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Understanding the Grieving Process

"Grief is a journey, often perilous and without clear direction," writes author Molly Fumia. "The experience of grieving cannot be ordered or categorized, hurried or controlled, pushed aside or ignored indefinitely. It is inevitable as breathing, as change, as love. It may be postponed, but it will not be denied." Fumia, Molly. (2003) Safe Passages.York Beach, ME: Conari Press.

Fumia says it well. When it comes to grieving the death of a loved one, there are no linear patterns, no "normal" reactions, no formulas to follow. The word "grief" is derived from the French word "grève," meaning a heavy burden. Indeed, the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual implications can be overwhelming.

While grief is an expected response to a significant loss, the unfamiliar emotions that arise can lead to feelings of helplessness, fear and isolation.

Following a death, everyone works through these stresses differently. Some are instantly devastated; others feel numb and disconnected. Some withdraw socially, while others reach out for support. What's more, just when the initial shock begins to subside, a deeper sense of reality and despair sets in. Those who grieve may need to learn new skills, adopt different habits and adjust to daily life without the physical presence of the person who died.

Although grieving is an individual experience, there are symptoms many people share after suffering personal loss:

  • Feels physically drained
  • Can't sleep at night
  • Forgetful and unable to think clearly
  • Noticeable change in appetite
  • Physical distress such as chest pains, headaches or nausea
  • Stays extremely busy to avoid thinking about his or her grief
  • Eats, drinks watches television, etc. excessively
  • Participates in harmful activities
  • Senses or dreams about the deceased
  • Becomes withdrawn, lonely and apathetic
  • Frequent sighing and crying

Each person sets his or her own pace when grieving. There will be ups and downs, moments of relief followed by moments of anguish. The first few days after someone dies are generally the most intense, marked by chaos, strong emotions and a "dreamlike" sensation.

Over time, a host of emotions may emerge. From guilt to remorse to anger, reactions vary from person to person. It's not uncommon for grieving loved ones to ask questions like Why did this happen?Where was God? or Why didn't the doctors find the cancer sooner?

Among those mourning a death, some find the pain diminishes within weeks or months. They arrive at a place of acceptance, peace and hope for the future. They reminisce about their deceased loved one instead of feeling consumed by memories.

For others, the healing process persists and it is difficult to enjoy a reasonable quality of life. Everyday events and significant life markers are painful reminders of what could have been.

If debilitating symptoms continue longer than six months, we suggest seeking professional help. A Christian counselor or therapist can help you release the emotions you may have stored up inside. (Call Focus on the Family at 1-800-A-FAMILY and ask for the counseling department. We can refer you to someone in your area who can help you through this difficult time.)

The intensity of grief may relate to the following factors:

  • Whether the death was sudden or expected
  • Your feelings about the person who died
  • Your personality, family background, coping style and life experience
  • Your belief system and view on death
  • How those around you react and support you

The grieving process can be long and isolating, yet it's crucial to accept support rather than grieve alone. Talking about grief is an essential part of healing. Receiving reassurance and feeling understood will help make the recovery process more complete during one of life's most challenging times.

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Copyright © 2007 Patricia Johnson. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Next in this Series: Grief, Trauma or Depression?

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