There’s a tomorrow, the day after and the day after that. The sun will rise; people are still going to wake up and make their way to their nine-to-five. You realise, with deep-seated revulsion, that the world will go on – with or without your loved one in it.
So you stay where you are, in the moment when it happened, because no one else will. And in your own way, it feels a lot like keeping them company.
Sometimes we end up holding on for too long, be it out of fear of forgetting them or not wanting to learn to live without them. The invisible symptoms of long-term grieving can easily go unnoticed. Over time, it can shake your most foundational beliefs and upend your entire outlook on life.
All of this is natural and normal. If you’re here because you or someone you know has lost someone (or even something), then this might give you a clearer understanding of what loss can feel like as well as when to reach out for help. We spoke to a clinical expert and a loss survivor to get you through the most stressful time of your life.
Grieving major life changes
Yes, the death of a loved one tops the list of the most stressful events we can experience in life. On American psychiatrists Holmes and Rahe’s stress scale, the highest score is allotted to losing a spouse. Some studies argue that the death of a child is the most catastrophic event, for parents.
But most of us are unaware that grieving can come after any kind of loss, not just death. Think about the last time you had to end a relationship. The waves of blues that came after is grieving – you’re mourning the loss of the connection you once had with the person.
We always have reactions when we lose something; it doesn’t have to be a person.
Any life change major enough to disrupt our routine classifies as loss, like losing a close friendship, moving out, going through bankruptcy, failing health or coming to terms with retirement.
“We always have reactions when we lose something; it doesn’t have to be a person,” Maida Kajevic, clinical psychologist with the German Neuroscience Center in Dubai, told Gulf News. “We can lose an object, a job or separate from a parent – basically, any change that affects people.”
In all cases, Kajevic notes, there is some hope, but with the passing away of a loved one, the change is too permanent.
What you might experience
Initial few months are the hardest, and this is okay because we’re still grappling with the magnitude of the shock. When time starts to feel like one long, endless day, you might also wonder if the overwhelming sadness will subside, if you’ll ever recover.
“One of the hardest things for people grieving is that they don’t know what to expect, especially in the first few months of loss. They worry about losing their sanity,” said Kajevic. “They need to know the course of mourning is unpredictable and long, and that their unbearable feelings and fears that keep them from functioning at the moment are normal.”
Loss can bring about a spectrum of reactions, from chest pain to feeling lost. Do you keep forgetting where you last placed the keys? Lapses in memory, finding it difficult to hold a conversation and thinking deeply about death might sound familiar.
Here are some or all reactions a person in grief typically displays:
• Emotional reactions: Sadness, anger, feelings of guilt and helplessness.
• Cognitive reactions: Focusing less, forgetting things, difficulty organising and planning, feeling lost, feeling like the person is next to us and searching for the meaning of life.
• Physical reactions: Fast heartbeat, difficulty breathing, uneasiness, shaking, chest pain, stomach ache, headaches, sensitivity to high voices and exhaustion.
• Behavioural reactions: Crying, difficulty falling asleep, loss of appetite, impulsive outbursts, withdrawing from people and searching for justice.
“Each person will react differently to loss. The combination of reactions depend on how much we were connected to that person or event, the circumstances in which the loss occurred, our personality traits, if we’ve experienced loss in childhood and the kind of support we’re getting during that period,” said Kajevic.
‘I just sat in the dark and cried’
Over the phone, Hanaa Zakawat, a 32-year-old Indian mum in Sharjah and a Gulf News reader, tells us that her aunt passed away just prior to the call. Her voice trembles but she swiftly follows the news with, “I’m kind of relieved she’s not in pain anymore.”
Her composure in the face of death owes to the many lives Hanaa has parted with since she was a little girl. The ominous notification blinks of her phone still keep her on edge – who will it be this time?
“I didn’t receive support; everybody was grieving. I just sat in the dark and cried my eyes out,” she said of a time when a handful of immediate family members had passed in a short period of time. Adjusting to a new job and arranging for her 4-year-old son’s speech therapy, all the while her husband was away, left her with very little time for anything else.
But over time, Hanaa has found the right tools to keep her afloat. There are times, she admits, when reminders pull her back to a dark place. And this is expected. If we were to chart the grieving process, the graph will never be linear.
