Grief is not typically considered to be a disease but it is altered psychological state that has emotional, mental and even physical symptoms. In fact grief can be so debilitating and prolonged that it can compromise a person’s physical and mental health over time. Each person handles the loss of a loved one differently but grieving is largely unavoidable even if people express it in different ways. In some it may be obvious from the onset, while others may show little or no change at all but this does not mean that the grief does not have a psychological impact on them, if not immediately then in due course.
What is grief?
Grief is seen as an emotional response to loss of a loved one. This is the traditional definition but it is now known that loss has many dimensions to it. Firstly, it is not only an emotional response – grief has physical, mental, behavioral and social implications as well. Grief is a natural response. Every person experiences it irrespective of their culture or beliefs. It can last for weeks, months and years but gradually eases over time in most instances.
Secondly, death is not the only cause of grief. Any loss of a loved one or relationship can elicit grief and this can sometimes be associated with life events like divorce or upon hearing a diagnosis of a terminal disease. However, it is widely accepted that death of a loved one is by far the most likely event to trigger the most severe grief. The reason for this may lie in the fact that death is permanent and irreversible life event.
What is complicated grief?
Complicated grief, which is also known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, is where grief does not subside over time as it usually would. Although grief gradually subsides, many people are able to resume a normal life even while grieving. For some it can take days or weeks, while for others it may take months to do so even though the grief is present but not as intense as it initially was.
However, with complicated grief it is often severe and lasts for so long that a person cannot return to a normal routine. The grief essentially persists and even if it does diminish slighty, it is usually not sufficient to return to normal life. Initially complicated grief appears very much the same as normal grief. However, when the most debilitating parts of grief do not subside for months or years then it may be an indication of complicated grief instead.
Signs and Symptoms
Some of the signs and symptoms of grief are obvious to almost every person. Others are less so to the untrained eye.
- Crying, at times uncontrollably and usually repeatedly immediately after the news. It can occur over long periods of time but becomes more episodic when thinking about the loved one.
- Sighing and difficulty breathing.
- Feeling fatigued and weak.
- Sadness and other strong emotions like anger, frustration or guilt.
- Complaints of headaches, generalized aches and pains.
- Changes in appetite, usually loss of appetite.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Vivid dreams and nightmares.
The signs and symptoms may vary to some degree in children. There may be temper tantrums, obstinate and ill-disciplined behavior, problems with bedwetting and so on. Teens may also be reckless behavior. It is not uncommon for there to be anger or bitterness about the loss, feelings of detachment, difficulty in focusing on anything else but the person and the loss and to display a lack of trust. However, it is usually short-lived.
The behavioral and social signs and symptoms may not be as simple to define. Different people react in different ways. Often grief affects academic and work performance, social interaction, may impact on personal hygiene and even contribute to addiction and depression. While this is not always considered to be unusual, it becomes a cause for concern if it persists for more than a few days or weeks.
Coping With Grief
There is no set formula for coping with grief. A number of different techniques could be useful but it is always advisable to seek professional help at some point – the sooner the better. Once counseling is commenced, it is important to be diligent with counseling sessions. In the meantime, the following measures may be helpful:
- Ensure that you eat at regular intervals even if you do not feel hungry. Also stay hydrated with water and fruit juices but avoid alcohol as it can promote dehydration.
- Physical activity is important. Exercise is often the best option but even activities like a stroll around the block, gardening or cleaning the house can be useful.
- Do not isolate yourself. Try to spend time with family and friends. Go to your local shopping mall once you feel up to it. Community events and religious gatherings may also be worth considering.
- Speak to family members and trusted friends about how you are feeling and coping with the loss. It is best to verbalize your feelings rather than bottling it up inside.
- Try stress management techniques like yoga and meditation. It may not only help improve your emotional state but can also assist with better sleeping patterns and tiredness.
- Find activities that you enjoy doing, be it physical outdoor activities or a new indoor past time. It is best to choose something that is familiar but do not hesitate to try new things that may be of interest.
- Interact with other people going through a similar loss. This may take the form of support groups or online chat rooms. Sharing common experiences can be helpful but psychotherapy is still advisable.
- Learn more about grief and the different stages. Understanding that the process is common to most people helps to less isolated in the experience.
Medication for Grief
Ideally a combination of psychotherapy and coping skills should be utilized in managing and overcoming grief. Medication is usually not the first option and if possible it should be avoided. However, there are times where drugs have to be considered for grief and related problems. These drugs should be prescribed by a doctor.
- Sedatives should only be used for short periods of time immediately after the loss and to help with initial sleeping problems. It is a short term solution but best avoided altogether due to the addiction potential.
- Anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed for people with anxiety disorders. It can be considered both for the short- or long-term.
- Antidepressants may be necessary as a medium to long term solution for people who are clearly depressed and not improving at a suitable speed with counseling alone.