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The loss of a loved one can be one of the most painful episodes of our lives. If you’ve already experienced grief, you will be aware of the different emotions associated with loss. From feelings of denial, anger and guilt, to depression and feelings of withdrawal, our approach to coping with the trauma of loss varies from case to case.

Dr Samia Abul, Consultant Psychiatrist, Rashid Hospital, DHA, believes that the majority of people follow a general pattern of grief, which she categorises into five stages: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and eventually acceptance.

Nevertheless, Dr Abul is reluctant to apply generalisations to people when it comes to the grieving process, believing that each person has different coping mechanisms for loss. “You need to make a person understand that there is no right or wrong way to grieve,” she says.

Farah Dahabi, Clinical Social Worker and Head of Raymee Grief Center at Dubai’s Lighthouse Arabia, believes that the severity of someone’s sense of grief is often related to an individual’s relationship with the deceased and the circumstances of their passing.

Although we’re often uncomfortable with accommodating someone’s grief, Dahabi feels that people who’ve lost a loved one need to be treated with compassion and understanding, regardless of how long the process takes. “It is important to understand that grief has no clear end point,” she says. “It is not something people just get over.” 

Rather it is something that the individual learns to live with and reconstructs a new definition of “normal”. In many cases, men and women approach grief differently. Men have a tendency to be more withdrawn and uncommunicative with their emotions, whereas women are often more likely to share insights into their feelings and are usually more emotionally supportive. 

Dahabi says that in some cases, people will make damaging lifestyle choices, to mask the extent of their suffering, such as using alcohol or isolating themselves from social situations. While it’s natural for people’s behaviour to change, the Dubai-based social worker believes that someone who is grieving should be offered professional help if they are struggling to function. 

She says,“When grief begins to impact an individual’s functioning, relationships, work, health, and it seems to get worse with time, this is an indication the individual is struggling to adjust to their grief.” 

The misconception

Grief is a natural state which all of us will go through following the loss of a close friend, colleague or family member. There is a distinct difference between clinical depression and someone who is feeling sad following their loss. 

“Grief is an acute stage but it should also be a transient stage,” says Dr Abul. “If the process of grief is prolonged, the person can fall into depression, which will need help and treatment.” 

She sees the process of grieving as “an emotional pathway from distress to recovery”, and believes that there are certain steps that people can take to lessen the trauma of the experience. “Praying for the person you have lost, especially in Muslim populations, is very important as it significantly lessens the impact of the loss of a loved one.”

Another important factor to appreciate in the grieving process is that a person’s path to acceptance may not be linear and that someone who is afflicted by grief may behave differently on different days during the process. “Grief is typically experienced in waves and the sadness felt is linked to the individual’s loss,” says Dahabi. “While depression is experienced more as static low mood.” 

Dahabi suggests approaching time methodically, without concentrating too far ahead into the future and to get as much sleep as possible. “Approach your days in blocks of time — just focusing on what you need to get through for the next few hours.”

She also believes that it is important to try to stick to your usual schedule, such as attending to your job, to divert your attention away from your loss when possible.

Understanding guilt

One of the most complicated side effects of grief is when an individual acts with what can appear to be excessive anger or guilt over their loss. While such emotional reactions are commonly part of the grieving process, if you feel that someone is experiencing extreme psychological problems, it could be an indication that they require professional intervention. “Excessive guilt or anger, if persistent since the stage of disbelief, can lead to a strong fear of painful feelings and a strong belief that they will never be the same again,” says Dr Abul.

The most important role for a close confidant of someone who is grieving is that of being supportive. While you may feel a person’s reaction is excessive or irrational, you must not dismiss the depth of their emotions. A person should be allowed to address the emotions associated with loss. “Give yourself permission to feel everything you are thinking and share your feelings with others,” says Dahabi. “There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.”

Unfortunately, most people are likely to be afflicted by episodes of grief at some point in their lives. You are likely to have or will have your own experience of the psychologically difficult and sensitive nature of the process. Hopefully, what can be a negative experience, can also allow you to react with empathy and compassion when someone you care for is going through the same sad scenario of the loss of a loved one.