The loss of a loved one usually evokes a strong emotional response. As much as this a universal experience that is as old as time, there can be a lot of confusion surrounding such emotional responses.
This article will demystify grief and explore how one can walk out of grief and towards better mental health. Our case study will show that it is possible to improve mental health and provide opportunities for individuals to thrive.
Grief is the emotional response when we experience a loss, and it has great impact on our mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as: “a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
When unexpected life events occur such as the death of a significant person or this current COVID-19 pandemic, our inner world experiences a loss of control. It often causes people to re-evaluate their entire understanding of the world and their role in it. It forces people to challenge their assumptions and forces you to face realities you could have previously ignored. When that magical bubble of safety and control is taken away, it reveals to us what lies deep in our subconscious mind.
*Madam M’s Story of Loss
Madam M in her late 80s was referred to our team for counselling. She had experienced two deaths — First her husband’s, followed by her son’s death in the short period of one and a half years.
For the longest time, she was busy tending to her family. In the wake of their deaths, her safety zone came crumbling down. She was so crippled by the losses that she just holed-up at home. She would sit in the corner of her flat with the church music on, and cry herself to sleep. She had changed a few maids in this short period and the current maid was on the verge of leaving. Her mental health was affected as she was socially withdrawn, and had a lot of repressed anger and resentment.
How Madam M Started Her Healing Journey
Madam M’s healing journey included the reconstruction of the sense of meaning she made and beliefs she held in her life the following areas:
- Emotions: Viewing emotions as dangerous
- Self-identity: Loss of her role of a wife, womanhood, motherhood, family
- Yearnings: To love and to be loved, accepted, and validated
- Unfinished business: Guilt of not done enough, addressing unresolved disputes
- Unfilled wishes: Unspoken affirmations or missed opportunities
Her emotions stabilised when she eventually discovered she had the power to create her own safe haven. Possibilities opened up when she could frame her painful past and make new meaning of her self-identity for the future. She discovered her many strengths, and found new meaning in life by connecting with others in her community.
We closed the counselling sessions with Madam M after her mental health improved over time. She became more responsible to make choices and communicate in a way that resonated with herself and those around her. She came to terms with the death of her husband and son — it did not mean she does not feel the pain, but was able to grow in the love of her husband and son, and dared to live in a way in honour of them and herself.
Are You Able to Identify with Some of the Symptoms in Your Own Grief Journey?
Although grieving is a very personal journey and is unique to each individual, research has shown that it is normal to experience the following symptoms and phases before we can come to terms with the loss:
- Lost sense of self
- Sense of relief
- Helplessness or hopelessness
- Absence of positive mood
- Avoidance of social and other activities
- Separation distress (yearning-anger-anxiety)
- A changed world view
Our response to grief lie on a wide spectrum. It is normal to feel some of the above symptoms some of the time. However, if you feel some of the symptoms intensely and/or are immobilised and affected by them at work and daily life most of the time, you might want to consider getting professional help to improve your mental health.
It is important to remember that we have the strength to find support in our journey, hope, and new meaning in life in order to carry on.
Professor Robert Neiymeyer, Director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, recommends working on the following aspects of one’s loss in order to transform your grief response:
- Impact of actual loss
- Relationship (closeness/conflict)
- Unfulfilled wishes
- Unfinished business
- Meaning making
- Social validation of the mourner’s meaning making
These areas hold the potential for healing to take place. Be creative on how to accomplish this. You can explore these areas on your own in a number of ways, such as making a journal to drawing out your thoughts and feelings, or reminisce the bittersweet memories and make sense of your loss with a friend whom you feel comfortable and safe with.
Key to Healing
When we experience a big loss in life, it is a difficult time which is full of hurtful emotions and uncertainties. However, it is important to remember that we have the strength to find support in our journey, hope, and new meaning in life in order to carry on.
The contributor is a Senior Counsellor at Hua Mei Counselling and Coaching, Tsao Foundation.
*Name in article has been changed to protect their privacy.