When someone we love dies, a feeling of deep, painful grief is a natural and common response. Actually, grief can be triggered by the loss of anything we value, anything in which we have invested time, energy, a part of ourselves—a job, a work of art, a beloved pet. People who are divorcing are often surprised (and appalled) by the depth of their grief, unless they realize that what they are mourning is not the angry battleground that the relationship has become but the dream they still cherish of what might have been.
Whatever the cause, the feeling of grief often comes in waves. The first flooding, crushing tidal wave usually subsides within a few days or weeks, but even months later an unexpected, poignant memory will bring on tears, a sudden constriction of the chest, a lump in the throat. Over time, these peaks become less intense and less frequent, and eventually they fade away.
In most cases, though, grief and sadness are not the only emotions we experience in connection with loss. Before an impending loss, we often torture ourselves with false hopes: "If I'm a good girl, Mommy and Daddy won't need to get a divorce." Afterwards, we may be consumed by guilt, even if others can see that it is irrational: "If only I had made him go to the doctor sooner." Equally common are feelings of anger and relief. These reactions can be even more insidious in the damage that they do, because many people are ashamed of such feelings and cannot admit to them.
In my experience, people do not typically die or grieve in predictable, orderly stages. Rather, I find it much more helpful to think of the "stages" of grief simply as common emotional reactions. A particular individual may experience all of them, or only some of them, and may move back and forth among various emotions on his or her individual path toward resolution.
Various factors in ourselves or our environments can also make grief more prolonged and difficult, by leaving behind a sense of unresolved issues or by delaying or interfering with the process of resolution. For example, if the relationship was strained and ambivalent or the death was very sudden, there will be a sense of many things left undone and unsaid. If we deny our own feelings or perceive that others disapprove of them be cause they are not "proper" or "legitimate," we do not get rid of the feelings—we only cut ourselves off from dealing with them. If multiple losses have occurred in too short a time in the past, we may not have the inner resources left to cope with the present. If the people we are used to depending on are overwhelmed by their own feelings, our social support network may unravel when we need it most. Or if those around us do not share our sense of loss, they may be unable to relate to what we are experiencing.
What can you do is you, or others you care about, are grieving? The following are a few important guidelines.
1. Recognize that each person grieves in his or her own way. Some people need to talk about their loss and to express their feelings openly, but that is not true of everyone. Giving other people the message that they are unhealthy or foolish or simply wrong because they do not grieve the way they are "supposed" to, because they cry too much or do not cry at all, is unsupportive and unhelpful. Telling yourself this message is just as destructive.
2. Support the acknowledgement and acceptance of all of the thoughts and feelings that arise from the loss. Telling people that they "shouldn't" feel what they are feeling never works. Instead, it only adds to the feelings of guilt, isolation and anger. Acknowledging and working through the feelings is a much more effective way to resolve them.
3. Recognize that the healing will take time. In our culture, we have somehow become uncomfortable with grief and mourning. A person who wears black after the funeral—or even at the funeral itself—is looked upon with distaste. A week of emergency leave is seen as sufficient, if not excessive. In reality, even in relatively uncomplicated cases it is not uncommon for full recovery to take several months to a year.
4. Anticipate problems when you can. Holidays, anniversaries and birthdays may bring up memories of earlier times and acute awareness of the person who is no longer there to take his or her accustomed role in the celebration. Special occasions during the first year after the loss are likely to be especially difficult, because each one is the first Thanksgiving, the first birthday, etc., without that person. By thinking ahead, you can help to modify old traditions or start new customs that both honor the past and look to the future. By the time the second year begins, you will have been through each event once already, and the new ways of doing things will probably start feeling more natural and familiar.
5. Seek professional help. Not everyone will need the expertise of a professional counselor to recover from grief. But if the circumstances of the loss seem to be more than you can handle, or if you are not sure whether what you are experiencing is "normal," a trained counselor will be able to help you sort out these feelings. He or she will also be able to offer understanding and support in ways that your family and friends, who are locked into their own perspective, may not be able to do. For best results, I recommend looking for a counselor who is specifically trained in dealing with grief and trauma resolution.