What Does Grief 
Do to A Person?

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D. 

Out of all human experience, grief is the most painful experience of all.  The word "grief" means "heavy."  It may well be the heaviest weight that a person will ever have to carry.  In the early stages of grief, the survivor carries this weight, lying, standing, sitting, sleeping or awake.  The loss of a loved one strikes at the heart of our own existence and our sense of rootedness in the world.  We lose, at least temporarily, the belief in our power to control any thing.  We feel belittled and helpless against the powers that appear much greater, forceful, and unfriendly.  We don't "lose" a loved one, we are "robbed" of a loved one, as if by some ruthless force, and that's what the word, "bereave" means, to "rob" or "plunder." 

 A couple went to a therapist after they found out that the wife had terminal cancer.  The wife who was putting a brave front to this "deadly" news, was surprisingly upset that her husband was having such a terrible time with it.  She wanted him to marry, live happily and not go through the mourning and despair at all.  The therapist said, "But Mary! How can he not grieve, he loves you."  When it comes to dealing with loss and grief, we make rather unnatural demands on ourselves.  We expect that a normal healthy person should get over the bereavement fairly rapidly and completely; no scars should be seen a few weeks after the funeral. 

 Mourning does not just consist of sorrow and guilt, a mourner also grapples with strong emotions of anger, rage, resentment, hope, and a fantasy of the fleeting joy of reunion with the deceased.  The sorrow in grief is because of love and the attachment to the person.  If we didn't love and were not attached to the person, we would not grieve.  While the sorrow in grief is due to love and attachment, the pain in grief is a mixture of love, anger, guilt, and a whole lot of other feelings that may clash with one another.  The bereaved, the person who has been robbed, often wonders if he or she is going crazy due to these feelings that don't make sense.  We see, hear and feel things that are "strange" and make us act "strangely."  What is real and what is not, at times, becomes confusing.  A wide mixture of intense and conflicting emotions may raise new anxieties in the survivor, "I must be going crazy."  Note that many experiences which otherwise will be considered abnormal are very normal in grief.  A survivor, above all, needs assurance and understanding of how the process of grief unfolds and the fact that it takes a long time.  It is entirely possible for the survivor to awaken on a birthday, anniversary, or holiday, long after the death, and experience the horror and the shock as if the death just occurred. 

 It can be reassuring to know that this is all part of normal mourning.  For example, during the grief period, disbelieving the death does not suggest that survivor has become mentally unsound; such disbelief about the loss is a part of healthy mourning.  We can learn from the grief a small child displays when separated from his mother, it holds the key to understanding the ways we grieve in adulthood.  This will be discussed later.  Let us now look at the stages of grief.  Note that grief is borne through stages, from the peak to a slope, and each stage lays the groundwork for the later stages. 
Time is the healer of grief, as they say, and grieving does take time.  Though immensely painful, and we may desperately wish otherwise, we can't bypass the work of grief.  Impatience with the process only adds to the stress.  True healing is only attained by going through the various stages of grief over weeks, months and sometimes years.  The stages of grief are not neatly divided; there is a great deal of overlapping among them, and the survivor may go back and forth between the stages in an attempt to complete the unfinished business.  However, the following sequence can be identified in the stages of normal grief. 
1.  The stage of numbing:  It usually lasts from few hours to a few days.  During this phase, there may be outbursts of intense rage and distress. 
2.  The stage of yearning and searching:  Yearning and searching for the lost person may last for months and in unusual cases, for years.  Anger towards others and the lost person is normal. 
3. The stage of despair:  After yearning, constant searching, and wishing for the recovery of the lost person, the loss appears final and irrecoverable.  The despair sets in.  Intense sorrow and depression are the normal emotions at this stage which may last for weeks and months. 
4. The stage of reorganization and reattachment:  As the hope of reversing the loss and restoring the past is surrendered, the survivor accepts the reality of the new circumstances.  The survivor relates to the other survivors, pays attention to the needs of her own and of the survivors.  The demands of daily life that had been neglected, begin to take precedence.  The survivor may assume new responsibilities to fill the gap left by the lost person.  New relationships may form at this stage and the lost person is remembered with less pain. 

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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