Grief more complex than 'a succession of stages' - psychologist

Grief: It may never end, follows no linear process, and is commonly talked about, but rarely understood.

In nearly every circumstance, the loss of a loved one is a devastating event which can detach an individual from control of their emotions, leaving them on a rollercoaster.

Munira Haidermota, a clinical neuropsychologist with a focus on mental health wellness, explained to Newshub there's no one way to define grief - for every person it can mean something completely different.

"Grief is so easily known and so commonly talked about, but yet it is so intense… there are a lot of different meanings within it," she says.

To understand the psychological effect grief is having on someone, Haidermota says you'd need to decipher an array of variables.

"The loss that the person experienced, the relationship with the person they lost, the circumstances under which the loss happened can all influence the grief process," she says.

"The age of the individual, the personality of the individual, all of these are contributing factors."

There are many variables that influence the grief process.
There are many variables that influence the grief process. Photo credit: iStock

What is important, Haidermota explained, is the support systems around the grieving individual.

Unlike with age or the relationship between the deceased and the living, support systems and the environment in which the person is allowed to grieve can be changed to suit their needs.

"Other people can have a role in it and it is easy to kind of introduce that if you need it," she said.

"The biggest thing they can do is sit in silence with them and just acknowledge their perspective and just validate them.

Proposing to help with the grocery shopping or putting out the washing can mean a lot to those who are struggling with everyday tasks.

Munira Haidermota.
Munira Haidermota. Photo credit: Supplied.

Are there 'stages of grief'?

Haidermota says people commonly attempt to apply logical reasoning to the grieving individual's state. This can include attempting to categorise their emotions into a 'stage' or 'wave' of grief within a formulaic, linear process.

These processes typically reflect a journey where the individual is upset, they then attempt to convince themselves that certain actions will reduce the hurt, before finally coming to understand the new reality imposed by the death.

But Haidermota pushed back on this, suggesting that logic or the idea of a succession of stages isn't compatible with the emotional turmoil the individual may be going through

Asking an individual what stage they are in may place pressure on them to explain their emotions, which can be difficult to do. Seeing others easily explaining themselves may lead the individual's self-esteem to plummet and could lead them to become depressed or isolate themselves.

"There are many variables that can affect grief, and it's not even a linear process, so it doesn't really go nicely into the process," says Haidermota.

"There might be intense feelings of sadness, there might be anger, there might be denial, there might be shock, there might be confusion, there might be disorganisation, there might be complete withdrawal."

A sense of panic that their world has been tipped upside down or fear of 'if I don't keep talking, I will lose them' are also common feelings.

She says may of those emotions will be felt at some stage during the grieving process, but they could be all at once, separately in a random order, or come and go.

Haidermota gave the example of an individual who has died from a terminal illness that had been causing them pain.

For the deceased's family, there will be an intense feeling of sadness, but there could also be happiness at the same time that the person is no longer suffering.

Another example may be the death of someone in a dangerous situation they put themselves into.

Those grieving could be angry at the deceased for putting themselves into harms' way and call them 'stupid' or 'ignorant'. But at the same time, they could also be remembering the individual as an intelligent, responsible person.

She says this cognitive dissonance is one of the psychological effects these situations can have.

Grief can be expressed in healthy and unhealthy forms.
Grief can be expressed in healthy and unhealthy forms. Photo credit: Getty

Ways of expressing grief

Haidermota says there are healthy and unhealthy forms of grief which influence the eventual psychological changes an individual may undergo.

"Unhealthy forms of grieving could be social withdrawal, emotional numbing, not interacting, intense feelings of sadness that could go into depression, not reaching out for support," she says.

"A healthy expression of grief could be, depending on the individual's personality, they could create art or talk to other people about it, try and find meaning in their life."

One form of expression in our modern world is through social media.

The notion of sharing memories of a loved one with friends and families online is a natural development of the grieving process, says Haidermota.

But some people disagree with the idea of making grief public and say that social media puts pressure on those going through grief to declare their emotions. In reality, they may want to keep these to themselves.

"Posting photos or trying to put things on social media can be the grieving person [partaking in a] process of reflection and their own journey of acceptance because then they are expressing that and going through the catalogue in their brain," says Haidermota.

"There might be differences and some people may feel it is too private in the lives and don't want to be it on social media.

"If everyone is putting it on, there can be a sense of pressure."

Grief more complex than 'a succession of stages' - psychologist
Photo credit: Getty

She said social media can also help quickly get information about the passing of an individual to others around the globe, and therefore let those people provide support.

"I think when we embrace it, it can have many more positive effects than negative ones.

"Our supports are all over the world and sometimes expressing that through social media can be quite powerful, because you can get the validation and support."

While the grief process may never end, many people will find they become more accepting of the loss of their loved ones as well as of their emotions.

This can be where the psychological effects of the process are revealed, and others may get a better grasp of the individual's journey.

"Accepting those emotions as they come in is really valuable, and I think that is what helps in the final acceptance when a person is just allowed to express all of those emotions when they come without having to make sense of it"

"In some ways when we reach that stage of acceptance is when you re-establish, in a slightly different way, your relationship with the deceased"

Haidermota emphasises, however, that we must always be mindful that the grieving journey is long and complex. Predicting the results or consequences should be avoided.

Death: A podcast about love, grief and hope is available on Rova, Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, Google, Omny and all major podcast apps.

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