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What is grief?

‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.’
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Grief is a normal and expected reaction to the loss of someone with whom you have some form of attachment. There is nothing wrong or abnormal about grieving – far from it. But it can be overwhelming and confusing when you experience grief for the first time.

Although we expect to feel sad when we lose a loved one, it can be a surprise how intense other emotions can be alongside this. Anxiety, anger and hopelessness are very common emotional experiences, which can come alongside physiological responses. Changes in appetite and difficulty sleeping are also common amongst those who are bereaved.

You can expect the intense feelings of grief to be with you most of the time for the first few months. For this reason, it can be very hard to engage in normal day to day life. In fact, it can feel surreal that the world continues in much the same way when your own has been shifted so significantly. You may have many different thoughts and feelings about the person you have lost: regrets regarding things that were said or things that you wish you had said. You may feel anger towards them, which can sometimes be difficult to reconcile. What is important is that you give space to everything that may arise for you since it is all normal and expected.

Whilst grief is a completely normal process, you may find it helpful to undertake bereavement counselling. To have the space to share your thoughts and feelings and to process what you are experiencing in a safe and containing environment is invaluable to many. Some people however find that they have all the support they need within their own families or circle of friends.

Complicated grief
More recently, a different category of grief has been recognised which has been called complicated grief. Whereas we would expect most people to find a way to integrate their loss into their lives and return to a level of functioning similar to that before their loss, some people can find themselves ‘stuck’ in the intense and raw emotions of grief. We would never say that someone has moved on with their grief, more that they have found a way live their ‘new normal’ in the face of their loss. However, if you find you are still struggling significantly months after your loss, you may need some more support.

It isn’t clear as to why some people go on to experience more complicated grief, but it may be to do with the relationship you had with the person or the circumstances in which they died. However, if you do really struggle with your grief, this is not your fault and there is help available.