Grieving the loss of a loved one is a normal and common experience. However, it is not one that takes a predetermined course because everyone grieves differently and the feelings around the loss of a loved one can last for differing periods of time. And grief can cover many other losses that often aren’t considered.
Grief does not just happen after the death of a loved one.
Grief following the death of a loved one is well studied and understood. Researchers have documented an initial period of numbness, followed by sadness or depression and then reorganization and recovery. Grief in this case is used to describe how we react to loss - physically, emotionally, behaviorally and cognitively.
However, grief can also be found in response to other life challenges such as the loss of a relationship, the loss of our youth, loss of opportunities and loss of abilities. Especially as we age, there may be physical limitations and also a sense that time is running out and that can lead to a sense of grief.
Grief can include many different emotions and there is no "right" way to feel or a time limit that can be imposed on the length of time after which we should stop grieving. Often individuals who struggle with food addiction, emotional eating and binge eating may find that they default to old behaviors of overeating, binging or obsessing about food which can serve as a distraction from the pain of grieving. The strong emotions associated with grief my overwhelm your ability to cope and these old habits can be comforting - at least temporarily.
We grieve in pieces.
Some years ago, I wrote a blog about the death of my middle son, Noah. I was moved to write this blog because some years had passed since his death and I was surprised that i was still grieving and that certain memories, scents, pictures and intrusive images that reminded me of him could bring on surprisingly crippling emotions even though he had been gone for some time.
Grief is not just about painful emotions.
While grieving the loss of my son was painful - sometimes in the extreme, I found myself also feeling a mixture of other emotions - relief that his suffering and pain were over, peace over his death, inextricably intertwined with positive memories of his childhood and the closeness we shared. Sometimes it's the positive feelings that can be problematic - leading some to feel guilty or as if they are not honoring their loved one if they're not a puddle on the floor every day. Researchers have shown, however, that positive feelings at 6 months after a loss is an indication of resilience and bodes well for healing from loss.
How do we make meaning after a loss?
Acute grief immediately after a loss can be shocking in its intensity. Behaviors and emotions during this time can include preoccupation with thoughts and memories of your loved one, intense sadness and crying, difficulty concentrating and loss of interest in usual activities. This part of the grieving process gives way to "abiding grief" where there is sadness longing for the loved one and as we integrate our grief, we can slowly begin to return to our "normal" life. It is during this process, that we may struggle to make meaning of our loss. David Kessler defines meaning making as "a way to sustain your love for the person you have lost."
Losses are statistically much higher in individuals of culture (BIPOC).
Black Americans die at much higher rates than white Americans due to historical racial inequities including poverty, inadequate health care and criminal victimization. As well, the COVID-19 pandemic saw a greater loss of life in individuals of culture. Black Americans, then, lose more loved ones from childhood through adulthood. Studies show that African Americans were three times more likely to lose their mothers than whites, two times more likely to lose their fathers, 20% more likely to have lost a sibling by age 10 and 2.5 times more likely to have lost a child by age 20. This contributes to what is called the "weathering process" - repeated exposure to stressors associated with racial discrimination and disadvantage contribute to early-onset disability and death for black Americans.
Loss does not have to be the end of your relationship with a loved one.
It is not uncommon to have dreams of your loved one, think you see them in a crowd, feel their presence or in some way still feel connected to your loved one who has passed. While the relationship has changed, you can take comfort in knowing that the relationship does not have to be completely severed; instead, it is perfectly normal for the relationship to endure forever.
As you search for meaning and deal with grief, it is important that engaging in old behaviors not be a source of guilt or shame. Be kind enough to recognize that you may be having a tough time, while staying aware that these behaviors are remnants from the past and can be replaced, when you are ready with more current and effective strategies for coping even with monumental loss.
All the best,