Grief can be a ‘lifelong’ journey when death is unexpected — tips on how to cope
Every single person grieves differently.
And when death is unexpected, like the case of 15 individuals who lost their lives in a fatal bus crash in Humboldt, Sask., on Friday, grief can become consuming.
“It’s very painful,” says psychotherapist Lucia Gallegos of Toronto. “But it is also numbness. Just like when we hit or cut ourselves, we don’t feel pain until we realize what has happened. The mind does something very similar to that when there is loss.”
The stages of grief
For anyone who has experienced any type of loss, whether it was unexpected or not, many may have come across the five (or more) stages of grief. First coined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1960s, the five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
But Toronto-based registered social worker and psychotherapist Andrea Kwan says these stages are outdated, and as much as people like to have steps to process something tragic like death, following these particular stages may not be best practice.
“The reality is there aren’t stages. People who are grieving feel all those things and they feel many more,” she tells Global News. “It’s not necessarily in any clear-cut order. Grief is an individual process.”
She adds the reality of grief can be messy, and not always something people overcome or accept, especially when the people we lose are young . “It’s not a natural order of things,” she says. “It is a disservice when we use things like steps because it gives people a false understanding [death] is something you get over easily. It’s lifelong.”
And while Gallegos agrees that most people who grieve don’t follow any given steps, it does help people to outline what could shift in their lives. She adds for some, it can be a foundation step, and for experts, a better understanding of how individuals are dealing with their loss.
“When you’re working with someone grieving, they may feel anger or denial first or vice versa, but they may also feel fear, she tells Global News.
Stories of distress and heartache filled social media feeds since Friday’s horrific bus crash, and as a community and nation, many mourned for the Humboldt Broncos ice hockey team.
Flowers, cards and sentimental gifts adorn the ice surface at Humboldt Uniplex during preparations for a prayer vigil for the Humboldt Broncos ice hockey team, April 8, 2018, in Humboldt, Sask. (Getty Images).
Gallegos says a loss like this one may also be hard for families and friends to grieve through, if only because of how widespread it has become. Canadians feel empathetic, distraught and even fearful it could happen to them, she adds.
“In this circumstance, it was very unexpected and very tragic,” Kwan adds. “That’s going to affect someone very differently compared to a prolonged illness. Neither one is better, but it’s just different. Unfortunately, it means it’s harder to wrap our minds around grief.”
LISTEN BELOW: Registered Psychologist Kimberly Knull talks to the 630 CHED Afternoon News about handling grief
And while there is no “right” way to grieve, experts below have mapped out some practical ways to approach it, taking as much time as you need.
Take care of yourself in the early days
Kwan says we should take care of our basic needs, making sure you are drinking water, sleeping, eating and exercising. “It’s the simple things people forget about.”
This is also a good time to take a pause from your everyday life, including work. Find out what your employer has in terms of leave time, and take more if you need it.
Grief is also exhausting, she adds, and anyone going through it should be aware of how much energy they are using. “You may not feel hungry, but you can still take care of your body. Lean on others for support.” She adds seeking professional help, either through group therapy or counselling, can also help.
Make space to grieve
“We live in a culture that doesn’t talk about grief or death or dying,” Kawn continues. When something tragic like this happens in your life, it’s important to talk about grief and make time to go through it — however you want to grieve.
Steve Hogle, President of the Saskatoon Blades places flowers at a memorial at the stairs that lead to Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt, Sask. (The Canadian Press).
Gallegos says grieving isn’t just being closed up or sad. For some, this could mean taking a walk, listening to music, or being alone. For others, their bodies can freeze up, leading to things like panic attacks or anxiety.
And when dates like anniversaries, holidays or birthdays come up, it’s important to celebrate them but also grieve, Kwan says. This could be as simple as making a dish the person loved on that day, lighting a candle or taking part in a religious prayer.
Go back into a routine, but only if you’re ready
For some people following an unexpected death, work can become a distraction, giving them purpose and meaning, Kwan says. “It isn’t right or wrong. It is just a person’s response.” But distractions shouldn’t be in excess, she adds, leading to something extreme, like overworking or becoming a workaholic.
Gallegos notes some may look to things like alcohol to numb their pain. This is when family members or friends should step in and seek professional help.
“It’s not about grieving too much or not enough.There is a lot of comparing and it’s natural when you see others in your family or friends [grieving] differently. That’s not always helpful,” Kwan says.
In this case, it is important to be true to yourself and grieve the best way you know how to without feeling guilt or shame. “I believe deep down in our gut we know [how to grieve], we may not know right away. If you go to work and hate it or can’t function, then that is a signal our bodies are telling us to take time and listen to ourselves.”
Understanding this is long-term
Grieving does become easier as time passes and although it may not leave someone’s life permanently, it allows each individual to reflect on his or her own life, Gallegos says. “Instead of asking why this happened, we can ask what we can learn from this experience and find meaning to that.”
Kwan agrees and says often, when there’s an unexpected death, it makes people change their perspectives on life. “It makes people realize how fragile life really is and for a lot of people, it can make them reflect on what’s actually important in life.”
Some may change careers, change the way they live and look at what’s actually important to them.
“There can be a ‘positive.’ It doesn’t happen to all people because grief can break people. What we hope for through the process and the long-term is the ability to say life is precious.”
Where to get help
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.
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