Losing a loved one unexpectedly from a vehicular accident, through an act of violence, or from COVID-19 is considered a traumatizing experience. No one can ever be prepared for such a loss. No amount of counselling, prayer, justice or compassion can ever bring a loved one back.
When someone passes on unexpectedly, the lives of loved ones are abruptly affected, and their world is forever changed. The awareness that their dreams will never be realised sinks in, and that grief lingers.
One may wish they could press pause on the grieving process during the Christmas season. I remember wishing I could do just that during the first holiday season (and several) following the painful loss of a loved one in my life.
I recall being conflicted as there were times when I wanted to participate in the excitement and joy but simultaneously either didn’t want to participate at all or felt guilty for celebrating. That conflict still exists many years later.
What I have come to realise is - grief is complicated and unique for everyone. While accepting loss becomes easier over time, it is often something we carry with us forever.
There is no one way to grieve
From decades of research and interviews, Psychologists and Grief Therapists have been able to identify some important steps for healing: -
- Surround yourself with supportive people
- Allow yourself to cry
- Allow yourself time to recover
- Be honest about your feelings
- Find a safe way to release your anger
- Write down your feelings if that helps
- Admit that you may need help
- Do not compare your grief with that of others, as everyone is unique
- Do not blame yourself
- Treasure your memories and share them with others
It is important to remember that no two people grieve the same way, with the same intensity or for the same duration.
The grief process
The grief process is often characterised as work because it is laborious and difficult. There is no timetable for this process. Losing a loved one causes survivors to adjust their lives in order to compensate and cope. Grief can be a long, painful process, but it can be managed with assistance from friends, family and/or outside support.
Grief may provoke intense stress reactions such as:
- Shock, terror guilt, grief spasms
- Despair, numbness, helplessness
- Sadness, hypersensitivity, irritability
- Dissociation (experiences are “spacey,” or on “automatic pilot”)
- Overwhelming sense of loss and sorrow, depression
- Fatigue, lethargy, change in appetite
- Headaches, insomnia, sleep disturbance (nightmares)
- Hyperarousal / Hypervigilance (jumpiness)
- Muscle tension, fainting, dizziness
- Increased heart rate or blood pressure
- Nausea, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps
- Decreased libido
- Faith in humanity may be shaken
- Feeling distant from God
- Suddenly turning to God
- Questioning one’s basic beliefs
This list does not include every single emotion, there certainly are more. These are the more common experiences documented.
Do not be embarrassed or confused by these feelings. They are ALL natural reactions to an unnatural event.
Grief is always evolving and at times the feelings seem to be out of our control. Therefore, the ‘pause’ button does not exist and it is challenging to be in pain while there is so much joy all around you.
However, there are things you can do to help alleviate some of that conflict you may be experiencing. If you are grieving (or someone you know is grieving) during the holiday season, here are some helpful tips to help get through this potentially painful period of time.
How to offer help:
- Listen – be a good listener. Do not offer “psychological” assessments.
- Encourage the survivors to express their feelings if they are feeling up to it.
- Be non-judgmental – do not be shocked if survivors express anger and feelings of distrust.
- Help find resources – it may be helpful for you to gather information about community resources such as support groups or therapists.
- Help out with daily chores – people in grief may not have the energy or focus to take care of daily living tasks.
- Be wary of suicidal thoughts – it is important for people who may be having suicidal impulses to seek professional counselling with a therapist trained in trauma counselling. Do not tell the survivors that you know how they feel.
- Let these survivors heal at their own pace – do not rush them.
Tune into your grief emotions
As mentioned above, grief does not take a back seat during the holidays and can often be magnified. It’s important to acknowledge your feelings and not avoid them.
You may experience both negative and positive feelings during the holidays while grieving and that is okay. Be kind to yourself and remember that all feelings can coexist. For example, I can miss that person and enjoy the holiday at the same time.
It may be tempting to numb out with unhealthy habits during the holidays. Anticipating the difficult emotions and preparing ahead of time will help prevent negative consequences from occurring.
“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” ~ Vicki Harrison
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