Living With Grief And Loss
Finding your family's path through grief and loss
This tip sheet explores what it's like as a parent when you are experiencing deep sadness and disorientation after the loss of a loved one, your home and/or your community, and also have a family to care for. Sometimes it may be hard to step aside and reflect on what is going well because you are aware of all the things that are different and the areas of your life where you feel sad, disoriented, confused or alone.
If you have experienced a loss, you may want to check that you are on the right track or find out what else you can do to support yourself and your family through this difficult time. You may also be asking yourself a lot of questions and seeking answers. How can you manage all these things at once? What can help you during this period? This tip sheet aims to help you understand what might be happening for you and your family and offers some suggestions and strategies that might be helpful in times ahead.
You may have met people who seem to believe in the ‘flu’ model for grief. That is - it lasts about two or three weeks and then gradually you get over it, get stronger, and get back to work and life as before. However, research shows that grief is not like this. The shock and disbelief surrounding a death or a tragedy such as the bushfires in Victoria continues for a long time, and sadness often does not disappear, but instead may come and go.
When a loved one, pet, home or community is lost, it is also common to experience a series of secondary losses. You may have needed to move house or your children may have needed to change school. You may face questions about your identity and where you fit in. You may experience regret over lost possessions and have intense feelings of longing for your former world.
Evidence shows that grief and distress are normal reactions to an abnormal event, and that most people will eventually adjust and accommodate this grief into their life. You might find this hard to believe at the moment because your world still feels topsy-turvy. However, in reality it hasn't been long since the fires took place and it's still early days.
Models of grief
There are many models which explain grief and loss. One of the most useful in this context is the ‘Dual Process Approach’ model which is simple yet meaningful. This model describes how a grieving person moves between being in touch with their deep sadness and moving forward and getting on with life.
According to this model, both of these phases are important and distinct from one another, and cannot be hurried or set into a timetable. There will be times of sorrow and times of getting on with life - slowly engaging with and reconstructing what they want their future to be like.
Another approach which develops this idea of moving within and between different emotional states as a response to loss uses the intersecting dimensions of: (i) overwhelmed and controlled grief, and (ii) resilience and vulnerability. This model suggests that at any time someone can be anywhere on this ‘map’ which ranges from isolation and loneliness to moments when you are engaged fairly happily in an activity or event alongside other people.
Moving through grief
It is difficult to predict the path of grief as each individual experiences loss differently, due to a number of factors, including:
- Coping mechanisms
- Level of support available
- Relationship with the deceased
For some people it helps to be with family and friends as they work through the grieving process. Other people prefer to gradually try new behaviours and slowly re-engage and show interest in their world. On average it takes four or five years, or even more, for a person to accommodate grief into their lives - so give yourself permission to slow down if you need to.
Often, people will want you to get back to where you were before you suffered your loss - the reality is that life will never be the same. However, research shows that many people who experience bereavement, although difficult, become stronger emotionally as a result. Sometimes they develop a greater sense of ‘what's important’ in life and increased resilience (a belief that they can adapt to anything).
Moving through grief as a family
When you are used to being part of a relationship with another person, family or community it can cause a loss of self identity and purpose if you lose this relationship. It often takes time to adjust to these changes as you are relearning a world which you have never experienced before. Working out a new identity when a family shape has changed is important, and can be a challenge.
Grief often involves a balance between developing a new relationship with the person or thing that has been lost, and at the same time learning how to live with grief and loss, and turn it into something manageable. It is important to remember during this time that there are different rates of grieving and different ways of expressing sadness. For some people this will mean talking about their losses, for others a lot of talking is not necessary.
It can be difficult for family members to understand and support each other when each person is grieving in their own way. For example teenagers are at a significant stage of identity formation and ‘just being a teenager’ and connecting mostly with peers, often remains the most important task, even when grieving. Teenagers may need to revisit their grief at a later stage of development.
Different events and memories will have significance and trigger sadness, often at different times, for each family member. As well as this, siblings may feel pressure or guilt for having survived other siblings, and parents who have lost a partner may feel pressure to fill both roles for their children.
Helping to manage grief as a family
Parents play the most important role in their children's lives. Young people put parents above their friends in terms of listening to their advice or using them as role models. So, as a parent, it becomes especially important to try to model ways of responding to the changes associated with loss which may help children to keep going.
