An Introduction to Grief, for the Uninitiated
Grief is an involuntary reaction in response to loss. Its power over the bereaved can be all-consuming and may take years to come to terms with.
Those who are fortunate enough to never have suffered the death of a close loved one, interestingly, are often the people who are the most afraid of grief and death. The fear of parental death can induce panic and anxiety in anyone, but this fear seems to manifest often in those who have never been initiated into the grief club.
What Is It Like to Grieve?
Grief is different for everyone, which makes generalizing this experience difficult. It's often assumed that grief is close to depression, but the actual thinking and feeling processes of bereavement are wrought with havoc.
Much of the inner turmoil is the sudden adjustment to a permanent and damaging shift in reality. Everything is different after the death of a close loved one, and the change is about more than the absence of a loved one. What follows is a journey of painful, tragic self-discovery. For some, this means a challenge to their previously held worldview; for others, the main crisis is existential. It's an inner change as well as a loss.
All healthy grief journeys involve highs and lows. It's absolutely normal to feel shattered at times.
Finding a System
Whether or not there is immediate grief to unpack, it's worth looking at the various ways others have overcome loss and emerged victoriously if not a little bit damaged. No matter how well you prepare, there is no way to anticipate, prevent, or mitigate the shock and pain of bereavement. But by gaining some tools, resources, and perspective, it's possible to be less unprepared when the time comes.
Rationales for Approaching Grief
Finding a rationale for loss that fits with personal values and beliefs is important. An understanding of 'what's coming next' in uncharted territory helps with creating a sense of personal safety. It's unrealistic to expect the raw experience of grief to exactly match a philosophical understanding of bereavement. Knowing various methods of processing loss and staying flexible can help keep everything in perspective during this difficult time.
The Psychological Approach
People who are drawn to methodology, rules, and procedure may also be drawn to psychological models of grief. Learning how a complex reaction to grief can be scientifically studied can make the incomprehensible seem more tangible.
The Kübler-Ross model is most famous and states that there are five stages to go through in grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. William Worden's Four Tasks of Mourning are slightly less well known, but offer grievers a more pragmatic approach to bereavement. Then, there is the Dual Process Model of coping, which states that focusing on restoration-related activities unrelated to grief can be beneficial in conjunction with active grief.
The Counseling Approach
People who seek reassurance, answers, and a perspective on their own individual issues might prefer to put their faith in counseling. A qualified grief counselor will have experience with many presentations of bereavement and can offer tips for persevering after a loss.
Deciding to verbalize emotions, accept support, and work on good mental health is an approach that takes time, money, and plenty of hard work. It is particularly beneficial for those who are grieving alone but can also benefit families, couples, and individuals who seek an objective listener.
The Death-Positive Approach
Those who thrive on philosophical discussion might find a death positive or other existential view of grief.
Death positivity is a new movement of people who readily accept that death is a natural part of life. Believing that there is such a thing as a 'good death', death positivity aims to make the dying process more comfortable, normalized, and ethical. By breaking the taboo that surrounds death and encouraging open dialogue about morbid curiosities, some of the mystery is removed.
With the focus on creating a better quality of life and death, it may be easier to process bereavement.
The Spiritual Approach
Religion is a major factor in the loss of a loved one for billions of people worldwide. Even outside of organized religion, many folks hold faith. In the event of a death, turning to faith can be grounding and comforting.
Most religions are explicit about how bodies and funeral rites should be performed. In some faiths, there are even strict guidelines on how to mourn long after the death occurred. These guidelines can lead people through bereavement and act as a structure for making sense of death.
The Personal Approach
The best approach is personal. These ways of making sense of grief are just a few of the tried and true death rationales, but this list is by no means exhaustive. It's likely that any approach will be infused with the individual griever's background, privilege, personality, and beliefs, but there is value in researching more structured thinking on the issue of loss.
While it's natural to fear death, experience with grief removes some of the mystery that surrounds loss of life. That doesn't mean that subsequent losses will be easier, but the experience can at least help map the next journey.
Making Sense of Tragedy
Grief comes in many forms. It can happen as a result of any loss, including ones that don't include death. Loss of all kinds can trigger a grief reaction, although death is the most known culprit.
For those who worry about experiencing their first grief, take comfort in knowing this is a fairly universal fear. It's also a rational one: Grief is a risk of loving others. At some point, almost everyone will feel this pain. Enjoying life, spending time with loved ones, and seeking joy is the best way to live. Creating a meaningful life, with a good emotional support system, is the best way to ensure you will make it through grief when the time comes.