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Grief and the Path Forward

2020 has been a year in which a pervasive sense of loss has permeated society. Events such as the pandemic have resulted in acute losses such as the deaths of loved ones and disappearance of jobs while wildfires and hurricanes have destroyed homes and property.  Visitation and social distancing guidelines and restricted activity/travel recommendations impact relationships and our sense of self. The responses and overall effects of these losses vary from individual to individual, however a common denominator in all situations of loss is grief.

Grief is the process which helps us adapt to the reality that someone or something which was present in our lives is now changed or absent.  Grief is uncomfortable, and therefore people may try to ignore or avoid the feelings that accompany it.  But grief also positions us so healing can begin, which the Family Caregiver Alliance and Rabbi Jon Sommer sum up in the article Grief and Loss ( “[feelings] can more easily be expressed as a shared loss of something treasured—which family and friends close to the situation can likely empathize with, leading to deeper communication and stronger relationships with those going through the loss with you.”

An understanding of some of the basic tenets of grief can help people recognize that what they are experiencing is normal and healthy.

  • Grief serves as an outlet for our emotions.  Anger, guilt, frustration, sadness, and even relief are some of the normal feelings associated with grief.  Attempts to avoid the grief experience may lead to the expression of these feelings in unhealthy ways.
  • You are not alone.  Grief is a universal experience although the specific process is unique for each individual. Some individuals experience healing through “feeling,” and find sharing their emotions with others to be helpful. Others are more action oriented and focus on “doing” things for themselves or others to assuage their grief.  Recognizing which approach is most helpful for you, or that you require a balance of both approaches, can help you focus your interactions with others as you move forward.
  • Grief does not follow a straight line.  While general stages have been identified (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance); not everyone will experience each stage nor will the stages occur in a certain order.  Individuals may experience these stages for varying lengths of time and may endure the same stage multiple times.
  • Feelings of intense grief may pop up at unexpected times.  A particular object, a song on the radio, or the smell of a certain type of food can trigger memories of your loved one and a temporary meltdown.  Recognize that this is normal and accept a loss of control for a few moments.
  • Professional help is recommended if you experience prolonged intense sorrow and/or an inability to function in daily life.

Individuals who are providing support for someone who is grieving may feel awkward about what to say or how to act, and therefore some people may have a tendency to shy away from offering condolences or assistance.  Here are a few tips for interacting with someone who is grieving:

  • Allow the sharing of feelings, even negative ones, if the individual is willing to share.  Do not force someone to share who isn’t ready.
  • It is okay to share stories and memories of a deceased individual with a person who is grieving. You are not reminding them of the loss as it is already foremost in their thoughts.
  • Remember days which are meaningful to the grieving individual, such as birthdays and anniversaries.
  • Be available after the initial surge of activity/support following the loss, when others have returned to their daily lives.
  • Listen without judging or offering advice.
  • Avoid offering platitudes as they are not comforting to a grieving individual.
  • Offer to handle a specific task for the grieving individual instead of a general statement such as “Let me know how I can help.”

The grief experience is not limited to losses which are clearly defined.  Next week’s column will cover the grief process when an individual’s loss has not been concrete, as often happens within caregiving roles.  November has been designated as National Family Caregivers Month, and supporting caregivers who may be grieving a variety of losses is one way of sharing in the tremendous responsibility they shoulder. 

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN