Many words and phrases are associated with losing a loved one. Words like "grief," "mourning," and "bereavement" are often used when describing this event and the emotions that come along with it. However, many people may not know the meaning of "bereavement," as it can be used in several settings.
Many sources define bereavement as the period following a profound loss. However, other types of losses can cause bereavements, such as the end of a significant relationship, a miscarriage, or a change in health status. Some bereavement definitions are more comprehensive, referring to the emotions experienced after a loss. In some cases, bereavement refers to the benefits offered by an employer after losing a family member or the time spent off work. Regardless of the definition of bereavement you relate to, finding support after a loss can be essential.
What Are The Stages Of Bereavement?
For many people, bereavement is a period that may involve a specified amount of time, as with bereavement leave in the workplace. The grief definition differs, however, as there is no timeline for grief. Grief can last days to years, and some people do not grieve in the same situations that others might.
Bereavement and grief can be complicated. In many ways, they may resist definition. The experience of bereavement and the emotions of grief can endure for a lifetime. They are often complicated by other factors such as age, relationships, and the manner of a loved one's death.
The experience of losing a partner, child, parent, or close friend can be so overwhelming that it takes a long time to process the emotions. The survivor may learn to cope with loss while mourning their loved one. For many, grieving involves stages, which may be outlined by the Kubler-Ross "five stages of grief" model, a popular theory. The stages in this model are outlined below.
Numbness And Shock
In the initial stage, mourners may not fully believe their loved one is gone. This stage may be beneficial because it might allow emotional space for someone to complete practical tasks that often follow death. For example, they may focus on planning a funeral, resolving financial issues, or moving. However, problems can arise when someone becomes "stuck" in the numbness and shock phase. In some cases, the bereaved person might go for years without fully accepting that a loved one is gone. In these cases, talking to a therapist may be beneficial.
Anger, Guilt, And Blame
After the shock has worn off, you may feel angry with anyone you perceive could have prevented the loss. These feelings could be directed toward a deity, the universe, God, family members, medical staff, or yourself. You might also find yourself angry with the person you've lost. These feelings may take you by surprise with their intensity, but they can be normal. If you're struggling with your anger or guilt, you can also contact a grief counselor to discuss it further.
In the bargaining phase, the bereaved person may desperately yearn for their loved one to return. If you're experiencing this stage, you may find yourself making "bargains" in the hope that you can change the circumstances. For example, you might say, "If they were alive now, I'd do better and make changes."
In the depression stage, the grieving person may feel immensely withdrawn and sad. In this phase, you may think about your lost loved one often. Unexpected events in daily life may cause extreme sadness. For example, you might hear a song that reminds you of them.
During the acceptance phase, you may begin to adjust to a new life in which your loved one is absent. Although you may still miss the person who has died, you may have come to terms with the fact that your future no longer includes them. However, you might feel something is missing, and little reminders may pop up to rekindle your feelings of loss months or years later.
A Note On The Stages Of Grief
Grief may not always fall neatly into stages. Your emotions may be unpredictable, and feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, or depression can appear at any time. The "five stages of grief" theory is a model that may be beneficial for some people but doesn't fit others. If you don't relate to this system, that can also be normal.
In addition, it can be beneficial to distinguish between situational depression following a loss and clinical depression. Some individuals develop symptoms of clinical depression after losing a loved one. Due to the removal of the bereavement exclusion in the DSM-5, individuals can be diagnosed with a depressive disorder in the context of grieving a significant loss.
How Do Youth Experience Bereavement?
With children, bereavement may manifest itself differently than it does with adults. Children may struggle to tolerate the intensity of grief all at once, so their bereavement period may appear shorter than an adult's. However, symptoms of grief can appear sporadically throughout their lives, brought on by events such as birthday parties, summer vacations, or an argument with a friend. Each developmental milestone may bring a new aspect of the grieving process for youth.
Children may also not use verbal expressions of their grief. Rather, their grief may show up in their behaviors. Below are a few common behaviors that children may exhibit when grieving the death of a loved one.
- Sleep problems (difficulty sleeping, bedwetting, nightmares)
- Helplessness, clinginess, or increased dependence on parents
- Withdrawal, avoidance of school or social situations
- Changes in appetite and eating patterns
- Re-enactments of death or death-related themes in their play
- Physical symptoms, like headaches and stomachaches
Keep in mind that every child and every loss can be different. Grieving behaviors might look different based on the age, gender, and personality of the child and their relationship with the person who died.
Infants And Toddlers
Infants and toddlers may also be aware when a familiar person who used to care for them is no longer there. They may respond negatively to disruptions in their routine, and babies may actively search for the missing person. They may become fussy and cry more or become less active and experience weight loss.
Young Children (5-11)
Children may experience growth challenges after loss. They might act younger than they are or try to take on some of the lost family member's responsibility. They may also cry often and rely on their parent or caregiver for guidance.
