Grief usually results from a loss, such as the death of a loved one, end of a relationship or loss of a job. Grief is a personal experience and everyone has the right to grieve in their own way. A loss that may seem minor to one person may cause a lot of grief to someone else. Grief is influenced by one's personality and any previous losses, the nature of the loss causing grief as well as support received during the grieving process.
People are sometimes expected to grief in a certain way, such as by crying at the funeral or talking about what has happened. Forms of grief are, however, individual and not all people are able or willing to express their feelings when other people are present. Some may process their grief by means of action. Some may still be paralysed and in shock, while others may also be processing what has happened. Rigid conceptions of how to grieve may cause anxiety. In the worst case, the person who suffered a loss may forget that they also have the right to enjoy what's good in life. A person in mourning is processing the events because of themselves, not because of other people.
Grief is blended with many kinds of emotions: immeasurable longing, a will to deny what happened, feelings of being abandoned, insecurity, insignificance, anxiety, guilt and even anger. Also the body may react to grief: you may have headaches and stomach problems, memory lapses, fatigue, muscle stiffness and symptoms of panic attack, for example. Even hallucinations are possible in grief resulting from traumatic crises. You may, for example, think that you hear the voice of the dead person somewhere.
Sad thoughts and feelings often come in waves and some days are more difficult than others. Little by little, feelings usually start to even out and you learn to live with the loss. Grief may sometimes become prolonged or turn into depression. Outside help may be especially useful in such cases.
Methods of coping with grief
Below, various methods of coping are listed used by people who experience grief:
Getting information about what has happened and building the big picture
Some people process grief by getting information on what has happened. They try to build a realistic image of what happened as quickly as possible in order to understand it better. Building the big picture and sufficient information on the event help them structure their grief and the changed situation.
It is worth remembering that children should be given enough information about what has happened so that they don't have to use their imagination and guess what happened. Information should, however, be provided according to the developmental phase of the child.
Getting support from others
Most people find support from belonging to a group or community, sharing experiences and participating in group activities. Throughout history, people have processed grief especially as a community. Getting social support and talking about what has happened is important to almost all people who are mourning. In addition to loved ones, peer support groups, for example, can also offer social support.
Processing feelings and utilising creative solutions
Expressing feelings in different ways may help in adapting to the loss. In addition to talking about feelings, crying, writing, drawing, dancing or listening to music may also make it easier to process the grief. The desire to process difficult and even frightening feelings may help you regain your strength more quickly.
Feeling angry is very common with grief, but talking about it is difficult for many people. Talking about angry thoughts and feelings or processing them in some other way that feels appropriate would be good. If you try to deny yourself from feeling certain emotions, they may be more likely to resurface after a long time or slow down recovery in other ways.
Utilising religion or beliefs
The possibility to find support in your beliefs or religion may bring hope, help you regain trust in life and remind you of how important life is.
Influencing your physical status and vitality may help alleviate the stress caused by grief. Exercise, such as running or cutting firewood, may increase the production of hormones causing pleasure, but also take your mind off grieving for a while. Sufficient sleep and nutrition are always important for coping.
Various types of rituals usually help in grief. In the case of death, most of us find it important to go to the funeral.
Seeking professional help
If necessary, one should seek professional help from a crisis centre, for example.
New ideas about grief
Ideas on how people best recover from great losses have varied over time. In the 1900s, the idea grew stronger that the purpose of grieving is to cut emotional bonds with the deceased. The idea behind it was that after the emotional bonds were cut, they could be reattached somewhere else. The purpose was to let go of the deceased and in a way forget the loss in order to keep on living.
It was later noticed, however, that people don't mourn like this. Children who lost their parents, for example, have been found to cherish the memory of the parents by dreaming about them, taking care of certain objects that belonged to them, visiting the grave and, all in all, thinking about the dead parent a lot. Children also often think that the dead parent is somehow present in their lives and sees what is happening to them.
When the child is allowed to carry the memory of a dead parent in their heart, the loss becomes a part of the child's story, bringing more depth to it instead of making mourning more difficult. Also parents who lose a child very often act in a similar way. Even if the dead child had been the only child in the family, they still feel that they are parents and carry the memory of the child with them. Nowadays it is thought that emotional bonds with the deceased do not need to be cut as they will continue in any case.
People who experienced a great loss usually have found out that the memory of the person who died never goes away. It only changes its form in such a way that it is possible to live with the grief. Feelings of longing may sometimes be strong even after years, such as on the birthday or anniversary of the deceased or during holidays.
