“I tell people that during the first few weeks of grief, you feel like you are in a fog; just going through the motions,” says Leslie Schaeffer, Support Services Manager, Bereavement and Veterans Coordinator with Bethesda Hospice Care . “This is the mind’s natural response to protect itself from the pain of loss. As time goes on, the fog slowly lifts.”
Leslie adds that grief support services are beneficial for anyone who has lost someone close to them. “This helps them understand the kind of grieving that eventually leads to peace and healing and what grieving is harmful,” she says.
Understanding the Stages of Grief
Many people have heard about the five stages of grief:
According to Leslie, the word “stages” may be misleading. “Grief does not follow a sequential order,” she says. “You don’t necessary move from one through five. There can be a mix of feelings over a period of time. Even becoming tearful may not happen until 7 or 8 months after the death of a loved one.”
When Grief Begins to Take a Destructive Turn
When grief severely affects us mentally, physically and emotionally, this needs to be addressed. Difficulty eating, sleeping or caring for oneself, and meeting basic human needs, are examples that require a visit with a primary care physician as well as ongoing grief support.
It is normal to have a period of time, typically the first few weeks to months, where the grieving person experiences intense feelings of sorrow and numbness. However, if the symptoms do not seem to be decreasing, or if they start increasing, it should be a concern.
Emotional and behavioral responses that are too intense or too frequent. Some people may block out all thoughts of the person they have lost, seeking relief in complete detachment. Leslie says this may also mean withdrawing from friends and family. Some triggers for this response could be if there were regrets or anything left undone when the loved one passed, such as words of forgiveness and healing, or even the opportunity to say good-bye.
Use of alcohol or drugs to numb the pain. Leslie cautions that, aside from the physical harm that drugs and alcohol can have, their use simply delays the grief process that needs to occur.
Complicated grief. This is a deeper more debilitating level of grief when painful emotions do not subside with time. “This is grief that makes moving forward without the loved one seem impossible,” Leslie says. “Some people who have a previous history of anxiety, depression or mental illness are more susceptible to complicated grief.”
Grief that Heals
Do things that bring you comfort as long as what you are doing is not a health hazard. Leslie tells the story of a woman who kept her late husband’s slippers beside his recliner for a time as a comfort to her.
Keep your loved one’s legacy alive. What connected you in life to the person who has died is still a connection in your heart. You can still remember Dad, all the things he valued, his philosophy, personality, quirks, and times of laughter.
One myth holds that if we ignore the pain of a loss it will go away more quickly. “You can only sweep it under the rug for so long,” Leslie says. “At some point, it’s going to surface.”
Another myth is that crying is a sign of weakness. “I believe we learn how to grieve by watching our parents grieve. Older generations tend to be more stoic; careful not to reveal their emotions. We believe that crying is a natural response that can be healthy,” she says.
In addition, some people believe that a lack of tears reveals an uncaring attitude. According to Leslie, grief affects people differently. “You may not cry for months and then one day you hear a song you and your loved one shared and the tears will come,” she says.
Grief during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Grief is about dealing with loss. Most often, the loss is associated with the death of a loved one. However, people experience loss throughout all stages of life. Because of physical or cognitive challenges, they may no longer be able to pursue interests or hobbies they once enjoyed. Perhaps they have lost economic security or their sense of self-worth.
During the pandemic, seniors may lose contact with friends and family members, and not be able to celebrate the life events that make life worthwhile.
Leslie cites the work of Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who offers ways to cope with these losses during the pandemic.
Bethesda Grief Support
Bethesda Hospice Care provides grief support to anyone who has lost a loved one. Surviving family members of loved ones who were in the Bethesda hospice program can receive grief support for up to 13 months after the death.
The program includes condolence calls and check-in calls to see how the family is coping. “We provide emotional support, and walk them through the ways that can promote peace and healing,” Leslie says.
The program offers free, online virtual grief support groups and grief counseling sessions.
If you are interested in learning more about Bethesda Hospice Care grief support groups or joining our upcoming sessions, please contact us today.