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We all have various methods to relieve sorrow and bereavement. The stress caused by grief affects people both mentally and physically. If an individual is having an especially difficult time dealing with grief, he or she may become depressed or physically ill. There are a number of feelings that people experience while coming to terms with a loss:

  • shock, numbness, bewilderment, a sense of disbelief, and possibly denial
  • feelings of emptiness and intense suffering
  • dreams and/or hallucinations that their loved one is still alive
  • feelings of despair as one comes to terms with the loss
  • feelings of sadness and the inability to feel pleasure
  • tense, restless anxiety may alternate with lethargy and fatigue
  • individuals may alternate between avoiding reminders of the deceased and reclaiming memories
  • sadness can be mixed with anger
  • self-blame for treating the deceased badly

Physical symptoms of grief can include weakness, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, headaches, back pain, indigestion, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and even occasional dizziness and nausea.

How we grieve

It is common for the bereaved to go through various emotional phases while adjusting to loss. If feelings intensify however, and do not go away, the individual could be suffering from chronic grief. Individuals who experience chronic grief usually become depressed, anxious and may suffer various physical symptoms. Chronic grief is common in people who delay the bereavement process. While it is relatively rare, there are individuals who act as if nothing has happened and avoid reminders of their loss, who then months or years later have intense feelings of despair and depression. If an individual is suffering from chronic grief, it is important that he or she receives help from a professional counsellor or family doctor. Self-help groups in which members share their experiences of loss and jointly develop coping mechanisms are also helpful.

Violent death and suicide

The intensity of bereavement is dependent upon many factors. The grieving process however can be especially difficult for those who have lost a loved one to a sudden, violent death. In some cases the bereaved may suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, experiencing flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, emotional numbness and impaired memory or concentration. Grieving the loss of someone who has committed suicide can also be especially difficult. It is not uncommon for the bereaved to feel guilt, shame and denial. It can also destroy an individual's willingness to trust others and form meaningful relationships.

Why we grieve

All cultures have various rituals to mourn the passing of a loved one. Mourning customs help to confirm social bonds, reorder personal relationships and establish a new identity for the bereaved. Within our society people die in hospitals or away from their families. These changes to the social fabric have made it difficult for some to see death as a natural part of life, and to come to terms with the passing of a loved one. Friends and social groups are especially important for helping the bereaved readjust to their loss and move on with their life.

What you can do to help the bereaved

People who have experienced a loss need sympathetic company, reassurance and willingness among or by others to listen. What the bereaved say they want most are offers of specific practical support, expressions of concern and the presence of people who are close to them. Statements such as "time heals" and vague offers of help that never materialize have been found to be more annoying than helpful. People should not try to discourage expressions of grief or shut off discussions about the person who died, since this is part of the healing process. Understanding that this is a highly emotional time for the bereaved and assuring them that their anger, guilt and other feelings are all normal and part of the grieving process is the most supportive thing you can do.

Where to get help

Individuals who become depressed or anxious for a prolonged period of time could have chronic grief. In these cases it is important to get help from your family doctor or a professional counsellor. You may contact local hospitals or Chapters of Hospice for referral services and assistance. The Bereaved Families of Ontario have 16 Branches across Ontario and may be contacted at (416) 440-0290. You may call the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario, toll-free at 1-800-875-6213.

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