Am I grieving healthily?

a man grieving with flowers in front of himGrief is a normal response to loss. The manifestation of this emotion varies with different people; symptoms may result in loss of appetite, apathy, anger or withdrawal from others.

Experiencing one or more forms of grief may feel frightening but grief is a paradoxical experience – when you feel your worst, you are doing your best healing.

Melbourne-based clinic Mind@Work Psychology states that during this period, talking to someone who is not a friend or family member can help you understand what you are feeling. Plus, with the help of a professional, you have guidance on whether what you are experiencing is normal or unhealthy.

What we Need to Understand

Like crying when we’re hurt or sleeping when we’re tired, healthy grieving is our body’s way of reestablishing balance.

As people grieve differently, we have to understand that for some people, experiences of grief never entirely go away. You may know someone, or have experienced yourself, feelings of grief returning during a lost loved one’s death anniversary, birthday or any other day where something reminded you of them.

We also have to understand that grieving is not a linear process. Texas-based researchers Margaret Baier and Ruth Buechsel state that going through the different stages of grieving is similar to the movements in a pinball machine. Someone grieving can bounce back and forth from shock to depression and back to shock until they resolve their emotions and integrate the loss into their lives.

Another consideration is that some people do better without grief work and need to process things alone.

When Does Grieving Become Unhealthy?

Grieving starts to become unhealthy when it is repressed or prolonged. The most common forms are absent, delayed and prolonged grief.

Absent grief is characterised by zero change in feelings after the loss. To be in complete shock or denial is normal at first but can be a concern if the absence of grief continues for an extended period.

Delayed grief involves pushing aside your feelings to deal with them in the future. Many people resort to this when faced with multiple problems at the time of loss. This is risky in that the grief can erupt with unexpected emotional explosions.

Prolonged grief is characterised by grief remaining prominent, years beyond the loss. In this case, professional help becomes crucial, especially with symptoms of complicated grief.

What Does Complicated Grief Look Like?

A person experiencing complicated grief can have physical reactions such as continued sleep disturbances due to nightmares and intrusive memories, or significant weight loss or gain. Physical symptoms or psychosomatics may occur, such as headaches, shortness of breath and fatigue.

Emotional reactions include panic attacks, phobias or irrational fears, and prolonged hostility or aggression. There are also behavioural reactions, such as progressive isolation and self-destructive traits.

Normal grief and complicated grief have many similar symptoms but they have one crucial difference: complicated grief develops slowly and usually remains undiagnosed up to six months after the loss. When left untreated, it can drastically interfere with daily life and affect one’s health and well-being.

Grief is a necessary process that helps survivors identify, acknowledge and integrate the changes that the loss of a loved one brings. It may feel like a long journey with no destination but you can regain a feeling of control and predictability in your life. If, after a loss, you feel stalled or not progressing, consider professional counselling even if you are not experiencing any complicating circumstances or symptoms.