We have all felt sad from time to time, but there are different types of sadness. Sometimes we feel ‘down’. Other times we may let disappointment turn into sadness. Sometimes we feel detached from the world in an ‘I don’t care’ kind of sadness. Others of us may feel the full force of depression. And then there is grief.
Grief is something that all of us will experience, at some point in our lives.
What is grief?
Put simply, grief is our response to loss. It’s a normal and natural response that assists us to adjust to the subsequent changes. It can permeate our thoughts, affect our behaviours and beliefs, change our feelings, and impact our health and relationships with others.
What causes grief
Grief is about loss. Most people think of the loss of a loved one through death, when they consider grief. However, other events can cause grief including a relationship breakdown, moving away from home, miscarriage, death of a pet, loss of job or retirement, or loss of a physical ability or financial security. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief is likely to be.
Common grief responses
Some people deal with loss and grief well and others may not. There is no right or wrong way to deal with loss. However, typical responses to grief include:
Intense feelings — sadness, anger, shock, disbelief, anxiety, panic, irritability, or numbness
- Thinking — believing we will never recover, or feel happy again, thinking we are living in a bad dream or we are going crazy, unable to think clearly or focus on anything
- Physical symptoms — trouble sleeping, headaches or migraines, nausea, aches and pains.
What about the five stages of grief?
Grief has often been broken down into five stages. These stages of grief were first proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. These stages are:
- Denial — denying the reality of what’s occurred
- Anger – anger about what has happened
- Bargaining — when you make a deal with God about what’s happened, or when the guilt appears.
- Depression —when reality hits us hard and the intense feelings of sadness or depression come
- Acceptance — when you accept what has happened.
This five-stage cycle has been seen as the typical format of grief for many years. However, not everyone’s grieving process follows this cycle.
Grief follows different paths
Researchers have found that not everyone follows this five-step cycle of dealing with grief, and believe grief is not divisible into distinct stages. A 2004 Report on Bereavement and Grief Research stated that “responses to loss are widely variable and there is no one clearly defined course or process of bereavement or grieving.” [i]
In fact, some research found that some people can suffer terrible grief, while others show very little distress.[ii]
Subsequently, researchers warn that having a mistaken belief in the five-stages of grief model can have devastating consequences. Not only can bereaved people feel they are not coping appropriately, but it can also lead to ineffective support from their social networks, and unhelpful and harmful comments by health care professionals. [iii]
Do you need to grieve?
Grieving is a normal part of life, yet as we have seen, it is personal and individual. For example, some people are more open and expressive — crying or talking about it, while others make it a more private affair.
Gender, cultural backgrounds, particular loss, personality traits, social relationships and religious beliefs will also impact upon the way someone deals with loss. In fact, those who have strong religious or spiritual beliefs who can find meaning in loss, deal with bereavement better than those who don’t.
Research shows bereavement has physiological effects as well as emotional ones. Grief temporarily impairs the immune system and causes endocrine changes similar to other situations that evoke depression and distress [iv]
We have a saying in psychology “If you don’t do your feelings your feelings will do you” so despite the difficulty of dealing with loss, it is important we learn how to grieve further normalise the process for others. Unattended grief is often termed “complicated grief”- it often underlies mental illness.
Repressing grief can lead to complicated or prolonged grief which occurs “when the emotions are particularly long-lasting or severe and include inability to accept the loved one’s death, persistent thoughts regarding the death, and preoccupation with thoughts about the loved one”.[vi]
Tell-tale signs that someone may be experiencing complicated grief also include:
- depression or anxiety
- suicidal thoughts or behaviours
- difficulty completing daily tasks
- significant sleep disturbances
- difficulty with relationships or work activities
- increased reliance upon nicotine, alcohol or other drugs
- post-traumatic stress disorder.
Grief in the workplace
Offering support to someone dealing with loss is extremely important. This means, understanding they may be feeling a range of emotions on any given day, and that there is no hard and fast rule as to what their grief will look like, and how long it will last.
Acknowledging someone else’s grief is also vital. Ignoring the loss of a bereaved person, or responding to it with impatience or a ‘get over it’ attitude, can lead to ‘disenfranchised grief’ — when the relationship with the deceased, the loss or griever is not recognised. [vii]
Grief in the workplace can become disenfranchised and therefore stifled, when employers and co-workers ignore the loss that has taken place by not acknowledging it, and responding with expectations that the bereaved must ‘catch up’ on their work.
How can employers help?
Employers and work colleagues can make a tremendous difference to someone suffering a loss, by developing compassionate policy and practice. The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement offer the following 10 tips to employers to support someone who may be grieving. [viii]
- Understand bereavement — What is it? How long does it last? How do people grieve?
- Develop a bereavement policy — What are the arrangements around compassionate leave entitlements?
- Make contact after the incident of loss — Don’t intrude, but make sure they know you’re there to support them
- Develop a return to work plan — Ask the bereaved how their workplace can support them, offer flexibility around hours, ease them into their workload, etc.
- Maintain communication — Continue to stay in touch when they are on leave
- Listen — Be a good listener
- Be kind — Being kind and compassionate will help the bereaved return to the workplace
- Be respectful — Respect their needs, their grieving style and their situation
- Be flexible — Understand they may struggle so offer flexible hours, leave arrangements, etc.
- Be supportive — Grief doesn’t have a timeline so continue to offer support and encourage colleagues to do the same.
Grief can be triggered any time after a loss, and it’s not unusual to grieve for an extended period of time. However, if you are struggling with grief, regardless of how long it’s been, seek the advice and support of a professional counsellor who specialises in grief. Your general practitioner will be able to make a referral.
[ii] Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD; Camille B. Wortman, PhD, The Stage Theory of Grief, JAMA 2007, 297 (24) pp2692-2694 http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=207616
[iii] Camille B Wortman, Roxane Cohen Silver, The Myths of Coping With Loss, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1989, Vol. 57, No. 3, 349-357 http://psychology.psy.sunysb.edu/cwortman-/papers/Wortman_Silver_1989_article.pdf
[iv] Parkes CM. Bereavement in adult life, British Medical Journal. 1998;316(7134):856-859.
[vi] Ringold, S., Cassio, L., & Glass, R. M. (2005). Grief. Journal of the American Medical Association, 293(21), 2686.
[vii] Mary Ann Hazen, Grief in the Workplace, Academy of Management, Perspectives, August 2008, pp78-86
[viii] The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, How to be a Compassionate Employer, http://www.grief.org.au/ACGB/ACGB_Publications/Resources_for_the_Bereaved/Compassionate_Employer.aspx
The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, About Grief
Mayo Clinic, Complicated Grief, last updated 13 September 2014, accessed 13 July 2016
Psych Central, The 5 stages of loss and grief
Psychology Today, Good Grief: Coping After Loss, last reviewed 9 June, 2016, accessed 13 July 2016