Questions like “are you already over your grief” may feel confusing and indiscreet if letting go of grief sounds like forgetting the deceased. Going on with your life does not mean that you have to forget the loved one who died. It is possible to recover from grief and think warmly about the lost one.
Traumatic grief usually results from a sudden or violent death of a loved one. Those close to a person who committed suicide, for example, often experience traumatic grief because the event itself is so shocking.
Traumatic grief is linked with powerful and painful memories of the deceased, an inability to accept what has happened and difficulty to believe that life will go on without the person who died as well as feelings of going insane. Other emotions typical of traumatic grief include feeling that life has no meaning, avoiding everything that reminds you of the dead person, such as certain locations, thoughts or emotions, or a feeling that a part of yourself has died too. Lack of emotional reactions may sometimes be indicative of traumatic grief. Traumatic grief may also lead to depression.
Recovering from traumatic grief
A person suffering from traumatic grief should have the possibility to talk about what has happened over and over again if they want. Talking helps to understand that what happened, did actually take place, and linking it to one's life story. People who have experienced something truly shocking often in a way detach themselves from the event because their mind is not able to accept it. Such a person may feel like an outsider and, at the same time, experience immeasurable suffering.
A person experiencing traumatic grief usually has to process the traumatic event before it is possible that grief facilitating recovery begins. When a person has processed the event that caused the loss sufficiently, traumatic grief starts to turn into normal grief. The person is able to adapt to the changed situation, find comforting memories of the deceased and the event is not in their mind all the time anymore. Little by little, the event becomes a part of one's life story and the person is able to look into the future again.
Differences between grieving and processing of trauma
Processing of trauma
Memories of the person who was lost.
Constantly recurring memories of the shocking event.
Looking for comforting memories.
Avoiding situations and things that remind of the shocking event.
Wanting to talk about the person who was lost.
Talking about the event is difficult.
Sorrow, longing, depression.
Anxiety, fear, depression.
Comforting dreams about the person who was lost.
Nightmares, reliving the shocking moments.
Processing the trauma comes before grieving
A person suffering from traumatic grief may need professional help to process the trauma and grief. Contact the municipal social and health authorities or crisis centre for an appointment with a crisis counsellor. Depending on the nature of the loss, it may be possible to find a peer support group or rehabilitation course for processing the grief in a group setting. Read more: Traumatic crises.
Grief in children
It is important that a child gets to mourn with their family. Talking to them realistically about the event that caused grief is a good thing, provided that the level of development of the child is taken into account. If the child is not certain what has happened, they may fill in the gaps with the help of imagination. If the family is going to see a dead loved one, for example, and the child wants to go too, they should be allowed. Seeing the person dead also makes it easier for the child to understand that a loved one is gone forever. Also participating in the funeral is important for children as well.
A child may have difficulty finding words for grief. Talking about the dead person and feelings caused by grief is still important to the child. The adult should talk with the child about what has happened. When the child hears what is going on, misunderstandings about what happened are less likely. Children under school age, for example, have a tendency toward magical thinking: they may think that they can influence the world with their thoughts. As a result of this, the child may believe that they caused the death of another person.
Besides talking, a child may need concrete ways for processing grief. You can, for example, draw with the child, listen to music or show them photos of the person who died. Children also often process death in their play. From an adult perspective, the most important thing is to give more time to the child than usual and stay close to them. Children usually find physical touch calming, so it is a good idea to hold the child or hug them even more often than usual.
Children may ask lots of questions regarding grief and death. If a child's question makes the adult cry, it is good to tell the child why that happened. The child may be afraid to hurt the adult's feelings and stop asking questions even though they help the child process the grief. Crying in front of children is nothing to be afraid of. It helps the child to understand that they are allowed to miss the person who died as well.
All people, including children, have abilities that they can use to cope with very difficult situations. Recovery is supported by, for example, support from friends, relatives or parents and the possibility to express grief, peer groups or professional help, such as participating in a grief group and getting information on reactions to grief. SOS Crisis Centre, for example, organises groups for children who have lost someone close to them. Similar support is available in many cities. Children also exhibit similar survival behaviour as adults, i.e. they process their grief by action, think about it etc.
Dimensions of a child's grief
Permanent change in the family
A child is affected differently when the dead family member is a brother or sister and when that person is a parent. Losing a family member still always causes a feeling that the family is not whole anymore.
Losing a sibling
Nowadays, families are often small and a child who loses their sibling may become an only child. Children who lose a sibling, however, often continue keeping up some kind of an attachment relationship with the dead sibling. They may, for example, talk to the dead sister or brother in their mind, telling about events in their life just like they might have when the sibling was still alive. The opportunity to remember the dead sibling together with parents is important, for example by looking at photos.
