Whether it’s triggered by a tragic event or the loss of a loved one, grief is a part of the human experience that we will all have to endure.
But however universal that haunting sadness is, grieving is an isolating, complicated process that can be very difficult to understand. That’s why it can be helpful to be armed with as much information as possible to help you or someone you love carry on through trying times.
Below are a few things people experiencing this complex emotion would want you to know:
1. Grief is not one emotion, but a collection of emotions.
Feelings of yearning and sorrow define grief, but most grieving people will also experience anxiety, guilt, anger or shame, according to Katherine Shear, program director for Columbia University’s Center for Complicated Grief. Grief can also include positive emotions ― someone may feel relief, for example, after losing a loved one who was ill or burdensome ― which makes the grieving process all the more complex.
“Grief is not a single emotion, but rather contains a compendium of emotions, both negative and positive,” Shear said during a 2014 panel on grief and depression. And this spectrum of feelings can help an individual move forward.
“Overall,” Shear continued, “many complex and varying emotional, cognitive and behavioral changes are entailed in making the adaptation needed to come to terms with the loss and to re-envision the future after bereavement.”
2. People grieve in different ways ― and that’s OK.
Grieving is a personal journey. While one person may choose to be surrounded by friends or family during a time of sadness or loss, another individual may prefer solitude. The only correct way to grieve is the one that best fits the individual’s unique needs.
“Not understanding the individuality of grief could complicate and delay whatever grief we might experience from our own loss,” grief counselor Jinny Tesik wrote for the nonprofit Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. “It could also influence us, should we attempt to judge the grieving of others.”
However, if you or someone you know begins abusing alcohol or drugs as a way to suppress or control the painful feelings of grief, it may be time to step in. If an individual needs help with substance abuse or mental health issues, call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
3. When grief is prolonged and significantly more painful, it is a condition known as “complicated grief.”
Most grief gradually dissipates without the need for therapy or professional counseling. Complicated grief, however, involves severe grieving that is especially long, debilitating and gets worse over time, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms of this deep level of grief go beyond the typical anxiety and mourning experienced with normal grief, and include intense sorrow at the thought of a lost loved one, an obsession with the tragic event, detachment, feelings of bitterness, lack of trust in others and an inability to enjoy life. An estimated 15 percent of people who lose a loved one will experience complicated grief, according to Yale University psychologist Holly Prigerson.
If you or someone you care about is experiencing this type of grief, Mayo Clinic recommends seeking professional help or counseling for relief, especially if the grieving person is at risk for self-harm.
4. Grief isn’t always something to conquer. It can be something you learn to live with.
After a period of grieving ends, the emotions don’t simply disappear forever. Sometimes, an event or an image can trigger a memory of a loved one, causing feelings of sadness, longing and loss.
“As time passes, the intensity of feelings about the loss will lessen... But you’re not going to get over it because that’s impossible: You cannot erase emotional memory,” Mary C. Lamia, a clinical psychologist, wrote in 2011 blog for Psychology Today.
Some researchers even argue that one cannot return to a prior emotional state after a significant loss.
“Besides, it’s not about achieving closure,” Lamia wrote on Psychology Today. “Instead you have to figure out what you are going to do when your emotional memories are later triggered.”
Though it’s impossible to predict how loss will affect any one person, working through that loss is something we will all experience. Be respectful of your own grieving process, as well as that of others. And, above all, if you feel like you or someone you know needs help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.