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October 26, 2019


Reuel S. Amdur

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Grief is not just about death. It is a natural response to any loss. That is what Caitlin Sigg told an audience at the Royal Ottawa Hospital on September 24. She is a PhD candidate and part-time professor at St. Paul University. She noted that grief is a subject people are uncomfortable talking about. Yet, we all experience it, not just as an event but as a process.

While we may think of grief as an emotional reaction, in fact it may be manifested in many ways.  While we may think of coping as a progressive process tending toward recovery (“getting over it”), it is in fact an individual process that does not fit neatly into such a model.  While we may move on, we do not become detached from the loss.  We simply learn to live with it.

Sigg sees grieving not as something to overcome but as an experience to work through. In this process, the person may follow one or more paths. Grieving can be active. It can also be connecting, healing, and even transformative.

As noted, it is not just about death of a person.  Thus, death of a pet may trigger it, though that loss will often be minimized or even ridiculed.  Consider also marriage breakdown, job loss, or serious illness as candidates for grieving.

How we react in grieving will vary with different factors.  Some cope more intellectually and others more emotionally.  For some, this is a unique instance, while others have grieved more losses.  Circumstances in which the loss occurred may be a factor on how one grieves.  Was it a person dying in old age, or might it have been a child hit by a car?  Is this loss compounded by other crises or difficulties?

Sigg listed some other factors such as health, age, culture, religion, and presence or absence of personal support.  Top of mind when thinking of grief, we think of emotions, and she listed some: anger, sadness, irritability, bitterness, relief, guilt, shock, anxiety, depression, hope or hopelessness, despair, meaninglessness, and loss of purpose.

However, grief can also take its toll physically: lack of energy and fatigue, dizziness; headaches; shortness of breath, palpitations, nausea, changes in sleep and appetite; increase in blood pressure; susceptibility to respiratory infection, pain in various locations, and worsening of symptoms of other existing conditions.

Grief may also affect cognitive functioning, leaving the person feeling numb or as if in a fog.  Concentration may be affected, and the person may be confused.  The griever might ruminate over matters or may be stuck in denial. 

Socially, grief may lead to cutting oneself off from the world, becoming isolated and withdrawn or detached, and lonely.  Spiritually, the person may come to question his faith, or on the other hand the experience may strengthen it by providing a broader understanding about the meaning of life.  The person may also feel angry and abandoned.

Grief may be something other than a here-and-now experience.  We may grieve in anticipation of physical or mental deterioration, including diagnosis of a terminal condition.  Grief may also be delayed, striking the person later, for example if feelings have been suppressed.  It may be triggered by other life events and circumstances.  When that happens, Sigg urges the person to take the opportunity to grieve fully, not to suppress it.

What Sigg called “ambiguous grief” groups instances that may not be recognized by others.  We have already mentioned the loss of a pet.  Other examples might include death of a neighbour or an ex-spouse, or when a loved one has dementia. 

At times grief becomes especially problematic.  She calls this complicated grief.  It is both severe and long-lasting and seriously impedes functioning.  It is often accompanied by other factors, such as in the case of multiple losses or grief aggravated by severe illness.  Complicated grief may lead to self-destructive behaviour including suicidal thoughts and actions.

So, what should you do if you are grieving?  Sigg has a number of suggestions.  To begin, she recommends connecting with caring and supportive people.  As well, permit yourself to feel the emotions and express them in a healthy way.  Take care of your physical health, getting proper sleep and exercise and eating wisely.

In addition, she cautions against making major life decisions while grieving, but do plan for holidays and engage in healing rituals, spiritual, religious, or other.  Consider individual or group counselling.  If there is a chapter of Bereaved Families of Ontario in your community, they may be able to provide a group experience.

Sigg emphasized that grief is “a life experience to be lived,” “a stimulus for compassion, connections, and kindness,” and “a longing for connection and relatedness.” 

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