A person experiencing loss has major changes in 4 areas: Emotional Response, Physical Perceptions, Cognitions, and Behaviors. This week we'll look at the Emotional Response.
The emotions people experience while bereaved range all over the map. The most overwhelming emotion is depression, since grief shares a lot in common with people experiencing a Major Depressive Episode. Sleep disturbances, appetite changes, and intense episodes of sadness and crying are common in both, but usually these behavioral changes are only present for a short period of time in someone who is grieving.
It's important to note that some people have a reactive response to significant loss, and that is not abnormal. By reactive, I mean that their intense feelings of being alone or isolated might become so overwhelming that they withdraw from even the supportive people who love them most. This emotional response is probably most common with an intimate relationship loss, but could be found in any type of loss and usually wanes over a year or so.
But there are a few emotional responses that, while normal, are difficult for others to deal with or know how to approach a bereaved person experiencing them. I've listed them below.
One of the first solid emotions a person will feel after shock and denial is anger. The anger is frequently directed at the deceased person, either for leaving the grieving person alone or maybe anger at themselves because they couldn't prevent the death. Anger could be directed outwards, like blaming a cop or doctor who "didn't do their job."
How to approach: Let these angry individuals express themselves in as healthy a manner as possible. Provide outlets - like punching pillows or going to the gym. Don't take it personally if they lash out at you. You adding your hurt on top of what they are already experiencing won't help.
Guilt could be caused by the angry feelings listed above, but maybe they also said or did something they now regret. People could also think they could have done something to prevent the death. "I should have been there," or "What if I'd recognized the signs of the stroke earlier?" Guilt is often internalized, and might make the bereaved withdraw or feel like they don't deserve the well-wishes of others. Guilt can also occur when the survivor feels relief at the death, perhaps in the case of a chronic long-term illness.
How to approach: Try to help the bereaved focus on the positive aspects of their relationship with the deceased, even if you have to go back to toddlerhood. Reiterating that the person did all they could to save the deceased (if, in fact, they did). Explain that relief in that type circumstance is simply the beginning of recovery, since their grief started much earlier than the actual death.
This emotion might be more common among those individuals who don't give themselves time to grieve, like the example I used earlier of a mother who doesn't allow herself to grieve because she's got to take care of her children. But anxiety can come from the confusion or uncertainty that the loss casts the survivor in. "How will I possibly pay all the bills?" "Should we move into a smaller place?" "Who can I count on to pick up Billy from soccer practice now?" Little anxieties can prove to be insurmountable obstacles to dwell on.
How to approach: Let them know that you are available to take care of the "little" things like soccer practices and housecleaning. Knowing they have someone dependable on their support team will go a long way in relieving everyday anxiety focused on maintaining the appearance of normality, especially where children are concerned.
Next week we'll look at possible physical perceptions and changes a grieving person experiences.
Q4U: What have you done in the past to bring comfort to someone who was grieving? What has someone done for you?