The death of a sibling affects the relationship between the child or children and the parents. The difficult situation and deep grief naturally have an influence on how the parents cope. In children, grief and joy usually alternate, and adults should try to find the strength to also participate in the moments of joy the child has. The ability of parents to support one another and the child in grief helps in recovery.
Death of a parent
The death of a parent changes every member of the family and thereby also the entire family. It may take a long time before family routines and roles find a new balance. If one parent has died, a child is often afraid of losing also the other one. Fear may be expressed as guarding a parent or other loved ones or as a fear of staying alone. Besides crying, anxiety experienced by a child may be expressed also as aggressive behaviour and a temporary deterioration of school grades.
Those close to the child can try to help by talking about what has happened with the child, remembering the dead parent together with the child and by doing concrete things, such as drawing and playing. Grief groups that allow the child to process grief with other children in same age group who have undergone something similar are often useful. If the death was especially traumatic, i.e. the child saw it happen or found the dead parent, for example, or if grief, for some other reason, seems to persist strongly, it may be especially useful to seek support from a grief group.
Also the child has to adapt to the change in order to survive from grief. With the support of loved ones or other people, and, with time, the child is able to understand what has happened, consider its effect on themselves and make it a part of their life history. Remembering the dead person is usually an important part of recovery. Memories build a structured image of what the dead parent was like when they were still alive. With time, the child learns to use this image to think about their relationship with the dead parent.
The child has had to face the vulnerability of life
Childhood and early youth are usually marked with a feeling of one's invulnerability. If a child loses someone close to them, death in a way comes too close too soon. The death of someone close to the child may lead the child into thinking that they may die as well. Also other members of the family may also be too protective in a situation where one member of the family has died.
Losing a loved one may also have physical effects on the child. The child may feel sick more often than before and not feel as well as they used to. Children and teenagers who lose a loved one often become emotionally mature more quickly than their peers. They may also feel that because of the grief they've experienced, they are stronger than their peers and are able to appreciate those close to them more than their peers.
Feelings of guilt
Like adults, children who have lost a loved one sometimes have similar unnecessary feelings of guilt caused by the shock. A child may think that they no longer have the right to be happy or joyful. Adults should reinforce the behaviour of the child when the child is happy by trying to participate by playing or laughing and also by telling that all people are entitled to feel happiness and joy whenever possible, even when something horrible has happened.
Small children may think that they can cause the death of another person by thinking: “My baby sister is stupid and I wished that she didn't even exist...” It is important to tell small children why and for what reason the loved one died and that other people could not do anything about it.
It may also be difficult for a very small child to carry on with everyday things because of difficult thoughts that come into their mind. Various feelings of fear, guilt, grief and longing may stay in the child's mind. They may also have difficulty naming these feelings that they may perhaps be feeling for the first time and, thereby, process them. Adults should therefore talk to children about their feelings of sorrow and help the child understand what the child is probably also feeling.
Focusing on school after the loss of a loved one may be difficult. Even for adults, focusing on work is often difficult. If school suffers considerably and for a long time or if the child expresses aggressive or otherwise clearly different behaviour than before, outside help, such as family counselling or a rehabilitation course may be helpful.
When we talk about grief and mourning, we usually talk about family and children, possibly also close friends. Every society has developed its practices as to who is expected to mourn and in what way. This is expressed, for example, by who will get sick leave and for how long when a loved one dies.
As grief is not a diagnosed disease, doctors will grant sick leave on the basis of an “acute stress reaction”. Some employment agreements may include regulations on granting sick leave when a relative dies. Sick leave granted when a child or spouse dies, for example, may be longer than that when one's parent dies. The way a society sets norms on how long mourning should last and only acknowledges the right to grieve for certain groups of people may cause a lot of pain.
Situations where people feel a loss without social justification to mourn for it are called unacknowledged grief. Unacknowledged grief is expressed as an inability to talk about the grief and a lack of opportunities to receive support in a difficult situation. The following groups of people, amongst others, may experience unacknowledged grief:
Those who have had an abortion
Grief is experienced almost without exception when a woman has an abortion. Grieving after an abortion, nevertheless, is still a taboo in our society. This is influenced by anti-abortion ideologies who label abortion as a selfish choice and ignore the difficult situation the woman is in, thereby also ignoring her grief. Feelings of sorrow are usual both before abortion and after it. Grief is often mixed with feelings of guilt. A woman who has had an abortion should have the right to express her grief without fear of moral opinions of outsiders.
