Grief Awareness Week: Understanding feelings of loss
Grief is something that we all experience in some form, and it’s often overwhelming and distressing. It can feel isolating, and all-encompassing. It’s also a very personal and subjective experience, with a range of causes: these might include the death of a loved one or a pet, the ending of a friendship, the loss of a job, or the loss of our health if we experience an injury or long-term health issue. All these causes are valid.
Grieving is a normal response to the loss of something or someone important, and a natural process. We all cope with loss in different ways.
However, we might find that we judge ourselves harshly – or experience negative judgments from others – about how long we’re grieving for, or how hard we’re finding the process. This can make things really difficult by adding to the struggle we’re already having. The fact is, grief has its own journey, there’s no time limit, and we can’t force it.
There are supposedly five stages of grief that we’ll dip in and out of throughout the bereavement journey: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
Being aware of these stages can be helpful – but we shouldn’t put pressure on ourselves to not spend ‘too long’ in any of them, or even to progress through them in order! Many people move back and forth. Unfortunately, we can’t accelerate the process, and some people might never reach acceptance. The best thing is to try to be aware of our feelings and thoughts at each stage, face them, and let them be.
The ‘Ball and the Box’ analogy created by Aching Arms UK gives us a good way of understanding how our grief is likely to change over time.
There’s a box with a ball in it, and a pain button. In the beginning, the ball is huge. You can’t move the box without the ball hitting the button. It rattles around, hitting it over and over. You can’t control it; it just keeps hurting. Over time, the ball gets smaller. It hits the button less, but when it does it hurts just as much. You can function day to day more easily, but the ball randomly hits that button when you least expect it. For most people the ball never goes away; but it hits less and less, and you have more time to recover between hits.
Some people find that ‘survivors’ guilt’ plays a part in their grief. This happens when someone has died, and we feel bad that we’re still alive when they have gone. This can be really tough to navigate, but it can help to think about how our loved one would want us to carry on and live our lives without them.
If you’re struggling to move forward, you could make a ‘bereavement memory box’ where you keep some items and objects that remind you of who or what you’ve lost. This idea can be used for any type of grief, for instance someone who’s sustained a life-changing injury might want to include items that remind them of their past self. This can help us feel like we’re containing the grief in a safe way, while also keeping precious memories alive – which is especially useful if we’re worried that memories of loved ones are fading, or we can’t capture them in our mind as clearly. We can open the box intentionally, when and where we want to, to access our grief. This can also help children learn how to manage their emotions and thoughts about grief – they can choose the box and the items to go in it and open it with family members or carers to discuss and remember those who have died in a safe way.
There’s no specific CBT treatment for grief, as it’s a natural process. However, if your grief is accompanied by mental health difficulties such as depression or anxiety then CBT might help. If you’re experiencing symptoms like these, or if you find you can’t think about anything else other than what you’ve lost, and you’re struggling with day-to-day tasks, you might need to seek support.
You can find out more about accessing CBT here.