Know about... death, loss and grief

Throughout our lives, we all have to face change and loss. Sometimes this involves a great deal of emotional pain and suffering. It can cause us to re-evaluate our lives in order to make sense of what is happening, or even force us to look at who we are as individuals.

When someone close to us dies, we probably experience the most severe form of loss in our lives. Usually, this is experienced with not just one feeling but a whole range of feelings. This is a normal natural process. However, it may take some time to get through these feelings and unfortunately, they cannot be hurried. Coping with loss is difficult at any time, but as a student, with deadlines to meet, exams to revise for, not to mention the money worries, it can feel even worse.

What is grief?

The word 'grief' describes the human response to change and loss. There are a number of responses that can be experienced:

  • Shock: tears, sobbing and deep sighs; severe physical and mental pain; shivering, sweating and dizziness; sleep and appetite disturbance; lack of energy.
  • Numbness: feelings of isolation; indecision; feeling lost; irrational behaviour; withdrawal; avoidance of emotions.
  • Denial: "Can't be true"; expectation of a return; constant thinking about the deceased or about the loss; keeping busy, often to the point of exhaustion.

The grieving process

Grief is a process, rather like going on a journey that you wouldn't choose to take. People often say things like "I just want to get through this and back to normal" or "I feel really confused about my feelings". Sometimes there is a sense that they are 'weird' in some way because of the range of feelings that are being experienced. Sometimes the bereaved person becomes preoccupied with the deceased, often reporting seeing, having discussions with, or even being touched by the deceased person. These are normal expressions and reactions at this time. Grief must be allowed to happen, it is a natural process of adjusting to loss, and it is different for everyone. It cannot be bypassed or rushed. If we try to take a shortcut, the process invariably leads to complications and more pain in the longer term.

If your loss is sudden, you may experience some degree of shock. In one way this can be seen as a natural anaesthetic to protect you from overwhelming pain. This stage in the grieving process could be characterised by a 'not me' approach, even continuing to act as if nothing has happened. You may also feel numb. Denial is normal, it may pass quickly or last a lot longer. If it lasts too long, it may begin to separate you from the real world.

Anger is a common response to situations of loss. Many people have a difficult time dealing with this emotion at the best of times. Being angry can be a frightening emotion to deal with, especially for those who grew up in families where it was a 'forbidden emotion'. But in grief, anger is normal and appropriate and needs to be expressed and talked through. This stage in the grieving process could be characterised by a 'why me' approach. You may find that you feel guilty for a number of reasons. 'If only' thoughts come to mind. Again, these are normal feelings to have and usually there is absolutely no reason to feel guilty.

Helping yourself

It is important to have support during the grieving process and to try to come to terms with the inital shock and subsequent feelings. Here are some suggestions:

  • be as open as you can in expressing your feelings
  • cry when you need to
  • tell someone you trust about your loss
  • try and focus on what you did for the deceased, rather than what you should have done
  • if you are having trouble sleeping, don't lie in bed tossing and turning all night. Get up and read, watch TV or do something else that seems to help.

Helping others who are grieving

Sometimes all a bereaved person wants is to be heard without interruption or solutions. Listening to a friend or partner who has been bereaved makes you feel you should say or do something. Often, just being there and giving your full attention is enough. Allow the person to express their feelings openly. Attempting to distract the bereaved from their grief through forced cheerfulness is not helpful. Anger is a common response to grief, avoid being defensive, and listen.

Where can I get support?

At some point in the grieving process, you will start to come to terms with your loss, and engage more readily with life and its events. However, occasionally, the bereavement process gets stuck, and you may find that you are still grieving intensely, long after the event. Or, you may feel stuck in a different way by not being able to react to the loss at all, perhaps to the point of not being able to cry. In these situations you need to find some help.

Parents, friends and family can often be supportive. Not everyone will have family or friends for support, so you may want to seek help elsewhere. On the other hand, you may be concerned about worrying them or think that they will not understand, in which case you may want to consider seeking support from someone who is not directly involved in the situation.

The Student Health Adviser is available through an appointment system. There is also a drop-in session each day. You can make an appointment at the Student Centre reception or by phoning 01642 342294.

The University Counselling Service offers confidential, non-judgemental counselling. Talking to someone who is not involved in your life can help you recognise patterns of behaviour and find your strengths. Counselling sessions usually last 50 minutes and the number of sessions will be decided by you and your counsellor. You can arrange an appointment by phoning 01642 342277 or by calling into the reception of the Student Centre.

Your GP may be able to help by referring you to counselling or other support services. Sometimes it is easier to talk to someone over the phone. The following organisations offer support:

  • MIND (National Association for Mental Health) has an information line on 08457 660163 (local rate). Middlesbrough Mind is 01642 248809.
  • The Samaritans - 08457 909090.