Grace through Grief: The Types and Stages of Grief
This is part one in a four-part series on the topic of grief. It is our hope that through this series, God’s people can better understand grief and see the role they play in helping others through it. God’s grace comes to us in different forms – sometimes it is through the words and actions of a friend. We pray that this series equips you to be such a friend to someone.
By: Beth Filzen, LICSW. Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker.
The last two years have been filled with much loss. We’ve said goodbye to loved ones, jobs, communities and more. And with loss comes grief.
Grief is a person’s response to a loss, typically associated with feelings of deep sorrow and distress. Grief is a process, and there is no right or wrong way to walk through it. Grief is an individual process, impacted by the significance of a loss, an individual’s loss history, and other factors that are cultural, spiritual and familial to the individual.
The most important and often misunderstood aspect about grief is that Grieving doesn’t start at the time of the “big” or final loss: Grieving actually happens in small steps along the way. In death, for example, grief doesn’t start the moment you learn that someone you love has died. Many times, the grieving process starts long before that moment.
When faced with a life-limiting illness, feelings of grief are compounded. They often start when you are diagnosed. You may first grieve the loss of independence as the illness progresses and you (or a loved one) require more care. You may grieve the physical changes that happen in your body, when you look in the mirror and the person looking back at you is not someone you recognize anymore. You may grieve the impact the illness has had on your relationships. For example: If you are married, your relationship as a couple may be “on hold” because the primary relationship with your spouse is now that of patient and caregiver. This change in roles and relationships is an important – and often overlooked – loss. The final step in this grief journey is the most significant loss: death.
Types of grief
- Normal Grief is a period of sorrow which allows a person to experience pain and other emotions associated with a loss. Those who experience a normal grief process will eventually adjust to a new reality. Intense feelings of sadness will eventually ease, and lead to feelings of acceptance, making a way to move forward.
- Complicated Grief is intense feelings of grief that are persistent and debilitating. They do not improve with the passage of time, which makes it difficult to resume everyday life.
- Anticipatory Grief is the grief that is felt prior to an impending loss, typically a death, and can be just as intense as the grief that is felt after a death. When a person hears that someone they love is going to die, they may start thinking about the future and what life would be like without that person. This can lead to anticipatory grief.
- Another type of grief that is often overlooked is called Disenfranchised Grief. This is sometimes referred to as “hidden grief” because is it grief that goes unacknowledged or unvalidated by social norms. Because of this, it is particularly difficult to process in a healthy way. Examples of disenfranchised grief include unrecognized relationships, loss of a pet, loss of safety due to abuse or neglect, or loss surrounded by stigma such as infertility, miscarriage, or estrangement with a loved one.
We often hear about Grief having five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Although it is true that many people who are experiencing grief feel these emotions at some point throughout the grief process, these stages of grief are not always experienced in a linear sequence and not everyone who is grieving experiences all five stages. It is uncommon to move steadily forward through each stage of grief, landing on and staying at acceptance. More commonly, people experience the stages in a more cyclical way. It is possible, and normal, to be living in the “acceptance” stage for extended periods of time and when a significant event happens, such as an anniversary, birthday, or wedding, you find yourself back in a previous stage of grief.
The experience of grief is diverse
- There are emotional and psychological symptoms including anger, anxiety and despair, guilt and fear, isolation and loneliness, sadness and uncertainty, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, nightmares, self-destructive thoughts, and low self-esteem.
- People may also experience physical symptoms such as: changes in sleep, weight and appetite changes, headaches and stomachaches and muscle tension.
- People may also withdraw from social interactions and find themselves wanting to spend more time alone while others try to stay active and want more attention as they process their grief and loss.
- Grief can also impact our spiritual life and social interactions, both positive and negative. Sometimes following a loss, people may feel abandoned by or angry with God and question their religious beliefs. Other times people feel more spiritually connected to God following the loss and find hope and purpose through exercising their faith and prayer.
How you can help
Some people struggle with how to support a friend or family member who is grieving. It’s difficult to know how to best support a loved one who is grieving. What do you say? What do you do? One of the best things you can do is be present and listen. Most of the time people are not looking for advice; they simply want someone near to listen.
When you find yourself or someone you care about in the middle of grief, remember that it is a process and there is no consecutive timeline. It may be helpful to connect with someone who is grieving, periodically, paying close attention to significant dates that may bring up pain such as anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays.
When to seek professional help
Significant grief can overwhelm our ability to cope. When this happens, seeking help from a counselor can help individuals understand grief and begin the “acceptance” stage of the grieving process. Reaching out for help is a positive sign of self-awareness and inner strength.
God tells us in Matthew 11, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” God can provide that rest in many ways, including in through a pastor, friend, or a Christian counselor who works with you as you experience grief.
If you choose Christian counseling, you are asking God – “an ever-present help in trouble” as Psalm 46 says – to be part of the healing process. If you are experiencing issues in your relationship with God, a good counselor will meet you where you are in your faith journey, and walk alongside you as you work through those issues.
Read Part 2 in this series, Grace through Grief: Surviving the Death of a Spouse.
Beth Filzen, LICSW. Beth is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who has over 10 years of experience in the areas of grief and loss and bereavement. Prior to joining Christian Family Solutions, Beth worked in the medical field for 13 years, and spent much of that time working with chronic illness and end of life care. This is where she gained knowledge and skill in working with families and individuals of all ages who are adjusting to a significant life change.
Specializes in grief and loss, bereavement, depression, and anxiety from adolescence through older adulthood