Living With Grief And Loss
Finding your way through grief and loss
It has been some time since the February 2009 bushfires in Victoria, which had such a tragic impact on many people and communities. If you were affected by the bushfires you may be feeling great sadness and disorientation after the loss of a loved one, your home and/or your community.
If you have lost a loved one, community member or home you may also have experienced a number of secondary losses. You may have had to move house or may have needed to change school. You may face questions about your identity and where you fit in as well as regret over lost possessions and intense feelings of missing your former world.
At the moment it may be difficult to consider what is going ‘well’ because you are aware of all the things that are different and, at times are still feeling sad, disoriented, confused or alone. How do you manage these feelings, and what can help you through this difficult time?
This tip sheet aims to help you understand what might be happening for you and offer some suggestions about what may be helpful for you 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 school 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 Victorian bushfires continues for a long time, and sadness may come and go.
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.
Moving through grief
A grieving person (whether experiencing the loss of a loved one, a neighbour, a home, pets or familiar surroundings) often moves between being in touch with their deep sadness and moving forward and getting on with life - slowly re-engaging and reconstructing the future. Both of these phases are important and distinct and cannot be hurried or set into a timetable.
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
- The type of relationship you had with the person you have lost
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 start reconnecting with 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 young 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). Sometimes young people may also develop a sense of premature maturity when compared to their peers.
Moving through grief as a family
If 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 turn it into something manageable. It is important to remember during this time that people grieve differently, for example, some people:
- want to talk about their losses, but for others a lot of talking is not necessary
- may lose their patience more readily
- may feel more irritable or edgy, and less tolerant
- can feel tired and withdraw from social activities
It can be difficult for family members to understand and support each other when each person is grieving in their own way. 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.
What helps to manage grief?
Grieving is a very personal journey but there are a number of things which can help you manage your grief. Below are some ideas about how to look after yourself as you go through the grieving process:
- Keep talking - to mum, dad,your siblings or other family members or close friends. If you need someone to talk to, you can call Kids Helpline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 1800 55 1800
- Take small steps - some things will have changed in your life, but try to keep some things the same e.g. mealtimes, homework habits, going to sports or team activities
- Share information - take care to let other family members know what is going on, where you'll be and when you'll be back
- Do things with your family - share things you enjoy doing together, like visiting other family members, cooking and/or eating your favourite meals, going to the park, movies or out to dinner together
- Establish your living space - sort out your physical environment as much as you can so that you have a comforting base to go to school from and to return 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) or what is overwhelming, scary or new. Keeping present can also stop you reliving past experiences
- Express your sadness when it hits you and try to move on when the feeling has passed
- Look after yourself - find ways to meet your needs and to keep yourself healthy (e.g by eating well, having regular sleep, exercising and being around positive people)
- Ensure you rest - try to sleep regular hours and if you can't, practise relaxation techniques so that you can 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. If you feel like crying all the time - talk to mum or dad, a local counsellor or teacher, or call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800
- If you are not coping well at school then ask for help - see if you can change your academic load to give you more time to process what has happened
- Attend some of the special bushfire recovery-related events in your area - this will enable you to hear stories from others and be in a supportive group with other young people. Information about local events can be found here
- Work on a film or documentary with friends - to document your and your friends' experiences
- Find opportunities to work creatively - either at home or at an art workshop or community centre, to have some fun and allow imaginative expression
- Re-read your favourite books
- Singing, dancing and music - these are all activities which can bring relaxation and joy as well as an opportunity for emotional expression
- Try to notice and think about new skills you have managed to learn and give yourself a pat on the back!
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 suggest that there is stronger growth to come. This growth and adaption can also be seen in individuals and families as they journey through the grieving process.
Who else can help?
- You can call Kids Helpline 24 hours a day, 7 hours a week on 1800 55 1800 or use our email or web counselling services
- You can find other local services that can help you here.
- Health Report Interview, Mal McKissock 2001. Retrieved 22 September 2009. http://www.bereavementcare.com.au/articles/health_report.htm
- 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
- 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