Grief is a topic difficult to discuss, but it’s universally felt. Intense grief can surface from a variety of circumstances; from the death of a loved one to the feeling of loss over disastrous current events.
Processing grief can be difficult. Some people prefer not to admit that they are hurting while others can’t stop talking about their feelings. Therefore, the symptoms associated with grief can come in a variety of forms.
Emotional symptoms include feelings of sadness, loss, apathy and fear.
“You might not feel like doing things; most notably things that you used to find pleasurable,” says Joyce Marter, LCPC, founder and CEO of Urban Balance, a counseling practice with six locations throughout the Chicago area. “You could feel numb or confused or frustrated and ask yourself why this happened.”
Physiological symptoms can range from changes in sleep patterns (insomnia or hypersomnia [excessive sleep]) to overeating or undereating. And physical signs of grief can include migraines, headaches and stomachaches.
“You may have pains in the body or feel an aching for that person,” says Marter, who lost her mother in 2008 to a brain tumor. “I’ve felt the physical craving of wanting to hold my mother.”
Appetite fluctuations can also be a sign of grief, says Fran Nathanson, a licensed social worker and bereavement team leader at Midwest Palliative & Hospice CareCenter in Glenview. “If someone is continuing to gain weight or lose weight unintentionally, that could be an indication,” she says.
Cognitively, grief sufferers often have a difficult time concentrating and have problems making decisions.
“You are reprocessing your whole world without this person, and there is a lot of psychic energy going into that,” Marter says. “Think of your mind as a computer operating system. A lot of that is processing grief, causing the rest of the system to function at a lesser capacity.”
How to help yourself
Increasing your self-care—from eating right to talking with a grief counselor—is important, says Leslie Holley, a licensed professional counselor with Urban Balance. That is exactly what Oak Park resident Julie Gerut did in 2003, when she was 36 weeks pregnant and her baby died in utero.
After proceeding to give birth to her baby—a process she calls, “the worst 24 hours of our lives”—she went home and started dealing with the shock, which manifested itself in intense sensitivity and endless crying. Grief counseling and group therapy guided her through times when she felt most raw.
“I called for a therapy appointment with an independent grief therapist in Oak Park within days, and I started doing a lot of yoga, meditation and body work. It helped me immensely,” she says.
With the help of her self-care regimen, Gerut was able to find happiness again. “I didn’t know I would feel this way because back then, I wasn’t sure how I would go on,” she says. “I still have times where I feel visceral grief; it will strike me out of nowhere. But I’ve realized that the only way out is through it.”
In addition to taking care of themselves, those processing grief are smart to simplify their lives as much as possible. Marter recommends paring down one’s schedule to only mandatory tasks, accepting the help of others and understanding that grief is a process that takes time.
Ann Merman*, a Chicago woman who lost her mother to cancer 18 years ago, felt as though her personality had changed—from extroverted to introverted—after her mother’s death. Seeing a grief counselor provided her relief by pointing out that this was temporary. “It was so nice to have an outlet; for someone to ask me questions and for me to feel open enough to respond. Friends were often at a loss of what to say, but I could speak to her on a detailed level, and it validated my feelings,” she says.
How to help others
The best way to help a grieving person is to tell them that you care. Holley says it is important to acknowledge that people have different ways of grieving and different time lines and to allow each individual to have his or her own experience. Try not to compare their grief to a past experience you’ve had, but instead ask open-ended questions, and tell them that they are in your thoughts.
“Ask them questions like, ‘What do you need right now? Do you need time for yourself? Sleep? Can I cook you some meals?’” she says. “Ask them about their feelings, and be willing to accept those feelings. Don’t tell them to be strong [or] to get out of bed. This is all part of the grieving process.”
Up until the late 1960s, grief had little research behind it. That changed when Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, in which she identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
But the stages aren’t necessarily felt in chronological order, Marter says. “There is no magic time line with grief; every person’s experience is unique, and a lot of us toggle back and forth between stages.”
Chicago-area resident Meredith Sonetz is someone who knows what it’s like to toggle. In 2001, at the age of 32, she lost her 56-year-old father to a heart attack. The death was sudden and left her with feelings of shock, denial, bargaining, shock again and then acceptance. “I skipped around in the stages, and even now, I go back to some stages,” she says. “There are times when I am still angry or jealous or sad when I see other people doing fun things with their dads.”
Sonetz forged her own path to recovery, leaving a career in finance to become a licensed professional clinician and help people recover from alcohol and substance abuse—a topic close to her heart. “My dad was an alcoholic and found sobriety in his life. He died 23 years sober,” she says. “I struggled with the same thing, but was sober when he died. It meant a lot to my dad that I stayed sober, and I never want to lose that. That is my purpose now, and my dad is part of that.” +