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Living with loss: The stages of grief

We've all heard about the stages of grief, but the reality is there is no rulebook.
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Grief is one of the most universal experiences people go through. It comes with no rulebook and it affects everyone in different ways. The feelings that come with grief are often painful and confusing. But you don’t have to go through it alone.

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“Grief is a healthy and natural response to loss or a significant change that shows that someone or something that we love has been lost,” says Dr Lefteris Patlamazoglou, a counselling psychologist and lecturer at Monash University.

“Everybody’s grief looks different and also changes through time.”

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The shocking death of Princess Diana meant her sons had to experience grief very young. (Credit: Getty)

The effects of grief

Common responses include sadness, anxiety, anger, disbelief, guilt, irritability and social withdrawal.

“The irreversibility of the loss makes us yearn for the deceased or for things to be like they used to, ruminate over the loss, and worry about the future,” Dr Patlamazoglou says. “People who grieve often have difficulties sleeping, such as getting too much or too little, or having interrupted sleep,” he explains.

“Eating habits tend to change during grief, with some people experiencing over- or under-eating, or consuming poor quality food. Finally, people may neglect their hygiene or looking after themselves.”

It’s also completely normal to feel numb.

“Grief responses come and go in a wave-like pattern, as the intensity of grief fluctuates,” Dr Patlamazoglou adds. “Over time, however, the waves of grief became easier to manage.”

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Harry and William visited the tributes left for Diana throughout London. (Credit: Getty)

Disenfranchised grief

Also known as hidden grief, this occurs when our feelings go unrecognised by others.

“Grief becomes disenfranchised when it’s not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported,” Dr Patlamazoglou says.

It could be that the manner in which you are grieving goes against the expectations of those around you. Or you may be grieving the loss of a job, fertility issues or leaving the country you grew up in. Disenfranchised grief sometimes occurs if there are social stigmas surrounding the way someone has died, such as a homicide, suicide or HIV/AIDS. It could be the mode of your relationship with the person who has died, such as an ex-partner, colleague or celebrity. Grief can also be overlooked if the person experiencing it is young, very old or affected by a disability or mental illness.

“Disenfranchisement causes people to feel like their losses are not worthy of grieving or that they are overreacting,” Dr Patlamazoglou says. This can cause the person to feel dejected or isolated.

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Michelle Williams revealed the death of her partner Heath Ledger in 2008 “changed how I see the world and how I interact on a daily basis”. (Credit: Getty)

Anticipatory grief

“People may experience anticipatory grief when someone they love is terminally ill or they are facing the inevitable death of a loved one or themselves,” Dr Patlamazoglou says.

“Some people see in anticipatory grief an opportunity to say goodbye and prepare psychologically for the loss of a loved one, while some don’t grieve prior to the loss.”

How can I seek support?

Whether it’s from a counsellor, friends or family, it’s important to seek support early to help you get through troubled times.

“Friends and family can assist by sharing positive memories of the deceased and doing some chores, such as cooking, cleaning and running errands,” Dr Patlamazoglou advises.

“Remind those around you to check on you, and at the same time respect your boundaries and privacy.”

He adds, “Counsellors and psychologists can also help you find ways to manage your grief that are meaningful to you and at a pace that suits your needs.

“Finally, meditation, spirituality or religion, as well as exercise such as walks, gym and yoga, can bring relief and joy.”

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Queen Elizabeth was forced to sit alone at the funeral for her husband, Prince Philip, due to COVID restrictions. (Credit: Getty)

How long will it last?

While it’s common to wonder how long these feelings will last, grief has no defined timeline. “In fact, grief may never dissipate entirely,” Dr Patlamazoglou says.

“Rather it’s people’s coping with grief that usually improves with time.”

It’s important to know there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

“Allow yourself to experience grief and let it wash over you,” Dr Patlamazoglou advises. “Grieving is a reminder that you feel love for the person you have lost. Grief is not a burden you should get over but an experience that you can integrate into your life and, through time, you may also gain resilience and grow as a person.”

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The Irwin family grieved the unexpected loss of Steve Irwin in 2006. (Credit: Getty)

The power of memory

While it’s common to struggle on significant dates like birthdays or anniversaries, cherishing those memories can help you to cope with your grief.

“You can maintain your bonds with your loved ones by talking to them, dedicating songs to them, watching their favourite movie, cooking their favourite meal or visiting a meaningful place,” Patlamazoglou says.

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Bindi Irwin famously spoke at her father’s memorial service. (Credit: Getty)

Showing support

If someone you know is grieving, don’t be afraid to reach out.

“Be proactive. People who grieve may find it difficult to complete chores, so cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry and running errands on their behalf can be very helpful,” Dr Patlamazoglou says.

“Also, connect them with a grief counsellor or support services. People usually receive a lot of support from family and friends soon after a loved one’s death, but this support dissipates later on.

Importantly, keep checking on grieving people regularly and respect their boundaries at the same time.”

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