“No, I’ve never heard of that – what is the grief cycle?” my client asked when I mentioned the bereavement cycle. I went on to explain that it’s what happens when we experience loss.
That loss can be one of death, but a grief cycle can also be triggered by other events such as a divorce, moving house, a relationship breakdown, and retirement or job loss.
No matter what the relationship or situation was like, it can be a really bad time. There is a cycle of stages that will present themselves during the mourning process.
How do you speak to someone who is going through a bereavement?
1. There is never a ‘right time’ to die.
It is important to remember that there isn’t a “right time” to die. People often ask, “How old was he” and when told “84” respond with some thing like “Oh well, he had a good innings then” or “Well we’ve all go to go sometime.”
This can be deeply wounding and shocking to the person experiencing the loss.
2. Please don’t say, “I know how you feel” YOU DON’T!
There isn’t a right something you can say that will make it all go away at a time of loss. Words can be trite, so don’t try to fix it because YOU can’t.
Listen, if they want to talk. They may wish to be left alone. They may want to talk about it as and when they are ready. They might want to talk incessantly about their loss, repeating themselves.
Maybe they will ask for practical help, such as taking care of their dog for the day or asking you to bring in a pint of milk. For some, they just won’t know what they want or need – other than for their loss not to have happened.
So remember please don’t presume to know what someone else wants or needs.
There’s some more great advice on this piece by Gilly Cannon: 12 Suggestions for What to Say (And What Not to Say) to a Friend Who Is Bereaved.
People experience grief in different ways and process the steps at different times.
I say steps, but in reality, there aren’t any steps – it’s a cycle.
I remember someone saying to me, “Oh I thought I’d moved on from that step” and I had to explain that we can cycle through the stages for a long time, revisiting them over and over in order to properly process the loss.
Sadly, many people get ‘stuck’ in the process and can remain in a stage for years.
The stages of grief
The first stage of the cycle is often shock.
Physically this may manifest as feeling robotic or numb. The psychological reaction is often one of denial – it is incomprehensible. You may hear expressions such as “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it happened” or “I can’t believe she/he has gone or done this” Or “No, it just can’t be true.”
Another stage is guilt
No matter what the person did, no matter how ‘good’ they were, they often feel guilty about something they did or didn’t do. You may hear the bereaved saying things like “if only I had visited more” or if only I hadn’t argued with them so much”.
Guilt can presents physically in the person grieving, with a sense of a heavy heart, tightness in the chest and feeling restricted in their breathing, sinking feelings or gut wrenching sensations.
A stage that can present problems is that of anger
You’ll hear anger in questions such as “Why me? Why them? Why now?” Anger can rise in seconds with snapping, sniping and shouting. People often report a feeling of heat or strong irritability, of nothing feeling right. They sometimes want to scream, rage and rant or even break things.
They may try to push loved ones away. In extreme cases anger may manifest in physical violence or self-harming such as punching walls or banging their heads.
More troubling and a sign that the person isn’t processing might be an inability to become angry. Instead they turn the anger in on themselves, which is a form of self-harming. In this instance the person becomes withdrawn, lethargic and there may even be a tendency to depression. They often feel stuck; you’ll hear them say things like “What’s the point” and “Who cares anyway”.
There’s a stage of intense sadness and, if you’re lucky, tears
I say if you’re lucky because tears are a release, a let up from the intense power of all the emotion.
When the loss first occurs the above cycle can happen in a matter of minutes, then hours, then days, which eventually turn to weeks, months and years.
Where there is a ‘healthy’ grieving there will be some acceptance of the loss in time.
It is such a terrible cliché, but for many people, time is a healer. Over time, the depth of the emotions decrease. The space between the feelings increase, giving room for acceptance and some form of ‘moving on’.
There is a very fine line between acceptance and the denial involved in the first stage. Often that signifies the start of the whole bereavement cycle again.
You can bounce backwards and forward form guilt to anger and miss out the sadness, then go from denial to sadness.
There is no order; you process your grief in your own way.
There are hindrances to grieving. In a nutshell, these hindrances are ‘using’ – turning to our ‘fix’. The fags, the booze, the over-eating, overworking, the drugs, sex addiction, even overdoing it at the gym can all be ways of escaping having to feel.
