Grief and its phases: How it affects the death of a family member

Grief and its phases

Meaning of mourning and its significance in life.

The duel is the psychological process that is experienced after a loss beyond repair. Said loss must be of something of value to the individual, and it may be a material object (eg after a robbery or fire), something intangible (such as loss of social status or change of country) or of a loved one (eg after an abortion or divorce). Each of these losses will provoke emotions and feelings of different intensity and difficulty of adaptation, however, all of them have a common basis: the inevitability of the loss and the need to adapt to it, causing suffering and making contact with the own vulnerability .

Significance of grief in life.

While it is true that this process can contribute to one’s own personal growth, it should not be forgotten that it is one of the most stressful experiences that human beings can face. Therefore, it is not strange that certain people are not able to face these circumstances and end up developing psychopathologies such as depression or anxiety, even feeding certain behaviors until they become addictions (for example, overloading themselves with work, compulsively shopping or abusing drug or alcohol use).

In these cases, the person is not able to find another way to overcome their discomfort, being unable to accept the suffering and the changes that the loss of the loved one entails. All this can give rise to negative feelings such as resentment towards the deceased for “having abandoned him” or contempt for himself because, in that desire for self-protection, he feels that he is betraying the memory of the loved one by not acknowledging his loss and not being seeing his mourning as he thinks the deceased deserved.

What are the phases of grief?

Grief is a natural emotional reaction, the result of the need to adapt to new circumstances . For this reason, it is common for the bereaved to go through different phases as they come to terms with the loss. Next, the different usual stages of grief are described, which do not necessarily have to occur in all grief processes or in the same order, since, although it is true that some reactions precede others (for example, has to recognize the loss in order to be able to regret it), the grieving process does not have a rigid sequence where the reactions necessarily have to be reduced in a progressive and balanced way over time:

(1) – Grief when losing a close family member brings great suffering.

Stage of denial .

It can last from a few hours to a longer time – usually two or three days – because it is a defense mechanism that helps postpone pain, preventing the change from being so abrupt that it is harmful to health. During this phase, the mourner usually reacts with feelings of disbelief and bewilderment, experiencing what happened as something unreal, as if he had played this role and did not fully believe that the deceased would not return .

Since each grief is a unique process, the person may also react by remaining paralyzed and unapproachable, or may even explicitly deny the death of the loved one. On the other hand, it is not strange that certain people have small daydreams or even hallucinations as a result of that search and desire to meet the deceased, because during this period death has not been assumed as such.

Stage of anger .

Slowly, the mourner begins to be truly aware of the loss as something definitive, because each time he wants to be with his loved one, his desire is frustrated and he realizes again that he has died. This leads you to experience a feeling of emptiness , being restless and irritable. During this stage, the person can start the search for culprits, with the conflicts that this generates (eg reproaches towards others or towards himself). In this case, death is perceived to some extent as a poorly made decision, so that someone tends to be held responsible for it. Here the mourner wonders why this misfortune had to happen to him .

Negotiation stage .

In this phase, the person considers what they could have done to avoid death. He wonders what would have happened if he had found out earlier or if he had cared more for the deceased. Likewise, the pain is alleviated by imagining that time has gone back, fantasizing about the possibility of reversing the process or seeking strategies to avoid death if it has not yet occurred (eg, trying to negotiate with God so that it does not occur). produce death). All these issues are highly emotionally charged, so this stage cannot be sustained for a long period of time.

Stage of depression .

Once at this point, the person stops fantasizing about parallel realities and approaches the present, becoming aware that the loved one will not return. Thus, the sufferer experiences a deep sadness , feeling empty and alone, falling into apathy and disinterest in life, thus sharing certain symptoms with depression (although it is not a psychopathological depression as such). At this time, the person is unable to mitigate their sadness through excuses or fantasies, so they may experience an existential crisis when considering death as something irreversible and not feeling capable of beginning to live a reality defined by said absence ( “What do I do now?”).

(2) – In the depression stage, isolation, sadness and fatigue appear

During this stage, isolation, fatigue and the impossibility of conceiving the idea that they are going to get out of this state of melancholy and sadness are frequent , because the future without the deceased generates great fear. In addition, the person tries to get closer to the deceased by evoking memories through photographs or objects that bring him closer to the sensations that are progressively disappearing.

Acceptance stage .

During this stage, the mourner tries to rebuild his life, shedding objects and memories of the deceased . It is a phase in which the person initially feels tired, resigned to reality , without feeling happy or depressed. With the passage of time, the mourner adapts to new patterns of life without the deceased, beginning to establish new bonds and re-experiencing joy and pleasure, putting all his personal resources back into operation to reorganize his life projects .

How long does it take to complete the grieving process?

There are different theories about when the mourning for the death of the loved one can be considered to have ended, the most accepted being when one has managed to reorganize his life to a level similar to the one he had before the death and is able to refer to the deceased without feelings of extreme sadness.

Contrary to what people tend to think, this process does not take a specific time: some may take a year, while others take two to three years , without this meaning that they are going through a bereavement that requires psychological assistance. . Obviously, there are a series of factors that influence the development of the mourning, such as the degree of connection with the deceased, the social support available to the mourner, etc .; However, the different testimonies coincide in that the worst moment of mourning is around the fourth month after death, special dates aside (eg anniversaries or holidays).

