The Experience of Grief

Russ Krengel Caregivers

Grief is a universal experience. It will eventually touch everyone’s life. 

How we deal with that grief, though, is very different from person to person. Women grieve differently than men. Soldiers grieve in a different way than civilians do. According to recent research, most people come back from the experience fairly quickly — about 60%. About 25% of people, though, take a year or two to process their grief. And about 10% of people experience what’s called “complicated grief,” which is characterized by a debilitating, persistent emotional ache that can last for many years.

The long-term experience of grief changes the body in various ways, too. The same study shows that 65% of people having an intense grief experience also start to manifest some type of physical ailment, or sometimes even multiple ailments. Not only that, but the longer the grief goes on, the more likely brain activity will change, different hormonal patterns will emerge, and the greater risk there will be of additional bereavement-associated health issues.

Grief, Illness, and Chronic Health Conditions

Grief can manifest differently for people going through a serious illness or chronic health condition.

Those having to adjust to a “new normal” can feel lost and trapped — in your mental spaces and homes, not only in your own body. You are no longer the person you had been. You may be beset by despair, anger, confusion, and resentment. Your former life is gone, and you may not know how to process it all. 

One thing that may help is to share your story with others. It might feel exceedingly difficult to get out of the miasma and do this. But you might find that making the decision to share your story can be the first step out of that bleakness.

There’s really not much to it. You only have to be honest — first be honest with yourself. Then those that are closest to you. Then, and only if you’re comfortable with it, share your story with the world at large.

You may find yourself being a lighthouse for others, leading the way for those who can’t process their own grief.

Even so, you may find the grief stays with you. There will always be some level of sadness or regret — for the life you dreamed you were going to have, and for the things you can no longer do. This might even stay around for a very long time, and that’s okay.

When those emotions come up, simply feel them. Feel them, and let them go as best you can, like a leaf floating down a river. For all the grief you might be feeling, there is a greater part of you that is still alive. Let that be the part you focus on. 

What to Do About It

Humans love to help other humans. 

If you’ve gone through a grief experience yourself, you naturally want to reach out to those who are going through it for the first time.

As much as we want to help, though, we don’t always know how. We’re never given a manual on how to help our family members in need.

The first thing to remember is that whatever the bereaved is going through, it’s very real for them. The new physical ailments they’re dealing with are real. They may also be dealing with any one of a number of mental health symptoms tied to their intense grief. 

The best thing to do with a grieving person is to simply be there for them. Sit down next to them. Offer them your shoulder to cry on, or your listening ears. No matter how long they’ve been going on, though, do not dismiss them. That will do irreparable harm.

As they talk, keep an ear out for evidence they’re having thoughts on the suicidal portion of the spectrum. It’s rare for this to happen, but not unheard of. If that happens, seek professional help.

Most of the time, though, all that will be required is your silence as you sit together with the bereaved, sharing the grief experience.

Things Will Get Better

Grief can be like being in an ocean. You don’t know when a wave will hit you. You don’t know how big that wave will be, and you don’t know how long you might be underwater. 

Grief also doesn’t come in separate and distinct stages. It happens over time, and it evolves with each passing holiday.

No matter where you are in the grief process, though, family and friends have a crucial role to play, for they are the best coping strategy that the bereaved have. Let the person going through the grief guide the process, with their body language as much as their actual words.