What does grief feel and look like? When does normal sadness become a concern? EMCC Counsellor and certified Grief Recovery Specialist, Ms Chew Hwee Min, answers your questions.
Q: What does grief feel and look like?
CHM: Grief is a natural and normal response to any kind of loss that we experience, even those that may at times feel insignificant or small. I often use the analogy of a paper cut, which seems like a small injury, but we still feel the pain when our finger is cut.
Grief can entail a mix of feelings, at times conflicting ones, such as anger, relief, sadness and fear. The way each of us experiences grief is unique because we are unique individuals and the relationships with the loss person/object are unique too. Hence it is hard and even impractical to try to map grief into a typical process.
Some of you may point to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ 5 stages of grief. But note what her co-author David Kessler also wrote, “The stages…have been very misunderstood over the past four decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.” (https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/).
It is important for us to figure out how we each feel in our own grief. Nobody can dictate how you feel about your loss.
Q: When does sadness from grief become bad enough to see a counsellor?
CHM: Everyone grieves differently. Hence, it can be easy to mistake a normal grief as problematic grief. However, there are sometimes signs that seeing a counsellor is required, such as when:
- someone talks about the loss as if it just happened yesterday, when in fact a few months have passed. This includes how the person recalls the loss details and the intensity of feelings displayed. If the person appears to be still experiencing it as a fresh loss, it may indicate that they are still struggling with restabilising themselves from the loss.
- the distress level does not reduce over time. A person’s grief reaction immediately after the loss is not so much of a concern. Some experience intrusive thoughts or breathlessness, some may have a persistent headache. What is important is that such grief reactions should reduce in frequency and intensity over time.
- the distress has caused significant disruption to daily functioning, such as being unable to handle usual work/schoolwork or avoiding everyday places because they are related to the loss.
Q: My husband has lost his job and seems very depressed. What will help him recover?
CHM: It will be helpful to the healing process that he understands his own feelings and articulates them before he tries to take meaningful actions to problem solve.
Invite him to speak with you about what he is thinking and feeling regarding the loss of his job without correcting his views nor comforting too much, as both will jam up the expression of his feelings. Avoid trying to make him see the positive side of things. Instead, accept his thoughts and feelings, let him experience your acceptance of him, that it is ok to be who he is and whatever he is experiencing.
The role of providing empathy without offering solutions first can be a challenge to many of us as there is a tendency to go too fast into problem-solving mode. But it is such empathy that could provide him the space to start making sense of the loss himself, help him regain strength, and reorientate himself for the next step.
Q: It’s been two years since my daughter and her boyfriend ended their 6-year relationship. They were not yet married. How much grief is there in such a break-up?
CHM: There can be a lot of grief even though they were not yet married. Imagine the life they shared in the six years as a dating couple. With the end of the relationship, many things came to an end too. The exclusive connection they shared, the expectation of always having the other person to turn to, the norm of being the main focus of the other person, the lifestyle of having the other person in their life, the shared dreams (of a future dream vacation or buying a house together or even growing old together), and at times the meaning of who they are and their identities.
There is often a multi-layered loss when a relationship break-up happens, which breaks many people’s hearts. It also requires the person to rebuild his/her own individual life while healing from the breakup.
Q: My wife died last year. Although he was very close to his mum, my son hasn’t cried since the funeral. How do children grieve?
CHM: Firstly, not everyone cries when they grieve.
Secondly, children often have an incomplete worldview and therefore tend to fill in the gap with their fantasies and assumptions. To help children grieve, we need to understand their constructed view over the loss/death experienced. Hence guiding them to speak out and listening to them is very important.
We also want to look out for unhelpful/incomplete perceptions and help them move towards a healthier and complete view. E.g. your son may see his mum’s death as a form of abandonment and is resenting mum for breaking her promise to him and leaving him behind. Yet a part of him may deem it wrong to express his anger towards his mum when everyone is feeling sad.
Helping him articulate his conflicting feelings will allow them to co-exist and calm him down. Talk through with him about how mum tried to keep her promise of staying with him for as long as she could. But death is a constant in life that even mum had to accept. Comfort him and let him know that there are pieces of his mother which will always stay with him, and which even death cannot take away.
Q: Is it better to see a counsellor alone or with family members also grieving the same loss?
CHM: One of the myths about grief is that people should grief alone. It usually stems from one not wanting to “burden others”, or not feeling safe to be vulnerable with others.
However, isolation/lack of connection often maintains or reinforces the person in their grief.
If family members experience the same loss (not same grief), it is beneficial for them to see a counsellor together, with the understanding that each person grieves differently.
Going through the healing process together will help them establish a deeper understanding of each other which can build a new bond between them and strengthen their connections and resilience as a team through the difficult time.
Q: How would circumstances of death (eg long illness vs sudden death/suicide) affect how a grieving person is counselled?
CHM: A person’s experience of (and therefore reaction to) loss is affected by a few factors. One factor is the circumstances of the death.
When a death is violent (e.g. suicide, murder, horrific accident) there is likely an added layer of fear, sense of danger or trauma over the loss. A sense of safety and being in control will need to be reinstalled before processing of the loss is possible.
When a death is sudden, the person may struggle with a lot of regret, self-blame or anger. Counselling will need to focus on helping the person make sense of the loss and the circumstances of the loss before they can process the loss of relationship and its impact on themselves.
Q: Would getting a grieving person to talk about a suicide loss make the person more vulnerable to suicide ideation (especially in a young person)?
CHM: Isolation is not helpful in recovering from grief. Avoiding talking about one’s concerns is a form of isolation.
A loss by suicide causes a lot of confusion and raises many questions especially for loved ones. This adds a layer of difficulty to recovery as not only is the heart feeling the loss of the person, but the mind cannot understand what and why it happened.
Getting someone to talk about a suicide loss with the aim of helping him make more sense of the situation will help to restabilise him. This also creates room for conversation to find out how the person feels about suicide and to assess whether he is in any risk or danger of self-harm or suicide ideation (especially for a young person.)
Research has shown that talking about suicide to someone who has no plans for suicide will not induce them towards it. And talking to someone who is considering suicide actually helps them relieve their stress and is the first step towards alleviating their pain (see myth 8 on SOS’s blog: https://www.sos.org.sg/blog/10-myths-and-facts-about-suicide).
Q: How long/ how many counselling sessions does it take for someone to recover from grief?
CHM: I wish I could give a definite answer to this, but grief is unique to each individual and one should be given however much time one requires to work through the confusion and pain of loss.
To learn more, please see https://emcc.org.sg/counselling/what-is-counselling/