being there and listening to them. Even if she circles around the same topics over and over again. Be patient, allow the grieving person’s memories to come through.

Don’t push her to get over the loss quickly. Don’t judge behaviors like repeating your favorite songs or radically remodeling your home. Everyone has a different way of expressing grief. Show compassion.

Offer to help around the house or with gardening. Perhaps the mourner is also happy about a joint cooking evening or a meal they have brought with them.

Noticing that the person is spiraling into grief and self-blame, withdrawing and/or finding it difficult to perform personal and professional tasks, encourage them to seek professional help and offer to take them to the first appointment accompany.

When is professional help important?

In general, grief has no expiration date. Holidays, anniversaries or birthdays in particular can trigger emotions that you thought you had overcome, even months later. There is also no one way to grieve “properly”.

However, if there is no improvement after about 12 to 14 months, but rather the grief gets worse and perhaps even hinders you in mastering your everyday life, you should seek professional help. Grief therapy is useful and necessary, for example, in cases where

  • grief turns to depression . Signs of this include feelings of intense guilt, thoughts that one would rather be dead, self-loathing, or an inability to cope with everyday tasks.
  • anxiety occurs . Some people who have lost someone suddenly find life threatening, worrying and vulnerable. Symptoms such as shortness of breath, tachycardia or sweating can occur.
  • the sadness does not subside . A so-called “complicated grief” or “persistent grief disorder” is present when the bereaved person still has great difficulty accepting the loss even after 12 to 14 months, reacts very sensitively to the loss and experiences severe emotional pain. This is the case for about seven to ten percent of mourners.
  • the loss is traumatic . This is the case, for example, if it occurred very suddenly and unexpectedly, or if it was violent, whether through illness, suicide, an accident or a crime. Symptoms of traumatic grief include recurring disturbing images or dreams, feeling like the traumatic experience is repeating itself (flashbacks), and avoiding activities, people, or conversations that are reminiscent of the experience.
  • there is a history of addiction . People who have been addicted to drugs, alcohol, or an eating disorder are at risk of the loss acting as a trigger to relapse.

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