Five stages of grieving
Since loss can come to anyone and everyone, we know there are certain steps people go through when grieving. Kajevic refers to the five stages of grief, pioneered by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
Stage 1: Denial
The shocking news is often met with a sort of numbness and one recurring thought: ‘This can’t be real; this isn’t happening.’ It can be a long time before your brain and body catch up with the new change. In severe cases, where the cause of the loss is suicide, we may only start grieving after a time lag.
Kajevic says denial helps us to buffer the overwhelming pain of loss.
Stage 2: Anger
This is frustration at the world for allowing the loss to happen. You can also feel angry towards the loved one, for leaving.
“You’re trying to adjust to a new reality, which comes with experiencing emotional discomfort,” said Kajevic.
Stage 3: Bargaining
It’s clear that what has passed cannot be undone. Still, some part of you thinks it’s not too late, maybe you can have them back if you were to give up something in return. There is an acute desperation to minimise the pain, adds Kajevic.
We’re constantly wondering how the loss could’ve been prevented, running laps in our heads with thoughts that begin with ‘What if…’ and ‘If only….’
Stage 4: Depression
The inexplicable weight on your chest becomes more pronounced when you realise there is no turning back time. Seeing reality as it is can trigger extreme lows. No one is going to understand the depth of your emotions, so you start to withdraw from social settings. Remember, depression, too, is part of the process.
“These negative feelings are key to successfully dealing with the loss,” Kajevic said.
Hanaa agrees and advises against ‘bottling it all up’: “Let the sorrows wash over you, feel them, let them sink in. Escaping grief is not living, and denial doesn’t help.”
Stage 5: Acceptance
This is when we’re finally able to look at reality in the face without running from it. Acceptance doesn’t mean you will no longer cry, feel frustrated or depressed, rather you’re accepting that you have to live with the loss. At this stage, individuals slowly reorganise their lives and adjust to the new normal, with their preferred coping tools.
It’s a hole that never fills, but you will become stronger. So my best advice would be to grieve.
“Cry about them, write about them, talk about them. You do get better, but the grief doesn’t get smaller. It’s how you cope with it – I cope by writing. It’s a hole that never fills, but you will become stronger. So my best advice would be to grieve,” added Hanaa.
Remember, the five stages are non-linear and exist purely for reference. You could spend some time in the acceptance stage before moving to anger and back, or only experience a few. There is no rulebook to grieving the ‘right’ way. Eventually, and hopefully, you will find yourself spending more time in the last stage – that’s the goal.
How to behave when someone has lost a loved one
A friend has lost someone and you frankly don’t know what to do or say. A misplaced ‘Are you okay?’ delivers the right intent, but can sound a little tone deaf. If you really think about it, social niceties are not helpful nor meaningful, especially in the immediate aftermath of a loss. So, what do you do when someone you care about is grieving?
Be a listener. Say, ‘Hey, if you want to talk about it, I’m here’ or ‘if you need anything, let me know.’
You know what matters? Just being there. Words are not essential.
“You know what matters? Just being there. Words are not essential,” said Hanaa. “Give me a hot cup soup, tea, oil my hair or just sit there. Words are really not essential for that. Sometimes when people grieve, they don’t want to speak. They want to suffer in silence.”
All you have to do is show that you care and understand how devastating of a time this is for the other party.
“It’s beneficial to listen, without moralising and advising; to offer practical help (to buy something, drop a person somewhere, to be with that person), as people who are grieving often do not accept any help,” added Kajevic.
When to seek professional help
Support can come in many forms; you can receive it from the people around you, a counsellor or a support group, who you feel could empathise with you the best. Ideally, you should reach out for professional help if:
- You think your support system is weak
- Or, you’ve lapsed into complicated grief.
Complicated or prolonged grief is an intense chronic state of mourning. If it has not yet been a year and you’re still preoccupied with the loss to the point that you don’t see any meaning in life, then this needs looking into, says Kajevic.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, prolonged grief disorder can be identified with the core symptom - persistent longing for the deceased. You're experiencing grief reactions every day for a month straight and find yourself doing the following:
- Avoiding reminders of the loss
- Feeling intense emotional pain, like anger, bitterness and sorrow
- Feeling numb
- Feeling lost about your identity, like a part of yourself has died
- Still in disbelief
- Intense loneliness
- Difficulty with going back to life, talking to friends, envisioning the future