Meera stared at the family portrait on the wall, fighting to keep tears from welling in her eyes. It was hard for her to believe that the handsome man on the wall, her husband of 30 years was no more – lost to the menace they call cancer. Questions filled her mind, ‘What should I do now?”, “How do I live out the rest of my life?”, “What happens to all the retirement plans we made together?” and so on…
No matter how prepared or unprepared we may be, the experience of loss can overwhelm us and weigh upon us as a burden too heavy to bear. Loss can be of many kinds, but the one that is more commonly acknowledged is the loss of a loved one (parent, spouse, child, relative, friend or pet) through death, or a miscarriage. Another kind of loss, again linked to people, is the loss of a relationship, for example, through separation, divorce, a break-up or moving away to another city/country. Other types of loss include loss of a limb or part of the body, loss of material possessions, like financial loss, loss of a house/home, loss of an object that is held dear, loss of a job, etc. Loss can also be more abstract, in terms of loss of independence in functioning (e.g. an illness requiring intensive caregiving), loss of efficiency in cognitive capacities (e.g. in dementia or following a brain injury), loss of an anticipated promotion, loss of social reputation, and so on.
“How do I look?,” Sanjay asked, as he hugged his wife goodbye, “Wish me luck!”
“You look as good as always,” she replied, her eyes brimming with pride, “You’ve worked so hard for this opportunity to lead a project abroad. It’s going to be so good for all of us! You don’t need luck – it’s a sure thing!”
These scenes flashed across Sanjay’s mind, as he watched with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, as a younger colleague was just announced as the “right choice” for the position he had coveted all these months. Swallowing with effort, he plastered a tight grin on his face as he attempted to be a ‘good sport’ and join in the congratulations that were being offered…
Grief and its Manifestations
Our emotional reactions will vary according to the kind of loss we have experienced, and how meaningful that loss was to us. However, regardless of the nature of the loss, a natural grieving period follows. Grief is the process by which we respond to and work through the loss experienced. This process can last for a couple of days to a few months, varying from individual to individual. While going through grief, it is quite normal to experience the following:
A sense of numbness and shock: It may all just seem like a bad dream, something that can be wished away. Usually in the initial stages of grief, it is common to not really ‘feel’ anything, movements and actions seem done in a daze and this is frequently accompanied by feelings of disbelief – “This can’t be happening to me!” There can also be a fervent clinging onto the hope that the situation can be reversed somehow and everything would go back to the way they were before. This state may not last very long, and usually gives into a sea of emotions.
Intense feelings of sadness: Sadness may come in waves, triggered by memories, or catching you by surprise. It may feel like an ache inside you that seems incapable of healing. Crying, withdrawing from others, not wishing to do things you liked doing before and feeling tired may be present. Although it may not seem like it at that time, this emotional distress does heal and the intensity dullens with time.
Anger: Anger can be at a particular person (the person that is lost, the person who seems responsible for the loss), at the self or even at society at large and God, or any spiritual presence. This emotion can also stem from a sense of feeling helpless about the current situation and needing to hold someone responsible for the loss.
Guilt: Commonly alongside sadness and anger is guilt – feeling that there could have been something you could have done in order to have prevented the loss. When there is loss through death, there could be regret about having said or behaved in a particular way, or the converse, not having expressed something that you wanted to.
Anxiety: Loss usually throws up a lot of uncertainties about the future, decisions to be taken and responsibilities shouldered. It may cause you to think of your own vulnerabilities and all this can lead to feeling anxious, stressed out and worried.
In addition to the abovementioned emotions, the quality of sleep maybe disturbed, appetite may be erratic and there could be bodily aches and pains, gastric disturbances, etc.
Recovery from Grief
For most of us, grief is a transient state and does resolve on its own in time. As mentioned earlier, there is no strict timeline, but mental health professionals believe that a maximum of six months or so is within normal limits. Below are a few strategies that might help you better manage your grief:
- Express your feelings – talk it out. You are not expected to pretend to “be strong” (whatever that means!) or continue about your life as though nothing ever happened. Speak to a trusted other about your emotions and what you are going through. For those who feel that the trusted other was the one who has been lost, then write a letter addressed to that person (in the case of divorce/break-up, the letter need not be sent to that person), expressing your feelings about the loss.
When Sanjay got back home after that seemingly never-ending day, he was initially dismissive of his wife’s concern, attempting to coach his son at football as was usually done. However he found his concentration lacking and was short with his son, scolding him for minor errors. At night finally, he decided to confide in his wife, opening up about the emotions he was going through, how this had upset all his hopes and plans, and even allowed himself to cry a little. On awakening the next morning, he realized that something had changed, and he felt a little more able to face the day ahead of him.
- Take some time out for yourself. Grief is a normal response to any loss and you need to allow yourself to go through the process of grieving. Try to avoid immediately immersing yourself at work or any other activity, in order to block the pain. Instead, understand that it is healthier for you to acknowledge your feelings, your vulnerability and accept help from others around when required.
- Social support. We are fortunate in our country to maintain ties with friends and relatives, who are mostly available to rally support at times of need. When there is death, funeral proceedings usually garner the extended family to render assistance and can temporarily at least, help avert the feelings of loneliness. Even if it is loss of any other kind, seek some social support instead of blocking people out. The ones who care for you do want to help – let them. Some people also draw comfort from their religious faith and it can be a good idea to engage in religious activities that are meaningful and consoling to you, e.g. prayers, meditation, worship, etc.
- Engage in meaningful or creative activities. In time, it would become important for you to devote your time and energy to something beyond yourself, for example, invest in a hobby more seriously, become active in the community, etc. This would help to rekindle the meaningfulness of your life and give it purpose, which aids in the recovery from loss.
Wanting to be able to do something with her time, Meera took up gardening, something that she and her husband had talked about earlier, but had never gotten down to actually doing it. Apart from tending her budding garden, she also began volunteering a few hours a week at the home for senior citizens nearby, spending time with the elderly there and sometimes even baking them something special. Gradually she was able to feel a sense of healing within and her smile returned to her face. She was sure her husband would have been proud of her.
- Avoid important decision-making. It is imperative to refrain from taking any significant decisions when emotional, as there is a tendency to be unable to think things through rationally. Therefore it would be a good idea to postpone decision-making to a time when emotions are calmer and thoughts have better clarity.
- Be prepared for triggers. It is normal to experience a surge of painful emotions on the anniversary of the loss and any other significant related days. Anticipating this and discussing the same with a trusted other can help.
- Know when to seek professional help. It would be a good idea to talk to a mental health professional if you experience the following:
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide occurring to you and you finding it hard to dismiss them; wishing for death or engaging in risky behaviour.
- Impairment in functionality that is, not being able to work efficiently or perform necessary tasks; withdrawing from people and avoiding social contact, even after a few weeks.
- Even beyond several months, the emotional pain remaining as strong and sharp as ever (sadness, anger, bitterness, guilt, resentment).
- Your sleep being severely affected for several days.
- Finding yourself unable to ‘move on’, for example, not clearing up the belongings of the one who is lost, clinging onto the hope that the situation can be unrealistically altered or reversed, etc.
In conclusion, the memory of the loss may never fade, but with time (and sometimes assistance), the distress attached to the loss will heal. Remember, all our experiences are woven into the intricate fabric of life, and no matter how painful and debilitating some experiences may seem, we can still grow from then, learn from them and continue on…