Pre-Teens And Adolescents (12-19)
Pre-teens and teens may struggle to understand how losing a loved one fits in with their life. As they often go through various stressful developmental milestones, they may put off their grieving or hide their emotions to appear stronger than they feel. They may also become angry or irritable or use unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance use.
If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
Symptoms Of Bereavement
Grief can be complicated. However, the intensity may fade in time, and many people can continue living their lives as before. When this occurs, it is known as uncomplicated bereavement.
However, in some cases, the symptoms of grief can linger and feel debilitating. Difficulty coping might occur if you feel stuck at a particular stage, unable to move forward, or highly distressed. If the loss of your loved one was traumatic, you might also have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This challenge is known as complicated bereavement. Some of the symptoms of complicated bereavement are:
- The inability to focus on anything else besides memories of your loved one
- A preoccupation with sadness
- A sense of meaninglessness and a lack of purpose
- Difficulty carrying out everyday routines
- A belief that you caused the death or could have prevented it
- Numbness and detachment
- Intense longing for the deceased person
If you are experiencing the symptoms of complicated bereavement, seek professional advice and support. You're not alone, and there are techniques you can utilize to feel relief from your symptoms.
Coping Strategies For Bereavement
Understanding grief and the coping strategies for grief can be crucial steps for many. Whatever your unique situation may be, below are a few strategies for coping with the death of a friend or a loved one healthily:
- Be Patient With Yourself: Avoid setting a time limit for grief. You may feel better for several weeks and then suddenly have a setback. Allow yourself to experience all the challenging emotions that come with loss.
- Take Care Of Your Physical Health: The work of grief can be exhausting. Take care of your body by eating healthy foods, exercising, getting enough rest, engaging in self-care, and finding healthy outlets for managing stress.
- Ask For Help: Seek a supportive network of friends who can be a listening ear when needed. It may also be helpful to ask for help with practical chores like cooking, cleaning, or caring for children.
- Get Professional Help If Needed: If you struggle to find meaningful support in your personal life, it can be helpful to seek the advice of a trained professional or support group.
- Avoid Self-Medicating: While self-medicating may temporarily relieve the pain, it can have dangerous impacts and may make your symptoms worse.
Bereavement may feel like an insurmountable obstacle to peace and contentment. However, with time and support, healing can be possible.
Counseling Options For Those Experiencing Bereavement
When grieving, it can be challenging to leave home, set appointments, or make time for a commute to a therapist's office. If you're struggling to find an in-person grief therapist or grief center, you may benefit from talking to an online therapist through a platform like BetterHelp.
Studies confirm online therapy's efficacy in supporting people experiencing bereavement, prolonged grief, or complicated grief. In a 2022 study, researchers used internet-based grief therapy with the hopes of helping bereaved individuals who lost a significant other due to hematological cancer. The therapeutic approach, rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), issued a sequence of ten writing tasks in three phases: self-confrontation, cognitive restructuring, and social sharing. The results showed that the online therapy approach effectively reduced symptoms of prolonged grief disorder and accompanying syndromes in a timely, accessible manner.
People experiencing grief may find online therapy to have several advantages over in-person therapy. First, the ability to schedule appointments from the comfort of one's home reduces potential stress from being in public while experiencing visible symptoms of grief. Additionally, online therapy is often a more cost-effective option than in-person therapy.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Below are a few frequently asked questions about bereavement.
What Does Bereavement Mean?
Bereavement is a "period of grief and mourning after a loss." During this time, an individual may experience a wide range of emotions, from numbness and confusion to deep sadness, anger, guilt, depression, and more.
What Is Considered "Normal" Bereavement?
Bereavement is a period characterized by grief and mourning after losing a loved one. It can be a normal response to losing people or pets. In the immediate aftermath of a loss, individuals often experience symptoms of acute grief, such as crying, feelings of sadness, and sleep difficulties. They may also have physical symptoms of grief, such as fatigue, muscle tension, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and chest tightness.
These symptoms often lessen over time without requiring treatment. However, some individuals struggle to move from acute to integrated grief. This process may signal what is classified in the DSM-5 as prolonged grief disorder. Individuals with this condition may experience intense grief and sorrow that continues for over a year after the loss and significantly interferes with daily functioning.
Support is available if you are having trouble coping with the loss of a loved one. Grief counseling can assist individuals experiencing prolonged grief as they process challenging emotions, adjust to the loss, and begin looking toward the future. You might also consider looking into grief and bereavement support groups in your area that can provide an avenue for connecting with others experiencing similar challenges.
What Does Bereavement Mean At Work?
During this time, individuals can begin processing their grief, prepare funeral arrangements, or address any other necessary matters surrounding the loss.
What Are Examples Of Bereavement?
People can experience bereavement around any type of loss, including but not limited to:
- The death of a pet
- Anticipatory grief (when someone is in the process of dying)
- The end of a significant relationship (such as divorce)
- A sudden change of circumstances, like a diagnosis of a serious medical condition
- Loss from suicide
- Traumatic loss
- The death of a friend
- The death of a family member
- The death of a coworker or classmate
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support.
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