Four years ago, my husband and I lost a dear friend of both of ours in a military plane crash. It happened on a routine flight, and not in combat, so the news was shocking to us. We had each experienced loss during our marriage, but this was our first shared loss. We processed our emotions very differently. He was sad and reflective; and I was angry, not at our friend, but at the circumstance. I remember in the weeks after his death, feeling heat on the back of my neck as I thought of his death and the injustice of him being taken from his wife and children. My husband was sorrowful, and when we attended our friend’s burial, he sobbed as the military jets flew over in the Missing Man Formation while I took it all in with reserve.
This year, my husband I lost another friend suddenly. Our reactions were the opposite: he was angry, and I was sad. Additionally, this loss affected our adolescent daughter, who knew this friend, and is a friend of his daughter. This grief, to us, was complicated due to the multiple relationships: my friend lost her husband, my husband lost his friend, and my daughter’s friend lost her father.
Having gone through these losses recently has allowed me to convey some lessons learned with my clients. Everyone experiences grief differently, especially at different ages and stages in life. It is also important to note that you and a surviving loved one may experience different emotions at different times while grieving, and may have very different styles of grief. It is important to not let those differing styles of grief create conflict.
Grief is a complex emotion, and there is no easy way to address it. The feelings we have after the sudden, tragic loss of a loved one are different than those we have after the death of a terminally ill or elderly loved one. Grief is to be expected in both cases, but are in many cases, not the same.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her Five Stages of Grief in 1969: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. These stages are not sequential, linear, or mutually exclusive. The passage of time can help with grief, but not always; do not expect to feel better within a certain timeframe. A few years after our friend’s death, we could smile and laugh about the memory of our friend, and it no longer felt like a kick in the gut to think about him. That feeling of heat that I described had gone away, replaced with a bittersweet feeling.
It is important to note that children and adults experience grief differently at different ages and stages. I have twice had the privilege of serving as a camp counselor at Chameleon’s Journey, an overnight grief camp for children ages 6-16 who have lost a loved one, organized every fall by Hospice of Charlotte. The camp is free of charge to attendees, and campers are encouraged to attend year after year for as long as they are of age. The content is much the same from year to year, but children experience grief differently as they age, which is why campers are encouraged to return every year.
When I counsel those who are grieving, I inform clients that every feeling … sadness, anger, guilt, relief… is all valid, and nothing of which to be ashamed. There is also a place for humor in grief, and its acceptable to laugh on the day of the funeral when people gather to remember someone they love. Sometimes happy new memories form when family and friends gather to mourn someone they love.
If your grief overwhelms you, and causes you to feel overwhelming sorrow, heightened anxiety, sleeplessness, or to have negative coping mechanisms like excessive eating or drinking, then it may be time to seek counseling to address your grief, and to find healthier coping mechanisms. Individual counseling and bereavement support groups are both options that can help.