Grief can be overwhelming after you’ve been through trauma, but with the right support recovery can begin. We’ve put together seven facts about grief to help explain the process, for you and your children.
1. Grief is a painful, but normal, experience
Loss and grief are part of life. Throughout our life, we all experience the death of loved ones, and grieve for them. It is painful and sad, working out what life looks like without the loved one can be difficult, and coping with the loss once it happens can be a struggle.
It is important to remember when grieving that everyone goes through it, and there are people who want to help you through it. That can be friends, family, your GP, a therapist or counsellor, someone within your faith community, a charity or a helpline.
2. Grief does come in stages and is not a straight line
You might have heard that there are stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), but psychologists now think this doesn’t fully capture what grieving is like. It can have an affect on all aspects of someone - their body, their thoughts, their social and cultural relationships and more.
The image here shows how grief, and recovery from it, are linked - as a person starts to feel better, they can bounce back and forth between feeling happy and sad.
You may have experienced this when you are suddenly struck with those same intense feelings of grief after months or years of feeling fine, and it seems to be out of the blue. This doesn't mean you haven’t made progress, or that you aren’t healing, or that you’re not coping well. It can just mean that like lots of things in life, recovering from grief is complex.
This is why psychologists have moved away from the idea that recovery from grief flows in one direction.
3. Grief is not the same thing as depression
Although parts of grief and depression feel the same, grief is separate from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Sadness, tiredness, sleep and appetite loss, low energy and difficulty concentrating are some of the symptoms of depression most seen, but many of these can overlap with feelings of grief. But it isn’t quite right to think that everyone grieving is depressed, and needs the same treatment as depression.
For most bereaved people, with time and support they can make sense of the loss and build their life around their grief. It can be a difficult, sad and exhausting process, but therapy/grief work is not always necessary. There is even sometimes what is called “post-traumatic growth” following a loss, where a person might start to see the world they live in differently, same for their relationships, and how they live their lives. However, it's important to remember: if the symptoms of grief do not start to subside over time, it can mean the grief is trickier, and they might be feeling complex grief (point 4).
4. How grief can be complex
Though it is still a debated aspect of grief therapy, when someone is suffering grief symptoms for a long time (six or more months after the loss), and is struggling to rebuild a life without the deceased person, certain practitioners believe they may be experiencing what is now known as complex grief.
Affecting around 10-15% of people, complex grief can include things like:
- An extreme longing for the person, and not accepting they have died
- Being preoccupied with memories, thoughts or pictures of the deceased person that might interfere with joining in on activities, or other relationships
- Painful, hard-to-control emotions such as guilt, anger or bitterness
- Avoiding situations or people that might trigger any memories
- Having a hard time getting back to a sense of purpose, or joy in life
When we lose someone, any of these emotions or reactions can very naturally pop up as we move towards understanding our world without our loved one in it. But when we don’t start to feel better, and can’t find a way forward around six or more months after losing a loved one, that it is considered to be complex grief.
COVID-19 might lead to complex grief more often because of the trauma associated with the deaths: not being able to see loved ones, not being able to be close to them or hold them, feeling like the death is just a statistic, and having social support and religious or cultural practices shut down can all lead to a greater trauma for the survivors.
If you need support or are struggling with loss and grief, please see our Get Help page for more information.
5. Children and young people will have different understandings of death
Children feel similar emotions to adults when they lose a loved one, but they can’t express it in the same way. Instead, it may jump out at random: outbursts of anger, excitement or sadness. Sometimes they might seem like they’ve accepted the death, but later become angry, distressed and upset. It’s important they are given the time, space and support they need to manage this.
Because young children in particular do not understand the concept of death - what it really means, the effects of it, and that it happens to everyone - they need help to process the concepts in a clear way. For example, Barnardo’s Child Bereavement Service recommends that the words “death” or “dead” are used, rather than phrases like “gone to sleep”, “lost” or “gone” - this helps reduce any confusion or anxiety. Additionally, the cause of death (in simple terms) should be shared, so they are not at risk of blaming themselves. Being made aware that everyone eventually dies, but normally not until they are very old, can help address the worry that everyone else around them may also die soon.
The Barnardo’s Child Bereavement Service has compiled a guide that talks about the different experiences of grief that children and young people feel at different ages and stages, and provides tips on explaining death to them and giving them support.
6. Continuing bonds
The four tasks of mourning are generally accepted to be:
- Accepting the reality of the loss
- Working through the pain and grief
- Adjusting to a world without the deceased
- Finding a connection with the deceased while starting out a new life
It is this last task that brings us to the continuing bonds theory of grief. Some psychologists have moved away from the idea of ‘letting go’ of the deceased, and instead now some talk about ‘continuing bonds’.
This means that for some people (especially when the relationship was good and emotionally stable), keeping a connection with the deceased becomes a healthy part of life. It might sound strange, but things like writing letters to them, talking to them (out loud or in your head), keeping photos of them around, talking about them to new people in your life can play a part in a healthy life after losing someone. It’s important that these things happen in a way that doesn’t stop the person from moving on with their life, loving again and being able to live their lives happily.
7. Supporting yourself
It’s important to remember when you’re grieving and taking care of others to also take time for yourself. You are grieving too.
Some tips for self-care during grieving:
- Try to stay emotionally connected using text, email and messages as well as via social media and phone calls.
- Allow yourself to feel emotions even though it is painful.
- Keep talking to those who are closest to you even if they are physically far away. Try to phone someone each day.
- Keep to routines such as mealtimes, getting up time and getting washed and dressed as well as bed time.
- Try to get outside for some fresh air.
- Check in with your children and young people.
- Understand that your children and young people dip in and out of their emotions quickly. They will set their own pace.
- Allow children and young people to connect with other family, cousins as well as friends.
- Limit the amount of news and social media you consume whilst feeling sad as it can enhance your feelings of distress.
- Be tolerant and kind to yourself.
Would you like more information on how to talk to your child about grief? We’ve put together a guide from our practitioners to help you cope.