Are there factors that complicate the elaboration of the duel?

When dealing with grief over the death of a family member, there are a number of factors that can complicate its proper development:

  • Circumstances surrounding death : A sudden death, unexpected due to the age of the deceased (eg a child) or traumatic (such as suicide or murder), are events that make it difficult to work out the loss. Likewise, having been exposed to terrible stimuli (images, smells, sounds) or conflicting demands (eg guilt and helplessness for not having been able to attend to the family member as much as they would have liked) can leave physically, psychologically, socially and financially exhausted. .

(3) – A sudden death can influence the development of the duel

  • Nature of the relationship with the deceased person : The greater the relationship, the longer the mourning process is likely to be (for example, in the event of the death of the parents, spouse or children).
  • Personal characteristics and life history of the bereaved : Not surprisingly, both a history of psychological disorders and previous unresolved losses will make the loss difficult.
  • Socio-family context : Economic problems, the absence of social support or being in exclusive charge of caring for the children are circumstances that make the process of accepting the loss difficult.

Most frequent types of grief.

The aforementioned circumstances can make it difficult to prepare the duel, and can modify the intensity or the moment of its appearance, as well as the duration of said emotional reaction. The most common types of grief are explained below.

Normal grief. 

It is one in which the mourner goes through the different stages of the process until accepting the loss. In this sense, it should be noted that both social support and religious beliefs function as protective factors , that is, they increase the ability to overcome loss.

Pathological or masked grief. 

This grief takes place when the person experiences somatizations and performs maladaptive behaviors that are not related to death, but that negatively affect their physical and emotional well-being. Some signs that reveal this grief are the lack of response to death, disproportionate feelings of guilt towards oneself or idealization towards the deceased, the presence of hypochondriacal or psychosomatic symptoms, the acquisition of bad habits, the disconnection from the world that surrounds, etc.

Chronic grief. 

In this case, the grieving person drags the reactions of the process for years, without finishing adapting to a life without the deceased. The person remains attached to the constant memories of the deceased, considering it an offense to return to a certain normality in his life.

Anticipated grief. 

Suffering from a terminal illness makes the family perceive this loss as inevitable, so they begin to work out their own grief before death occurs.

Frozen or delayed duel. 

The possible demands of the moment mean that the person does not have enough time to consider their own emotions or that they are not able to express them. In this way, the mourner does not react affectively to the loss until a memory or a deepening of his feelings triggers the process.

Ambiguous grief. 

The absence of the physical presence (as occurs in the cases of disappearances) or psychic presence of the affected person (for example, in the elderly with dementia or people in a persistent vegetative state) causes confusion and anxiety when not knowing whether to consider the loss as such.

(4) – Sometimes the duel is prolonged and chronic in time.

When to seek psychological help for grief.

When to seek psychological help for grief.

If there is something that characterizes mourning, it is its harshness, because every time one tries to be with the deceased, one realizes again that the loved one is no longer, making that long-awaited physical reunion impossible. This can lead to experiencing a series of emotions, which are completely normal to experience during this process.

Normal emotions during the phases of grief.

  • Disbelief or confusion at the death.
  • Feelings of abandonment.
  • Need for isolation.
  • Avoidance of issues associated with death.
  • Anxiety or depression after a time of death.
  • Low concentration.
  • Restlessness or tiredness.
  • Tension, anger or helplessness from the loss.
  • Longing or obsession for the deceased, with intrusive thoughts about it.
  • Fear of the future or of going crazy because of the belief that the death of the loved one will not be able to be overcome.
  • Feeling of lack of meaning in life or existential crisis.
  • Guilt or relief for the death of the relative.

While it is true that grief can lead to reacting differently than usual and experiencing certain emotional ups and downs with brief periods of acute grief during the first months after death, there are other reactions that may indicate that the grieving person is not working on his or her own. duel properly.

Reactions and signs of pathological grief.

  • Feeling severe pain several months after the loss.
  • Having episodes of aggressiveness or impulsive self-destructive behaviors (such as substance abuse).
  • Feeling like committing suicide or self-harm.
  • Having recurring intrusive thoughts about unfinished business with the deceased or feeling excessively guilty about mistakes you may have made with the deceased at the end of life.
  • Imitating the deceased in a compulsive way or somatizing the symptoms that the deceased had before dying (obsessing over his illness).
  • Make radical changes in life.
  • Show too much or no connection to the objects of the deceased.
  • Do not express pain or attend the funeral.

All the reactions described above show a person overcome by events, who finds it impossible to get back into his normal life after a few weeks of death. Therefore, it is important that the person go to a psychologist to provide tools with which to face this new stage of life.

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Alexa Clark specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has experience in listening and welcoming in Individual Therapy and Couples Therapy. It meets demands such as generalized anxiety, professional, love and family conflicts, stress, depression, sexual dysfunction, grief, and adolescents from 15 years of age. Over the years, She felt the need to conduct the psychotherapy sessions with subtlety since She understands that the psychologist acts as a facilitator of self-understanding and self-acceptance, valuing each person's respect, uniqueness, and acceptance.

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