Understanding The Grief Journey

If you’ve recently had a loved one die, it might feel like your life will never go “back to normal” or that you’ll never be able to live a happy, fulfilling life again. Indeed, it’s normal to feel completely overwhelmed by grief in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death. 

Grief is a natural emotional process. Although it is a near-universal experience for people following a death, no two people experience grief in exactly the same way, and people who experience grief more than once often find that each experience is different. 

There are some similarities in most people’s experience of grief, however. Most people suffer the most in the days, weeks and months immediately after their loved one’s death. This initial grief is called acute grief. 

Acute grief is an emotional process, but many people find it has physical manifestations, too. Some people find they have a poor appetite, or can’t sleep or concentrate, for months after a major loss. 

In this stage, everyone will deal differently with their grief, and it’s hard to peg down a ‘normal’ response. Some people immerse themselves in work, exercise or other hobbies; others find themselves unable to concentrate on anything at all. There’s no right way to “do” acute grief, and as long as you’re not hurting yourself or others, no wrong way, either. 

Acute grief is often physically and emotionally exhausting. It can make decision-making difficult or impossible, and interfere with all aspects of your life. Luckily, however, acute grief usually fades away as the months turn into years. As the all-consuming acute grief matures, it will turn into integrated grief. 

Integrated grief is the grief that stays with us for a lifetime. After a while, you’ll start returning to your daily activities. Grief will no longer feel overwhelming. You’ll still miss your loved one, and you’ll probably have times when the symptoms of acute grief return—especially around holidays or anniversaries. 

The term integrated grief points to the fact that this grief has become a part of who you are, like the color of your hair or the town you grew up in. You’ve incorporated your loss into the story of your life, and it’s become part of the background information that informs your thoughts, actions, and opinions. Integrated grief isn’t debilitating and doesn’t prevent you from having a happy, fulfilling life. 

If it’s been more than a year since your loved one died and you’re still feeling intense, acute grief, you might be one of the 10% of people who experience complicated grief. 

Complicated grief refers to acute grief that refuses to fade into the background, with symptoms lasting years after the original loss. Only about 10% of people experience complicated grief, but those who do find it debilitating. The symptoms of acute grief are disruptive, but won’t prevent you from building a joyful new life as long as they limited in duration. Symptoms of acute grief that never go away and continue to create problems in your life years after a loss can make recovery elusive.

All grievers can benefit from both support groups and private counseling, but it’s especially important for people who are experiencing complicated grief. I can help you move towards integrated grief—finding ways to honor your loved one and his or her loss while also moving forward and finding joy in your life. It’s entirely possible to move from complicated grief to integrated grief. Working with a professional counselor can help make the journey easier.

Photo by Asdrubal Luna