Grief is a universal experience. At some point, everyone loses a friend, family member or even a beloved pet. It can also be brought on by other experiences, such as the loss of a job or the end of a relationship. Dealing with a serious loss is always a struggle, but for some people grief can be more prolonged, resulting in depression or other ongoing mental health issues.
August 30 is National Grief Awareness Day
Founded in 2014 by Angie Cartwright, the day is based on her own experiences with loss. At age five, she lost her baby sister. As an adult in 1996, her husband was killed in a car accident. And in 2010, her mother passed away from a drug overdose.
As Cartwright processed her grief each time, she noticed something troubling about people’s reactions. Many people still hold a stigma against expressing grief. She encountered people telling her that she needed to move on, or “get over” her pain. She found herself struggling with feelings of shame, pressure to rush through her recovery, and the sense that her human emotions were taboo. In 2015, she gave a moving speech about her experiences for the National Grief & Hope Convention.
The purpose of National Grief Awareness Day is to push back against these harmful narratives, giving people the space to address their grief in a whatever way is healthiest for them, rather than trying to meet someone else’s timeline. It is part of a movement to educate people about grief and how it is an opportunity to support one another, rather than allowing individuals to suffer silently.
The Five Stages of Grief
Most people have heard of the five stages of grief. These were created by the researcher Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who wrote about them in her book Death and Dying. The five stages she observed in her research are as follows:
- Denial. This is when a person receives unpleasant or upsetting news and works to distance themselves from it. They may feel numb and shut down, and either try to keep busy or tell those around them that everything is fine.
- Anger. When people begin to process the pain of their loss, this often involves feelings of anger. They may become aggressive or irritable towards others, or may direct that anger inward in the form of self-destructive behavior like substance abuse.
- Bargaining. In the bargaining stage, a person will often ruminate on the past or future, and judge themselves or others for what’s happened. They may be obsessed with thoughts of how they might change the situation.
- Depression. The pain of adjusting to life after an important loss is difficult for everyone. During this stage, people are trying to learn how to let go of their past life, especially if it involves major changes to their daily circumstances.
- Acceptance. The final stage is acceptance, where a person learns to make peace with the situation. This doesn’t always mean that they’re happy, but they are on the road to healing.
While most people believe that the stages are only experienced after a death, that’s not true. They can be experienced when a person is grieving any major life change or loss. The five stages also aren’t experienced in a strictly linear way – someone can experience the acceptance one day and fall back to denial the next day. It’s important not to judge yourself or others for not “progressing” through the stages quickly enough.
How to Support Someone Who’s Grieving
If someone you care about if currently grieving, there are a few important things you can do to show your support. These include:
- Be understanding about the grieving process. Understand that there is no “right” way to grieve. Be understanding about the emotional highs and lows your loved one may experience. Don’t judge them for their emotional reactions and reassure them that what they’re feeling is normal. Don’t try to rush them through the process and let them work through grief at their own pace.
- Be willing to listen. Most of the time, those who are grieving just want to be able to talk about their feelings. Let them know that you’re available to listen, and let them know that you care about them and want to support them. Don’t try to distract them, cheer them up, or avoid the topic – this will only make them feel isolated and alone.
- Offer to help with practical matters. When a person is grieving, they can be overwhelmed and have trouble reaching out when they need help. Ask if there’s anything you can do. Some things you can do to help them are picking up groceries, running errands, preparing meals, helping with housework, or simply volunteering to watch a movie or go on a walk together. It’s also important to keep in mind that your loved one may need help after the immediate aftermath of their loss. Months or even years out, try to reach out and ask if they’re struggling. This can be especially important around significant dates like holidays or anniversaries they would normally share with someone they’ve lost.
- Watch for warning signs. While it’s normal for a grieving person to feel depressed, if they don’t seem to be improving or get worse with time, they may be developing clinical depression. If it’s been several months and they are still having difficulty functioning in daily life, are neglecting basic self-care, are abusing drugs or alcohol or are preoccupied with death, they should speak with a professional.
There is Help Available If Grief Seems Overwhelming
If you or someone you care about is struggling with grief, you don’t have to suffer alone. LifeWorks NW staff have years of experience working with grief and helping people who have suffered a loss find meaning in their life again. To get more information or make an appointment, contact us today.