Bereavement is the state of loss. Grief is a response to a loss. Although we tend to see the emotional response such as weeping and sadness, it also has physical; not eating or sleeping well, cognitive: can’t seem to focus on the task at hand, behavioural; not wearing any clothes that are associated with the death, social; isolating oneself at home, and philosophical; not attending church like they used to.
Our response to loss is varied and depends on our personality, family, cultural and spiritual and religious beliefs. Grief is unique for everyone and it is also unique for the same person for different losses, example, you will experience grief differently for the death of your partner versus the death of your 96 year old grandmother.
Despite being unique, the grieving person will go through some common experiences but it is how they do that and complete this that is unique.
Shock and numbness usually occurs early in grief and may be a self protective process. This time is accompanied by feelings of unreality and withdrawal; anything that produces an anaesthetizing effect. A person during this time can appear stoic and strong when in actuality they are in shock.
Yearning and searching is when the grieving person is trying to ‘locate’ the lost person but in bereavement the search is fruitless. It can also be referred to as ‘pining’. This is the time where common reactions include feelings or even thoughts of ‘seeing’ the deceased even though intellectually you know this isn’t so. This is all done in an attempt to cognitively and emotionally begin to ‘let go’.
Disorganization and despair is what we usually associate with grieving. It is the mourning, sorrow and pain of being away from the loved person. This process, even though it might wax and wane, can take years. The pain can ease but then can return full force with a situation or an event such as the anniversary of the death. This process must be worked through in whatever way works for the griever. Any attempts to camouflage with medication will only prolong the inevitable.
Reorganization is the assimilation of the loss and the redefining of your life without your loved one. Many times for long term partners we identify our life through our partner’s life and to develop new definitions of ‘who we are’ and what our life dreams are is difficult and can take many years if not the rest of your life.
The loss of a partner is one of the most common losses, especially as we age. Many widows and widowers describe the loss as “losing half” of themselves. Most couples have a division of labor where the partner who is dying or has dies was responsible for certain tasks. For me, my partner Bill did all the lawn care, snow removal and wood cutting. I didn’t know how to start the lawn tractor and I didn’t know how to use the wood splitter.
Anticipatory grief is the response to the impending loss of a loved one and recognizing the associated losses in the past, present and future. For me, the past losses occurred as Bill became ill and he couldn’t do some things as before, the present losses occurred when he was hospitalized with his stroke and I became the lead in everything. The future losses were my vision of not being able to live my life dreams if I needed to become a caretaker and the worry of anticipating his actual death. Anticipatory grief is a fairly new concept. With the advances in medicine the time between diagnosis of a terminal illness and death is prolonged. Chronic diseases mean living a life of decreasing quality over a long period of time.
A person in anticipatory grief may be experiencing all of the changes associated with care giving and the associated grief processes. As I said to my doctor: “I feel like I am grieving but he isn’t dead yet”. The grieving person has to walk the fine line of caring and being there for their loved one and not prematurely withdrawing in an attempt to lessen the pain. It is both partners who are grieving and will do the work of death and dying. Unfortunately, for the surviving partner there is no guarantee that once your loved one has died that you will have a shorter period of grief and bereavement because you worked through anticipatory grief.