by Theresa Faulkner, LCSW
Grief is a normal human emotion. But it can be hard to know if you are making progress in how you are handling a loss, or if you need to reach out for advice or support. In this post, you’ll learn more about the grieving process as well as some of the signs that indicate when it’s time to reach out for help.
Causes of Grief
“While losing a loved one is one of the most common causes of grief, other life events such as—divorce, job loss, a move, declining health —also can lead to feelings of sadness that can be overwhelming,” says Teresa Faulkner, Licensed Clinical Social Worker at SICHC.1 And it’s not just personal experiences that can cause feelings of grief. Disasters or traumatic events that affect your community can have the same impact, according to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) “Tips for Survivors: Coping With Grief After Community Violence.”
How the loss occurred can also impact your ability to cope with it. According to The University of Texas at Austin—Counseling and Mental Health Center, an unexpected loss (due to an accident or a crime, for example) is traumatic because it happened without warning. But that doesn’t mean that a predictable loss—for instance, one due to a terminal illness—is easier to deal with. While you may have more time to prepare for the latter, you are also dealing with two layers of grief: the anticipatory stage and the actual stage.2
Common Grief Responses
There are many different ways that you can react to feelings of loss and pain. The fact is, not everyone grieves in the same way or for the same length of time. What are some of the normal grief reactions?3 They can range from lack of focus, anger, frustration or sadness to feeling numb, tired or depressed. Also, grief can come in cycles or be triggered by certain places or significant dates: birthdays, anniversaries or holidays, for example. 4
As for how long the mourning period can last, according to Harvard Health Publishing, acute grief is typically experienced in the first six to 12 months after a loss, while persistent grief can go on for a year or more. The important thing to remember is not to rush the grieving process, but watch for some gradual improvement in your ability to cope.5
“Gradually, though, you should start to feel that you are moving forward and that the overwhelming sense of loss begins to lessen,” says Faulkner.6 “As time passes, you might find yourself ready to reach out to others in your social circle or even help others who have also experienced a loss.”
Signs of Complicated Grief
In some cases, however, you can feel as though you are trapped in a grief cycle, unable to move from the initial overwhelming feelings of loss even after many months have passed. This could mean that you are experiencing complicated or traumatic grief experts. 7
According to the “Tips for Survivors” pdf, some indications of complicated grief include feeling deeply angry about the death or loss, being unable to think of anything else but the person who is gone, and not being able recall happy times with your loved one. You might also have nightmares, feel distrustful about others and be unable to maintain regular activities or fulfill your responsibilities. This is when you need to reach out for professional help so you can move forward on your healing journey.
Losing a loved one is one of life’s greatest stresses. And the impact can be physical as well as emotional, with researchers finding that bereavement can affect your cortisol response, lead to immune imbalance and cell inflammation as well as changes in your heart rate and blood pressure. 8
“At SICHC, our LCSW team-based care approach provides a variety of evaluations from a Behavioral Health Wellness check to screening for depression and substance abuse. We will work with your healthcare provider to help you through your grief recovery,” says Faulkner.9 “It’s important to remember that you are not alone and that there are a variety of resources to help you navigate this journey.”
3 The University of Texas at Austin—Counseling and Mental Health Center — Sudden or shocking losses due to events like crimes, accidents, or suicide can be traumatic. There is no way to prepare. They can challenge your sense of security and confidence in the predictability of life. You may experience symptoms such as sleep disturbance, nightmares, distressing thoughts, depressed mood, social isolation, or severe anxiety. Predictable losses, like those due to terminal illness, sometimes allow more time to prepare for the loss. However, they create two layers of grief: the grief related to the anticipation of the loss and the grief related to the loss itself.
4 University of Texas at Austin’s Counseling and Mental Health Center https://cmhc.utexas.edu/griefloss.html#normal
5 University of Texas at Austin’s Counseling and Mental Health Center on its Grief and Loss page
7 Tips for Survivors: Coping With Grief After a Disaster or Traumatic Event
8 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3384441/ — Research to date suggests that bereavement is associated with neuroendocrine activation (cortisol response), altered sleep (electroencephalography changes), immune imbalance (reduced T-lymphocyte proliferation), inflammatory cell mobilization (neutrophils), and prothrombotic response (platelet activation and increased vWF-ag) as well as hemodynamic changes (heart rate and blood pressure), especially in the early months following loss.
9 Mayo Clinic—Grief: Coping with reminders after a loss If your grief gets worse over time instead of better or interferes with your ability to function in daily life, consult a grief counselor or other mental health provider. Unresolved or complicated grief can lead to depression, other mental health problems and other medical conditions. With professional help, however, you can re-establish a sense of control and direction in your life — and return to the path toward healing.