how a clinical psychologist can help
A clinical psychologist has specialist training to help guide people through the grieving process and identify the potential presence of complicated grief. No one person experiences grief in the same way, therefore a psychologist can provide a patient-centred treatment plan to guide each individual process.
WHAT IS GRIEF?
Grief is a normal response to losing someone or something that’s important to you. A lot of the time, we tend to associate grief with the death or loss of a loved one. However, many of us can experience grief in many different situations; the loss of a friendship, the loss of a lover and the potential future they represented. Even the loss of a pet can incur feelings of sadness or loneliness.
Grief can be difficult to understand. You may feel a variety of emotions like sadness, anger, guilt or abandonment. But grief can also affect the way we think, behave, interact socially and even change the way we think about the world.
Whilst there are believed to be stages of grief, there is no set process. Everyone experiences grief differently. Some people may experience feelings of loss for weeks or months, and others may carry this feeling for many years. While there is no clear science to dealing with grief, there are methods and treatment options that can help you cope.
COMMON STAGES OF GRIEF
There are five stages of grief:
- Acceptance. These five stages represent the similar periods of grief a person may experience after a loss. Even though we all experience these five stages, we may spend different amounts of time working through each stage, or experience these stages in a different order.
“This isn’t happening”, “It’s not true” are things people often think during this stage of grief. Denial is usually expected but the mechanism behind this stage is less understood. Denial is the first line of defence against the overwhelming feeling of pain that comes with loss. The human brain is proficient in prolonging survival. The brain releases signals for us to consume food, water and respond in the presence of a threat. Denial is another method vital to survival. Denial is a defence mechanism that momentarily alters an individuals’ perception of their current environment, protecting the person from excessive and damaging anxiety. This is a temporary stage that protects against the initial shock of loss.
Anger after grief can be difficult to understand. Once denial has subsided, the reality of the loss begins to emerge. It is common for that person to express their emotional anguish and pain through something more tangible, like anger. Anger is an emotion that you can do something with. A person can yell, break things somehow releasing the surge of emotion on inanimate objects. A person may direct their anger towards themselves, family, friends, or even the beloved person they have lost. In reality, an individual is reacting to the pain of that person leaving them behind, or the pain caused by the loss. Whilst anger is normal, it is important to understand the true meaning behind this stage of grief, in order to eventually accept the loss.
“What if…”, “If only we had of just…” are statements commonly experienced during the stage of bargaining. Bargaining is similar to denial, in that it allows the person to momentarily envisage an outcome where they have not experienced their loss. An individual may look at their own actions leading up to the loss. What could they have done better? What actions could they have taken to ensure this wouldn’t happen? If only they got there sooner… These statements and self-talk can be damaging. This form of coping allows an individual to temporarily avoid their current pain by focusing on the past, but can lead to guilt and resentment. As mentioned, there is no singular process to coping through grief and it is common for individuals to go between stages of anger and bargaining, and back again.
After bargaining, individuals may begin to experience the reality that is the present. After the anger has subsided, all alternative outcomes have been played out and a person begins to confront the present, grief begins to emerge through immensely deep feelings of loss, emptiness and pain. This is a normal response to loss and does not necessarily lead to the development of a mental illness. On the contrary, it would be considered abnormal to not exhibit these symptoms in the face of losing a loved one. However, there are times where these symptoms lead to something more serious and speaking with a clinician can help you understand whether you may need some extra help.
As the final stage of grieving, it is important to understand that acceptance does not imply that you have ‘moved on’ or are ‘getting over’ what has happened. Many individuals describe acceptance not as the process of moving on, but rather the process of figuring out how to live with the loss, understanding their live as it is now. Acceptance is a stage of grief that may not be experienced by everyone, and can be experienced in many different ways. It may mean that a person has more good days than bad, or perhaps has started to focus again on their health and inner growth. Nonetheless, this stage of grief takes time and may only come about after the grieving process has progressed naturally.
WHAT IS COMPLICATED GRIEF?
It can sometimes be hard to understand what is normal or abnormal when it comes to grieving. What is the ‘right’ amount of time to grieve, and at what point does it become something more serious?
If you find that you are experiencing persistent and long periods of suffering that is beginning to affect your day-to-day activities, you may be experiencing ‘Complicated Grief’.
Complicated grief is usually described as a long, personal struggle. You might find that you are losing motivation in your daily activities, your appetite has changed, you tend to avoid being social or seeing friends, or that you might think that things would be easier if you were not around.
TREATMENTS THAT HELP
There are several treatments to assist with coping during the grieving process.
Grief counselling involves helping people move through uncomplicated, or normal grief to potential acceptance and health. The aim is to help a person through the stages of grief in order to facilitate natural reactions to loss. Counselling may also address factors of a persons’ lifestyle affected by grief such as sleeping habits, appetite, social withdrawal or motivation.
Grief therapy involves the use of clinical tools for traumatic, or complicated reactions to grief. Grief therapy is a form of psychotherapy used to treat severe and prolonged reactions to grief. Grief therapy is similar to techniques used for post-traumatic stress disorder and is aimed at exploring grief reactions, complicated grief symptoms, adjustment to loss and redefining life goals.
People who may be experiencing complicated grief are sometimes referred for a medical review by a GP or Psychiatrist. This condition may be treated in a similar way to depression using antidepressant medications.