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A favorite quote about grief is this observation from C.S. Lewis who, in A Grief Observed wrote “No one ever told me that grief was so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”
And, unfortunately, no one (now, or throughout history) has ever lived a loss-free life; everyone living today–as well as all those who came before us, commoners, members of royalty and everyone in between–has experienced the loss of someone or something dear to them. And they’ve endured the loss in their own way–for that’s the nature of grief: it’s not the same experience for everyone.
So, what’s it like for you? Whether it feels like fear or simply an overwhelmingly-large sadness which prevents you from doing anything more than weeping–grief is a dynamic force for change in our lives. A force to be accepted and understood.
Grief is a complex, multi-faceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something to which a bond was formed. While most people focus on the many emotional responses to loss, grief also has physical, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions. While the terms are often used interchangeably, bereavement refers to the state of loss, and grief is the reaction to loss.
George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, conducted more than two decades of scientific studies on grief and trauma. Subjects of his studies number in the several thousand and include people who have suffered losses in the U.S. and cross-cultural studies in various countries around the world. His subjects suffered losses through war, terrorism, deaths of children, premature deaths of spouses, sexual abuse, childhood diagnoses of AIDS, and other potentially devastating loss events or potential trauma events.
In his book, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After a Loss he summarizes his research. Because grief responses can take many forms, including laughter, celebration, and bawdiness, in addition to sadness. Bonanno coined the phrase "coping ugly" to describe the idea that some forms of coping may seem odd, bizarre, or yes, downright ugly. And you should know this: there is no right or wrong way to mourn a loss. There’s just your way.
Feelings Most people who grieve experience these emotions: sadness, anger, disbelief, numbness, relief, and guilt. They may come and go, or appear unexpectedly in response to a “cue”: something that reminds you of the pet, or person, or thing, you lost. It may be scary to experience such a wide range of emotions, or to feel them with such intensity, as you adjust to the loss you have experienced. But, all are part of the grief experience.
Physical Sensations As C.S. Lewis described, his experience of grief felt like fear. Often after a loved one dies, people describe feeling “hollowness” in the chest, tightness in the stomach; increased sensitivity to noise or touch, weakness, and a loss of energy. It is important to remember that these, too, are normal experiences, particularly in the early days and weeks after the death of a beloved pet.
Random Thoughts People who are grieving may experience many unfamiliar thoughts. A sense of disbelief or confusion, preoccupation with thoughts of the loved one who has died, disorientation, or even a sense of “presence” of their loved one may be experienced. Being “preoccupied” in this way is distracting, so take extra care when driving, crossing the street, or walking down stairs.
Odd Behaviors It is common to experience changes in sleep or appetite patterns. There may also be a sense of social withdrawal, as the energy it takes to interact seems taxing. It is normal to feel disoriented and exhausted. You may feel that no one else understands what you are going through. Some people have vivid dreams, cry constantly or can’t cry at all.
Understandably, any combination of the above behaviors can cause the person who is grieving to feel a loss of control and to wonder if life will ever again have stability or meaning. While these experiences may not be normal for your “normal” life, they are normal for the grief experience, and they will pass.
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