Grief - What Is It, Really?

By Dr. Ursula Weide, Licensed Psychologist, 

National Certified Counselor, Fellow of Thanatology

Please call: 240-229-1893 (quickest response)

Offices: Alexandria, VA and Bethesda, MD

It is not surprising that there are so many misconceptions about "grief" in our society. The term "grief" is used in many different ways: from "Good grief, Charlie Brown" to "My mother gave me grief for breaking a vase." Literature and videos proclaim: "How to heal grief in seven steps - from a broken relationship to the death of a loved one." Those of us who have been there - including myself - just cringe. How many times have we been told to "snap out of it", "think positive", "just move on with your life"?

Having been there means surviving a traumatic death: sudden, untimely (a young loved one), violent (accidents, suicide, homicide), terminal illness, having been a terminal caretaker, death in the ICU. And we know that we now live in a different world. Feeling, thinking, acting differently from ever before.

We often feel isolated, that there is something wrong with us, that we are just unable to "grieve right." The way society wants us to be "over it" in a few weeks or months. Yes, we can learn to manage the grief with coping skills, old and new ones, and eventually to live differently and better with the loss. But none of us can change reality - our loved one will not return. We do not control the most important things, life and death.

Independently of the cause of the traumatic loss and the kind of relationship (including pre- and perinatal losses), we, the survivors, end up in a very similar place. We have difficulty concentrating, are forgetful, feel so much going on around us has become trivial, have a different concept of time, have lost interest, feel tired, may lose our appetite, have trouble sleeping, become irritable. And often are struggling with the fears triggered by the sudden knowledge that anything can happen at any time.

There really are no subdivisions into "categories of death" and no comparisons. One kind of traumatic death must be different - or worse! - from another, hence joining others with similar experiences must be therapeutic. No, what really matters is how we are affected by the traumatic experiences. This depends to a great degree on our prior life histories, personalities, the closeness to the deceased.

These individual factors must be taken into consideration in any therapeutic approach, supporting traumatized survivors with learning new coping skills: managing the grief symptoms, managing our environment, being assertive to take care of ourselves (often to be able to take care of others), managing possible intrusive thoughts and images.

We now function according to a different logic from the world we came from and where most others still are. What would have been considered paradoxical before now is part of our lives, logically. Still, our brains want to go back to their prior safe places - and we may end up judging ourselves the way others are. Sometimes we may even wonder if we are going crazy! Oh no, it is just a world which functions differently from before. It takes a while to learn to feel comfortable in this new logic.

Everything described above creates incredible stress - the source of the exhaustion. Physical symptoms are not unusual, often they do not make sense to physicians because the cause is not specifically "organic." It is the stress hormones we produce to help us survive. Still: getting a baseline physical at such a time is helpful to monitor the impact of stress over time.

Some medications we may already be on may now require a dosage adjustment, or a new medication may help to stabilize what typically goes up under stress: blood pressure and cholesterol. Actually, every part of our body is affected until the stress level is reduced. Through coping skills, not psychotropic medication. (Excepting a prior history, best evaluated by a psychologist in cooperation with a psychiatrist.)

And these are the three basic survival skills: we have to sleep, to eat, and to exercise. The beneficial effects of exercise on stress, mood and health have been demonstrated in multiple clinical studies. Since you have read the article down to this line, you want to survive - and you will. I have been there.

Dr. Ursula Weide

Licensed Psychologist, National Certified Counselor

Fellow of Thanatology (Grief Education and Counseling)

240-229-1893   703-548-3866

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Bethesda, MD 20814, Alexandria, VA 22314