Bereavement and the Loss of a Loved One This Emotional Life on PBS

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Grief and Loss

		

Types of loss

Grief is the reaction to loss of any kind.

Death may claim a loved one. A marriage or friendship ends. Health fails. A pet dies. A job is lost. Grief can also arise with the loss of a home or business through disaster or financial distress. However, some of the most difficult and painful losses we will ever experience are the deaths of a mate, child, parent, or sibling, or a loss under traumatic circumstances.

Loss of a
spouse/partner

Loss of a spouse or partner

The death of your mate means the loss of daily companionship. After the intensity of early grief and bereavement, friends and family who provided support in the early stages must soon return to their normal routines. For many, the loneliness is hardest to bear in the evening and on weekends. Reaching out to others for companionship, as hard as it is at first, can alter not only your life but also the lives of others. As painful as the death of a spouse or partner is, some people who have gone through this process find strength and resilience they didn’t realize they had. Some report new feelings of self-confidence and a greater inclination to try new experiences. It is possible to cherish your loved one and memories and also find strength and hope in a new phase of your life.

Loss of
a child

Loss of a child

The grief and loss from the death of your child is unlike any other pain one can experience. Some families experience severe stress, and friends may shy away. Parents who have traveled the peaks and valleys of this grief affirm that others who have lost a child will not feel this way forever. Relief will not come in weeks or months; it arrives in years. But it will come. They also say that reaching out to others who have experienced this loss is vital to facilitate the grieving process.

Loss of a parent
or sibling

Loss of a parent or sibling

Most of us will experience the death of a parent or sibling over the course of our lives. These losses can be life-changing events. For example, researchers have found that women experience nearly as much grief after losing a sister as they do losing a spouse. Some people feel a sense of survivor guilt when a sibling dies, or when they reach the age to which their sibling lived.

The death of a parent can also change your perspective on life. It may mean that you are now the oldest generation in your family, and you may think about your own mortality differently. You may feel a sense of abandonment. You may also have regrets about things left unsaid.

Whatever your own relationships were with your siblings or parents, their deaths mark a new stage in your own life.

Loss from
disaster

Loss from disaster

The uncontrollable nature of disasters—whether natural or caused by people, such as mass shootings or terrorist attacks—sets off strong emotional and physical aftershocks. Within moments, the disaster may have claimed what took you a lifetime to build: relationships, a home or business, cherished items, family heirlooms, property, pets. People react to disasters in different ways, but grief—expressed or not—is part of disaster’s aftermath. Even when loved ones make it safely through the disaster, life is significantly changed.

Emotional and physical responses to disaster may include:

  • Fear
  • Disbelief
  • Indecisiveness
  • Changes in eating/sleeping habits
  • Irritability/moodiness
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Traumatic
grief

Traumatic grief

Researchers have found that people are greatly affected by the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one. There are several factors that make a loss traumatic, and the more of them that occur together, the greater the traumatic impact of the loss.

Traumatic grief may occur if the loved one’s death is:

  • Sudden and unexpected
  • Violent
  • Mutilating
  • Witnessed by the survivor


Traumatic grief can occur after losses due to homicide, war, car crashes, suicide, and other sudden and violent deaths.

When the death is by suicide, another of layer of shock is heaped upon the already agonizing grief. The bereaved may feel awash in guilt, wondering if there’s something they could have done or said to prevent the death. Stigma is often attached to suicide, which complicates the grieving process. The bereaved may also experience powerful reactions for a long time, including nightmares, flashbacks, and withdrawal from social situations.

Losses are especially difficult when survivors have to deal with the feelings of both grief and trauma. Grief is difficult enough without trauma; trauma symptoms can interfere with processing grief. Grief can become even more overwhelming because there was no chance to say goodbye. When the death is due to violence or other trauma, survivors’ sense of order and safety is shattered. It can be hard to think about your loved one—a necessary part of processing grief—when violent or disturbing images of how he died intrude on your memories.

If traumatic grief affects your life, a mental health provider who is experienced in both grief and trauma can help you to work through symptoms of trauma so that you can process your grief.

Find Help

Locate mental health and well-being support organizations in your area.