WHAT REALLY IS GRIEF?
Grief is a natural response to loss of any kind – loss of a loved one, the break-down of a relationship, retirement from work or your favourite sport, miscarriage, loss of a beloved pet, health, job, a major upheaval in your way of life, children leaving home or separation from friends and family.
In my lifetime, I have experienced grief more times that I could care to recount. My most intense encounter with grief occurred several years ago when I said goodbye to three members of my family within months of each other, had a forced retirement from being elite athlete, moved to a different town and left my place of employment. Cop that!
This was in stark contrast to the recent highs of representing my country at the Beijing Olympics and the joys associated with my pregnancy and the upcoming birth of my first child. The most difficult part was the passing of my eldest family member (a much-adored grandfather of 101 years) and youngest family member (a very much wanted and planned baby daughter). The dissolution of my “book ends in life” sent me to a place I never expected to venture.
Whilst this recount of loss may be a personal one, I hope that in some way it may help those who are either currently or have gone through a similar experience to know they are not alone on their journey.
Through my experiences, I discovered that the more significant the loss, the more intense the grief is likely to be and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. My experience was brutal, it sent me to a place of isolated darkness that sucked all sense of joy and purpose from my life. I was numb to life and everyone in it. I had days where I missed my loved ones so badly, I considered joining them. I became a different version of myself, never to return to the person I was prior to the loss. Fortunately, (a close family member recognised my pain and grief, and reached out to help me and guide me through my grief). She stood by my side, recognised my suffering and helped lift the burden I felt upon my shoulders. She said that despite the pain I was feeling, in time the cloud would lift and I would be a different and better version of myself. She was spot on!
While psychology may describe grief in stages, my experience was more like being in a tiny boat on a very rough and unpredictable sea. Some days I felt almost normal, while other days I felt so nauseous I was immobilised. My grief was also drawn out like a really bad smell with no set pattern to follow or timetable for recovery. It took many years before triggers subsided and an ability to share the experience surfaced.
I discovered during this experience that what one person perceives as a minor loss, another may perceive as a major devastation and through the process of grief you begin to create new experiences and habits that work around your loss. Perhaps you may also discover qualities you never thought you had such as resilience, compassion, unconditional love and tolerance.
My experiences sent me down a path of self-exploration and I discovered grief penetrates every part of your life; your emotions, spirituality, behaviour, physical health, your sense of self and identity, and your relationships with others.
While some people experience bouts of sadness, tears and fatigue, others are paralysed by physically debilitating symptoms. As I started to investigate grief’s affects I was amazed at just how many changes occur during the grieving process. Some of them are provided below:
| Physical Symptoms
· Flu- like symptoms
· Heavy cold
· Shortness of breath,
· Pains in the chest,
· Heaviness in the chest and limbs elevated heart rate.
· Insomnia or sleep disturbances,
· Extreme fatigue,
· Headaches, aches and pains, Indigestion,
· Loss of appetite,
· Low libido,
· Difficulty swallowing,
· Worsening of chronic conditions such as arthritis
· Rashes and skin complaints
· Feeling “off balance”
· Anxiety attacks
· Heightened stress response
· Hopeless feelings
· Lack of motivation
· Guilt and blame
· Hostility, resentment, bitterness
· Compulsive behaviours
· Loss of meaning to life
· Sense of disconnection
· Diminished purpose in work, hobbies or other activities
· Searching for meaning
· Anger towards God
· Change in interest in spirituality or religion
· Feelings of personal insignificance
· An increased desire to understand why the loss occurred
· Poor concentration
· Reduced memory
· Auditory and visual hallucinations
· Negative thoughts
· Suicidal thoughts
· Inability to reason
· Inability to recall happy memories of the deceased
· Bizarre thoughts
· Catastrophic thoughts
· Impatience with others
· Diminished ability to parent or to care for others
· Expression of anger towards others
· Increased frustration with others
· Conflict with friends, family or medically
· Increased reliance on others
· Tendency to limit social activities
· Keeping busy, can’t sit still
· Talking about it all the time
· Aggressiveness and “snap’ easily
· Panic attacks
· Lifestyle habit changes- alcohol, eating etc.
· Disinterest in usual things
TOP 15 TIPS
During my time dancing with grief I explored a myriad of resources and slowly transitioned through it. Here are some of the tips I found most helpful:
- Take one step at a time. Know that there will be setbacks but that you will heal in time.
- Acknowledge your pain and allow emotion to come up. It helps to process feelings as they arise. Writing in a journal daily can be very helpful. Find a way to express your grief. Some ideas include writing a journal, poetry, learning a musical instrument, painting, creating a garden or planting a tree. Think of ways that you can honour your loved one.
- Avoid making major life changes for the first few months following a loss as your cognitive function changes when you are grieving.
- Practice gratitude daily. Research shows gratitude stops the stress response associated with grief.
- Accept that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions, often in rather inconvenient or embarrassing situations.
- Don’t rush the healing process. Emotional injury is just like a physical injury. It takes time and patience to recover.
- Understand that your grieving process will be unique to you so don’t be concerned when your experiences are different to others.
- Be prepared for events that trigger memories such as birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas. Sometimes just lighting a candle in memory of your loved one on these days can bring comfort. I still make a birthday cake for my daughter every year for my daughter’s birthday and go to her resting place on Mother’s Day. These acknowledgements help me to appreciate all that she left behind.
- Look after yourself –Try to establish some routine in your day and go to bed around the same time each night. Drink lots of water. Enjoy at least 2-3 litres of fresh filtered water and minimise coffee and alcohol intake as these will make physical symptoms worse. Maintain healthy eating especially quality protein at every meal as this will help you sleep and assist with brain function throughout the day. Do some gentle exercise every day. Swimming, yoga and walking are great ways to release some of the energy associated with grief.
- Ground and centre yourself in nature. Find a place in nature that is peaceful for you and spend time there every day. Seeking sanctuary in nature is incredibly consoling.
- Consider using other therapies to assist with your physical symptoms such as Reiki, massage, myotherapy, acupuncture, chiro, Shiatsu or aqua-therapy.
- When you feel ready, volunteer with others. Helping others often heals yourself as well.
- Consider animal therapy if you don’t have your own pet or spending some quiet time with your own animals. Pet therapy does wonders for the grieving soul as anyone who has ventured into my home filled with furry friends will attest.
- Get some help. But think outside the square. Grief counselling can help by providing meaning to feelings and strategies to help you cope. For me, it didn’t do enough and at times it felt like rubbing salt into wounds. I explored other avenues both spiritual, energetic, and physical. I also found animal therapy using horses, art and music therapy to be the most effective methods of shifting deep-seated grief that manifested as pain in my body. Regardless of your preference- get help, don’t go it alone! Find a practitioner who understands your feelings that you feel comfortable with.
- Also get extra help with daily household chores from family and friends and seek support from colleagues who can take up some slack that reduces your workload.