Previously, it was a common assumption that grief was a process that went through distinct stages, such as denial, resistance and acceptance. Leading grief researchers have since moved on from this theory, but it is still a common (and sometimes harmful) assumption among the general public. Instead of grief stages, it has been observed that grief can be expressed very differently from person to person, without there being anything wrong. Not everyone needs to go through as strong emotional reactions as others before they can feel better again.
Grief as an Emotion and as a Process
On the one hand, grief is an emotion expressed in the form of longing and love, often accompanied by deep crying. If the feeling has built up over time, one will often feel a bit better after expressing it, and feel strongly the love for what or who has been lost. Grief as a process is about how we can gradually try to construct meaning in our lives despite the loss: finding faith and purpose to continue engaging in our activities, work, tasks, and, most importantly, with other people. It is the process of returning to life itself and trying to live a meaningful life with a hole in the heart.
The type of loss one experiences has a significant impact on the consequences for the bereaved. Deaths that are unexpected, sudden, etc., more often lead to challenging grief processes. All loss of children is especially difficult.
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When to Seek Help?
It's hard to know exactly when someone might benefit from assistance in the grieving process. If someone has recently lost a loved one, it may not always be helpful to initiate a treatment process before some time has passed. However, if one feels extremely overwhelmed, it might be helpful to spend a few hours with a psychologist. The focus in such a context could be on psychoeducation and normalizing difficult reactions, helping the grieving person acknowledge some of the emotions that they are ready to face and providing support in general. In such cases, treatment is often limited to a few sessions. If difficulties persist over an extended period, for example, more than six months after the death, these may be signs that one could benefit from help:
- Struggling to accept the death and constantly yearning for the deceased.
- Excessive guilt, anger, or bitterness surrounding the death.
- Feeling that one struggles to connect with other people again.
- A sense that life is meaningless without the deceased.
- Persistent psychological symptoms in the aftermath of the death, such as depression, inner restlessness, suicidal thoughts, reduced concentration, disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, etc.
How is Grief Treated?
I consider grief as a process that unfolds naturally, something that should not be treated to be reduced or eliminated. However, in particularly challenging grieving processes, or if the bereaved person is struggling emotionally, they may get stuck and may need help to overcome barriers that are hindering the grieving process. Interventions for this purpose must be tailored to the individual client's capacity and situation. In the first few months after a death, it's advisable to be somewhat cautious about treating too much but rather supporting the client in taking good care of themselves and avoiding counterproductive behavior that may exacerbate problems. It is also essential to challenge irrational thoughts and feelings that make the client feel worse, such as guilt for things they couldn't control or change. Gradually, the grief can be explored using techniques like writing a letter to the deceased or revisiting emotionally charged moments and memories together with the therapist.