Experiencing grief is a part of the human experience. But far too many of us find ourselves having to navigate grief in real time without much preparation or information.
Licensed mental health counselor Kasandra Reyes LMHC is hoping to change that. Through her mental health counseling agency, Amending Spaces Mental Health Counseling PLLC, Reyes seeks to provide individual and couple’s therapy for clients dealing with a variety of mental health issues, including grief. With Sweet July, Reyes shares some insight on how to deal with grief and ways to support someone who is grieving.
What is your definition of grief?
Grief is our response to a loss of some kind, generally characterized by intense sadness. My goal is to help people find a balance between self-acceptance and growth through the utilization of research-based therapeutic interventions.
What types of emotions are associated with grief?
I am generally of the belief that the most basic emotion tied to grief is sadness. I emphasize the idea that sadness is the most “basic” emotion, because emotions are a lot like onions in that they are often layered. At its core, grief is sadness, but the layers surrounding it can include guilt, fear, confusion, anger and even joy. Generally, the complexity of the relationship will inform the layers of emotion surrounding grief. An example is a father that passed away having had a troubled relationship with his children. His children will feel sad, but it might be layered with feelings of guilt or anger.
Many people assume grief just centers around death, but what are some other scenarios wherein grieving could come into play?
Grief is a response to loss. While death is one of the most intense forms of loss, it isn’t the only way we experience it. Other common ways we experience loss—and therefore some level of grief—include ending a close relationship (platonic or romantic), experiencing extreme physical change or limitation (due to illness or even pregnancy) and losing job opportunities.
Can we put a timeline on grieving?
Grieving looks different for everyone, so it is hard to pinpoint a general timeline. The main thing we should keep in mind when trying to assess whether our grief is healthy is how our emotions develop with time. It is okay to feel sad about someone’s passing years after, but do we find ourselves mourning just as intensely as when they initially passed?
A form of clinically significant grief is known as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder. It is diagnosed when someone experiences the death of someone close to them, and, after a year, the person still has intense and persistent feelings of sadness, longing and preoccupation with the deceased. Someone diagnosed with this is still highly reactive to death and can encounter social and identity disruptions. Some examples of this include denial of the passing, struggling to remember the deceased in any positive way, excessive avoidance of things that might remind them of the loss, feeling like life has lost meaning without the deceased, feeling detached from others, and suicidal ideation.
If someone is experiencing grief, what are some things they can do to help manage it?
It is important to remind yourself:
- Negative emotions are okay and, while unpleasant, don’t need to be avoided.
- Positive emotions are okay as well, as we should not feel guilty for moving forward in our lives after a loss.
- Don’t judge your progress based on your observation of someone else’s progress.
- You aren’t the first nor the last person to grieve the loss of a loved one; therefore, you have a whole community of people out there that know how you feel. Try connecting with them.
Stay reflective about your grieving process. Ask yourself:
- What are the layers of emotion I am feeling and why?
- Do I feel capable of dealing with this on my own?
- Is there anyone that can relate to me right now?
- Do I want to seek professional help to manage my grief?
Trying to consistently avoid your grief through distractions will lead to that grief manifesting in other forms. Grounding techniques are often good for immediate results. Two I like to use are as follows:
- Try to focus your attention on one or more of your five senses to help with bringing you into the present moment, lessening intense emotions. For example: take a moment to listen to a song you really like, and focus intensely on all the different notes and instruments that come together to create the song.
- If you feel like you are on the verge of a panic attack: Fill a bowl with cold water and ice. Take a deep breath, then dip your face into the cold water, holding for a few seconds at a time. The cold water will shock your system, bringing you into the present moment and help you regulate your breathing as you hold your breath.
What’s the best way to let colleagues, family and friends know you’re grieving?
Just be honest. Having to tell someone that you are struggling, especially colleagues that you might not be close to, can be a very vulnerable thing to do, but I think you’d be surprised at how much support comes out of that honesty—as well as how many new connections you might build.
How can loved ones help care for someone experiencing grief?
When losing a loved one, there is initially a large outpour of support. People respond differently to that amount of support; it can be helpful for some but also really overwhelming for others. Asking someone how they would like to feel supported during hard times like this can be really helpful and doesn’t mean you’re a bad friend. Also, while the initial support might be vast, that support quickly fades as the weeks pass and people get back to their normal lives. Try circling back and checking in on your friend after a few weeks or months as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.