Those who gave up their child for adoption
The grief of someone who gave their child up for adoption may go unnoticed. Outsiders may think that since giving a child up for adoption is usually voluntary to some extent, it would not cause grief. They may also think that since the rights and obligations of biological parents are legally terminated with adoption, also emotional bonds should terminate at the same time. A person can naturally not decide when these kinds of emotional bonds cease to exist. Grief may continue for a long time after giving the child away.
Those who miscarried
Mothers and fathers who have experienced a miscarriage often describe that they were left without the support they needed. Miscarriage may feel like a loss of a child that has been dearly expected, but healthcare only considers it a physical event. In Finland, funerals are usually not arranged for foetuses under 22 weeks of age, so there are not even cultural rituals for processing what has happened. Sometimes it is also difficult to share feelings with one's partner. A miscarriage may be very hard on both the father and the mother. They just express grief in different ways. In the best case, a couple can support each other in grief.
People in a homosexual relationship
Even today, people living in a homosexual relationship may find it difficult to get support from loved ones for their grief. If the other partner dies, for example, or the couple splits up, the grieving partner may be left alone with their grief.
Friends, colleagues and schoolmates
Friends, colleagues and schoolmates may be ignored as mourners because, for example, they are not part of the immediate family or because people think that children don't want to process their grief. Friends, for example, may be expected to support a mourning family while they may not have any more strength themselves.
Loved ones of an alcoholic or a drug addict
Those close to an alcoholic or a drug addict who has died may hear rude comments: “He was the kind of person that is not worth mourning over”. Sometimes, feelings of grief may even be blended with feelings of relief, for example if the situation at home had been difficult for a long time, the addiction had changed the personality of a loved one or the person had been violent. In any case, everyone has the right to grieve it their own way.
Those close to a person who died of AIDS
HIV infection may still feel shameful for the person themselves or their loved ones. Such images are most probably due to the stigma attached the disease in the early days. The HIV Foundation supports people with AIDS as well as their loved ones.
Those with a mental disability
Mentally disabled people may be ignored as mourners. Their need for outside help may not be noticed and no methods for processing grief may be offered.
Those who lost an ex-spouse
People who lose an ex-spouse may feel strong grief even when the relationship ended several years before. Ex-spouses may not be welcome to the funeral, for example, and their current spouses may not understand them. The intensity of grief may surprise someone who lost their ex-spouse.
Those who lost a pet
A pet may be very important to children as well as adults. However, especially people who do not have pets may disapprove of grief after the loss of a pet: “It was just a dog.” The person who lost the pet, however, knows best how important the pet was to them.
Healthcare employees, including psychotherapists and social workers
Grief felt over the loss of a patient by nursing staff is not often talked about. Employees are expected to detach themselves emotionally from the patient. An employee may, however, have worked with the patient for several years. In addition to sorrow, the death of a patient may trigger powerful feelings of inadequacy.
A person experiencing unacknowledged grief may be left without the support of those near them or otherwise feel that their right to mourn is not acknowledged. A person experiencing unacknowledged grief is, however, never alone in that situation. Many people are experiencing similar things, and sharing grief with them might be possible. People who have experienced different kinds of losses may have set up peer support groups or talk about their situation online, for example.
Masculine and feminine grief
The idea of masculine and feminine grief refers to the culturally different ways men and women express grief. “Masculine” or “feminine” grief does not mean that women and men would always express their grief differently or that all women, for example, would express their grief in the same way. It has, however, been observed that there are often certain differences in how men and women process grief. If these differences are not understood, there may be unnecessary misunderstandings concerning the way someone acts.
Probably the most common misunderstanding is that a man expresses no grief at all. A woman may cry and talk about what they have experienced, but a man just seems quiet. He may, however, express his grief through action outside the home or try to support the woman and process his grief by organising family matters. He may also cry when no one is there to see, and for the rest of time, he tries to take care of others.
Also literature discussing recovery from grief seems to be written as if from the viewpoint of women. In literature, strong expression of feelings and sharing them with others may be emphasised. If a person, be it a man or a woman, is used to hiding their feelings from others in difficult situations and grieving in private, they may find it difficult to start processing their feelings openly all of a sudden. Regardless of gender, people usually want to be heard and seen in some way. The model of making it on your own is very strong in our culture. It may be even more difficult for men than for women to admit that they are powerless and need help.
Reactions to grief are usually very similar in men and women. Grief is a kind of a roller coaster; some days are better than others. A grieving person may present problems related to sleeping and attention, inability to plan their life, they may be more irritable than usual and life may seem extremely unfair. The ways in which grief manifests itself is very universal, but there are differences in how different people express their grief. There are sometimes also differences between genders. It is important to understand that everyone has their own way to grieve and that there is no single, correct way.