Grieving is a very personal journey but there are a number of things that have been shown to help families who are experiencing loss. Below are some ideas about how to look after your family as you go through the grieving process:
- Keep talking - encourage open communication. Reassure kids that you are always there to listen and if they want to talk to someone else they can call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
- Take small steps - where possible keep changes small and try to keep things such as family rituals or the structure of mealtimes and bedtimes the same
- Share information - take care to communicate and let each other know what is going on and what changes are coming. There is nothing worse than living with the unknown, especially for children
- Do things together - such as activities or outings that you all enjoy or cooking and/or eating your favourite meals
- Keep family roles clear - don't allow children to take on too much responsibility and continue to be a parent to your child. They need you to be there for them after school, to read to them or to make dinner, etc
- Establish your living space - make your physical environment as comfortable and comforting as possible so that you have a base to work from and to come back to
- Stay present as much as possible - if you keep yourself in the present moment then you can focus on the task at hand. This enables you to calm worrying thoughts of what may happen (or may not), and what is overwhelming, scary or new. Keeping present can also stop you reliving past experiences
- Express sadness when you feel it and try to move on when the feeling has passed
- Look after yourself - find ways to meet your needs as well as your children's. If you value yourself then your children will be more likely to do the same
- Ensure you rest - try to sleep regular hours and if you can't sleep then practice relaxation techniques so that you keep your body rested and avoid becoming run down
- Allow yourself to express grief - at times you may need to stay in bed late or grieve deeply - honour this. It will enable your children to feel more comfortable expressing their own grief. If you feel like crying all the time get some help, seek out a local counsellor or call a help line
Helping families build resilience and friendships in the community
As mentioned above, it is common to fluctuate between feelings of sadness and grief, and times when you feel more part of the community and able to focus on moving forward.
Below are some suggestions to help with this process as you and your family slowly rebuild confidence and feelings of self belief.
- Ask for help when you need it - neighbours often like to help but don't always know what to offer. Do you need a hand getting the shade cloth up or digging some land for a veggie patch?
- Connect with your children's school and other parents - showing interest in your children's lives will help reassure them that you still care about them. Attending school events and connecting with other parents also helps to renew friendships
- Ask for help if your children are not coping well at school - see if their academic load can be changed to give them more time to process their sadness. It may help to find other activities in the community which will engage them and allow them to express themselves
- Attend some of the special bushfire-related events in your area - this will enable you to hear other people's stories and to feel supported in a group environment. Information about local events can be found here
- Participate in local community planning and reconstruction events with your family - getting involved with others and working on practical needs can bring a sense of personal achievement and connection with others
- Encourage teenage children to work on a film or documentary with friends - support them to document their experiences
- Find opportunities to do creative things - such as painting, clay modelling or creating mosaics, either at home or at a community centre. Such activities can be therapeutic and allow imaginative expression
- Read to younger children at night - taking time to be together and snuggling up at the end of the day will help you to grow together and adjust to the changes around you. The library may be able to help you find stories about children who have overcome sadness or grief after a loss, or that have messages about regrowth or facing obstacles, as well as their favourite books
- Sing, dance and listen to/play music - these activities can bring relaxation and joy as well as provide an opportunity for emotional expression. Music shared as a family can be particularly special and beneficial for relationships
- Encourage your children - talk to them about positive things you have observed, and how you have seen them rising to the challenge of your new life together. Examples include:
- Specifically noticing and naming positive observations. Eg ‘It really helped that you took the dog for a walk this evening’
- Showing how proud you are that they have cooked a meal, sorted the washing, come shopping with you or taken responsibility for putting the bins out
- Praising them for managing to keep concentrating on and/or succeeding with their studies
- Helping young people to value the small steps that they are making and the new skills that they are learning. Often these are the skills that will give them greater resilience in life going forward
Most importantly, remember, help is always available - you are not alone.
Small steps and changes in behaviour, and great patience are important parts of recovery and starting anew. Recently, there was an image in one of the recovery newsletters of a tiny, fresh, green shoot growing through the earth. These ‘green shoots’ symbolised growth and adaptation to new circumstances, and showed that there is stronger growth to come. Such growth and adaption can also be seen in individuals and families as they journey through the grieving process.
Who can I contact for more information?
You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.
- Health Report Interview, Mal McKissock 2001. Retrieved 22 September 2009. http://www.bereavementcare.com.au/articles/health_report.htm
- McKinley, N. M. (1999). Women and objectified body consciousness: Mothers' and daughters' body experience in cultural, developmental, and familial context. Developmental Psychology Vol 35, pp 760-769.
- Stroebe, M. S and Schut, H. (2001) Meaning making in the dual process model of coping with bereavement. Meaning Reconstruction and the experience of loss. PsycBOOKS
- Ribbens McCarthy, J. (2006) Young people's Experiences of Loss and Bereavement - Towards an Interdisciplinary Approach. Open University Press, UK
- Schuurman D. 2003 Never the same: coming to terms with the death of a parent. St Martin's Press, New York.
- Tolle, E. (1999) The Power of Now. Namaste Publishing, Canada.
- Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief - Relaxation Exercises to Reduce Stress, Anxiety, and Depression (modified 2008). Retrieved 21 September 2009. http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_relief_meditation_yoga_relaxation.htm
Published: 18 January 2010