Aiming to cope by ‘using’ really only delays the process.
I remember working with the Managing Director of large business, her husband had recently died and she felt she needed to ‘hold it all together’ because of the business.
She was wise enough to recognise that something wasn’t right in her behaviour and she sought coaching to look at what was happening. She was a highly intelligent, practical lady, and she eventually developed a system that worked well for her.
Because of her responsibilities she felt unable to cry or to “cathart all over the place” (as she put it). So she agreed to take a couple of hours on a Sunday morning each week, where she would get all the photographs of her husband and the family and look at them.
She would play the music that stirred and remind her of happier times and she would immerse herself in her grief for that period of time. Allowing herself to cry, wail and rant against a background of videos of happier times. I also encouraged her to express her anger by drawing and writing.
I remember her telling me of the enormous sense of peace that she felt for a day or so afterwards, until mid week when the feelings would build again. She told me she felt a perverse sense of looking forward to her Sunday morning grieving sessions.
It allowed her time to connect with her truth to experience the feelings in her body and more importantly for her, to honour her husband and herself and without feeling that she was being self-absorbed and indulgent.
Finding your own way
Now of course this method wouldn’t work for everyone, but this lady found the formula that worked for her. What’s yours? Think about what will work for you.
Because emotions are usually feelings in the body and feelings aren’t necessarily rational, expressing them can be challenging.
Some Suggestions To Try
- Take a huge piece of paper. The back of an old roll of wallpaper can be useful. Get some felt tips, paints or coloured pencils and using your non-dominant hand just allow your hand to do the work. It doesn’t have to make sense, just draw something, anything.Your brief is ‘Draw Your Grief.’ Allow whatever comes out to come out without labels, criticisms or judgments.
- Clear a space. Get hold of an old tennis racquet, or cricket bat (I got mine in a charity shop). Sit on the floor at the foot of your bed or sofa, breathe in, bring the bat up and over your head with both hands, widen your chest and, as you breathe out, ‘thwack’ the bed or sofa with the bat repeatedly.If you’re not too self-conscious, simultaneously yell and shout too.
- Go to the coast, find a deserted bit of beach where the waves are crashing and scream and shout. (This is particularly good in the winter when the beaches are deserted).
- If you have a car, drive somewhere quiet and cry, shout and scream.
- Make some space to do some yoga. If you don’t know how, lie on the floor and start by doing some gentle stretching, just do whatever you feel like doing. Next, roll around on the floor grab your feet or rock/roll backwards and forwards or side to side. Trust that your body will guide you.
- Write letters to the people you feel angry with. Do it by hand. NEVER email – the temptation to hit send may be too strong. When you have ranted sufficiently bin, burn or bury the letter. It doesn’t matter what method you use, but it is essential to get rid of it there and then. You can always write another if need be.
One client had issue with a member of staff in the hospital where his mother had died, he felt this nurse had been cold and uncaring toward his mother.
He wrote the letter and then another. It was a good month or so after when he told me that he had begun to remember occasions when the nurse had also shown some real kindness and tenderness to his mother.
For more about the power of writing your feelings, see Eric Barker’s blog post: How To Deal With Anxiety, Tragedy Or Heartache – 4 Steps From Research.
- Nurture yourself. Be kind and gentle with yourself. A warm bath, a massage, a cup of tea, a call to a good friend, whatever you want. Or wrap your arms around yourself, stroke your upper arms, say something soothing and affirming to yourself such as. “It’s all going to be okay.” Give yourself a treat of some description, show some self-love.
When the grief of missing my father overwhelmed me. I had a secret ritual. I would pull out an old gingham sweater of his from the top of my wardrobe. First I would smell it (it’s a total fantasy now – there is no longer any of his scent on it!). Then I would wrap the sleeves of it around my neck and pretend that we were having a cuddle. I might talk to him out loud or sometimes cry. On occasions I would stay there for ages, sometimes just a few minutes. It bought me comfort.
Now I know this wouldn’t work for everyone but it was my little fix.
Be kind and loving to yourself!
If you are dealing with any kind of loss I’d be interested in your feedback, so please email or leave a comment and tell me how you cope with your grief.