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Grief is what we undergo when we have experienced a significant loss in our lives. We tend to think of grief in the context of bereavement although as we shall see other forms of loss can also induce grieving.
For most people the most profound form of loss is the death of someone close, but it can also have a deep impact when a co-worker dies or commits suicide.
Grief is not an illness. Grief is a normal process we go through following the death of someone close.
It is not an illness requiring treatment but a part of life – often extraordinarily painful and difficult – which requires time and the support of others. Grief is sometimes pictured as a process or journey of adapting to loss which is required before we are ready and able to re-engage with life.
The death of someone we love can be hugely stressful. There is a considerable range of thoughts and feelings which bereaved people typically undergo. Common ones include sadness, shock, guilt, anger, disbelief and yearning for the person who has died.
Grief can place people in a state of emotional turmoil in which moods and thoughts change rapidly. So alarming and painful can this become that it is not uncommon for bereaved people to believe that they are going mad. It is also common for people to experience physical symptoms as part of their grief – sleep difficulties, stomach upsets and loss of energy are common.
People grieve differently
There are considerable differences in the length of time it takes and the amount of pain that is experienced. While some people experience a relatively mild degree of pain and adjust fairly quickly, others experience strong depressed mood which slowly gets better. And for some there is more grief experienced before the loss than after it (in the case of someone with a terminal illness).
The point is that there is no one way to grieve. People and circumstances vary enormously and consequently, so does the passage of grief.
As we have seen, grief is a painful process of adapting ourselves to the loss of someone precious. If we think of grief as being like a journey, it makes sense to ask about what it means to arrive at the destination – the journey’s end.
Following the death, some people lose a sense of life having any meaning. So the end of the journey may mean a recovery of meaning. Note however, that for some people bereavement does not result in a loss of meaning.
People have described the end of grief as being like coming out from under a dark cloud. The sun shines again and people and activities once more seem attractive and interesting. The deceased can be thought about with neutral or even happy feelings.
When someone with whom your life was significantly inter-twined dies a new pattern of life has to be created. Goals have to be changed, priorities reassessed, new plans made, and relationships made or re-made.
When treatment is needed
Grief itself is not an illness requiring treatment. There are however two groups of people who may benefit from it:
(a) A small proportion of people become stuck in their grief, unable to move forward, and
(b) A minority of bereaved people ill with depression before the loss face special difficulties.
For these people specialist counselling and perhaps medication may be useful. But the great majority of the bereaved are not in need of treatment. As we have seen, grief is a normal process not an illness. And for the majority treatment is not only unnecessary but there is evidence that it may even delay recovery (Bonano et al 2002).
What is helpful for a bereaved person
Just popping in and ringing up to show you care is important. Being there to talk when the person is ready and wanting to talk is very important. A week or two after the funeral support can sometimes tail off. But it is in the weeks and months afterwards that the need for company and talk is most critical.
When talking to a bereaved person it is important to allow them to:
- Talk about their thoughts and feelings – most of which will be negative and painful in the early weeks and months
- Let them set the pace
- Be patient
- Resist the temptation to offer false comfort – “I know how you feel”, “its God’s will” or “Time is the great healer” are not generally helpful.
Simple things like providing meals in the early stages, or mowing a lawn, or helping fill out forms can be significantly helpful to a bereaved person.
Research shows that personal devotion and commitment to a creed generally helps people to be more resilient in facing bereavement. If a person has a religious faith then helping ensure that they are able to practice it (for example driving an elderly widow to church) may be of real benefit to them. On the other hand of course, if people do not want a religious involvement it is vital that no attempt is made to foist it on them.
No major decisions
As we have seen grief can be a chaotic experience in which thoughts and feelings change often. Making a major decision when in this state (for example to sell the house) unless absolutely necessary is better postponed until things have a chance to settle down and the person becomes clearer about the shape of their future life.
People with special needs
Some types of bereavement are often particularly difficult to live through. Parents (of any age) dealing with the death of a child often need extra help and support as do those mourning the loss of someone close who committed suicide. Bereaved children need appropriate care from those closest to them who themselves often need help to know how best to help them.
The death of a child
An organisation called “The Compassionate Friends” is a support group for bereaved parents siblings and grandparents. They can be contacted on (02) 9290 2355 or www.tcf.nsw.org.au.
Bereavement due to suicide
At www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au there is helpful material on understanding the special needs of those bereaved due to the suicide of a loved one (type “suicide” into the search box).
Other forms of loss
Death is not the only form of loss we face in life. The loss of a physical capacity, job loss, destruction of your home by bush fire, and the death of a pet are all forms of loss which can produce substantial grief.
The key thing is not so much the loss itself as what the loss represents or means in the context of the life of the affected person. For example the death of a pet for an elderly person living alone can be a major loss requiring understanding sympathy and support.
Source: Converge International, provider of the AVA Telephone Counselling Service