Grief, loss and loneliness


Grief and loss

The term “grief” is used to describe the reactions and feelings that a person might have to the loss of someone or something that is important to them. One of the biggest and most difficult losses is the death of someone really important to you. However, there are many experiences which may result in feelings of grief or loss, including:

  • the death of someone you love
  • your parents separating or getting divorced
  • separation from a parent, both parents and your family
  • separation from friends or your community
  • moving away from home or leaving your country
  • splitting up with your partner
  • losing your job
  • the death of a pet
  • leaving school or university
  • losing the ability to do some things through disability, injury or poor health
  • becoming really sick or seeing or learning about someone else becoming really sick

What does grief look like?

No two people are likely to experience grief in the same way. The process of grieving can be affected by lots of different factors, such as the nature of the loss, the person’s past experience of loss, their cultural and spiritual beliefs, coping styles, physical health and available support systems. There is also no strict ‘time limit’ on grief. It doesn’t occur in neat stages and some people get back to their usual routine fairly quickly, while others take longer. Some people prefer time alone to grieve; others crave the support and company of others. Some common feelings that can be experienced include:

  • Sadness, crying, mood swings
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Shock, a sense of numbness
  • A sense of the loss not quite being ‘real’ at first, or finding it hard to believe or accept that it has occurred
  • Anger, shame
  • Guilt (e.g. about interactions with a person who has died (“I should have spent more time with her”) or guilt about gradually getting back to ‘normal’ life and at times not ‘remembering’ to feel sad)
  • Relief
  • Feeling disconnected from others, isolated, alienated or lonely
  • Worries about not grieving ‘normally’ or ‘correctly’
  • Waves of sadness or anger which can be overwhelming and sometimes suddenly triggered by reminders
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, feeling sick in the stomach, aching muscles, feeling run down, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, feeling tired, having no energy, getting sick more easily

These feelings can happen at any time and for any length of time. You might feel really good one day and awful the next. Sometimes it can feel worse in the morning, or as you are about to go to sleep. Sometimes you might wonder if you will ever feel ‘normal’ again. You will – gradually the pain is with you less often and life finds a new sense of meaning.

When does grief become a problem?

Most people going through the pain described above will eventually adjust to the loss and return to normal life, although of course carry some sadness about the loss. Most people do not require medication or counselling to manage grief, and should simply be supported to go through their individual grief process. However, sometimes people deal with loss in harmful ways, or are unable to come to terms with their loss and are unable to move on over time. In these cases, it would be a good idea to talk to a counsellor about it.

Dealing with loss in harmful ways

Using drugs and alcohol to try to cover up the pain or make it go away. This method may just ‘put off’ or prolong the natural process of grief, as well as doing you harm.

Hurting other people. Anger is sometimes the emotion you show when there are a whole heap of other emotions happening underneath. If you think you’ve no safe place to express yourself or don’t understand what’s going on, you might turn anger on other people.

Hurting yourself. Choosing to harm yourself is only one choice to express the pain that is happening for you. There are lots of other ways you can choose to express yourself.

When to seek help

There is no ‘time limit’ or guide to normal or healthy grief. Some people take longer to adjust to losses than others. However, a general rule-of-thumb is that a person who is coping very poorly after 1-2 months may be at a greater risk of the grieving process taking longer to resolve or being more difficult. Some other warning signs may include:

  • Abuse of alcohol and other drugs including prescription
  • Pushing away painful feelings or using distracting tasks to avoid experiencing grief
  • Excessive avoidance of talking about or reminders of the loss
  • Increased physical complaints or illness
  • Intense mood swings or isolation which do not resolve within 1-2 months of the loss
  • Ongoing neglect of self-care and responsibilities (e.g. not attending classes, not looking after yourself)

Where to go for help

Should you feel overwhelmed by your feeling of grief and loss, you need to talk to a counsellor to assist you to deal with your feelings and thoughts during this challenging time. Contact REGENT’s Counselling Services at counselling@regent.ac.za to book an individual counselling session.

See your GP

Contact Life Line’s National Counselling Line on 0861 322 322 (24 hours/7 days a week)

Find further information on grief and loss at http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=240&np=298&id=2104

 

Loneliness

“I feel alone”

Loneliness may be experienced when people have less quality social contact than they would like. As a result, they may experience constant feelings of sadness, anger or helplessness. Over time, this can cause people to feel depressed or anxious, question their self-worth (“Do other people hate me?”) or make them believe their situation will never improve (“Nobody will ever like me”). These feelings can cause people to withdraw into themselves and spend time ruminating on unhappy feelings and thoughts instead of having fun or pursuing goals.

People do not need to be physically isolated to experience loneliness: It can be felt when alone in a big house or in amongst a crowd of peers. It can be hard to define exactly when someone will experience loneliness, but it is usually felt when people feel they have ‘less’ than others. For example, you may feel you have less support than other people, or have less meaningful people in your life than you used to have.

Some common reasons for experiencing loneliness include:

Being physically separated from friends, family and partners

  • Experiencing a reduction or loss of a close relationship, such as through death, breakup, relocation or conflict
  • Lacking a close partner or confidant
  • Long-term history of few friends or other social support
  • Feelings of social anxiety or difficulty conversing with people.

If you can relate to the above or similar descriptions, chances are you are feeling lonely. Fortunately, you can change the experience.

What can I do?

Changing the way we feel about ourselves takes time and effort and it has to be driven by you. The suggested approaches may require you to adjust the way you think, challenge your beliefs and take action. Depending on why you feel lonely, one or more of these may be challenging and these techniques have to be practiced continually to have gains. However, these strategies have been proven to work and the end result may be well worth it. Ask yourself, do I want to keep feeling this way? Am I willing to try some things to make myself feel better and to have more positive experiences?

Remove the label

“I am lonely” is a global statement, which means this one phrase sums up who you are. Over time, people who consider themselves lonely begin to relate strongly to this label. The label can also cause people to unwittingly shape their lives to live out this role and it becomes a ‘self-fulfilling’ prophecy and serves only to cause future loneliness. The opposite is true though: Consistently challenging your label and associated thoughts can help you break the loneliness cycle. There may be some good reasons to describe yourself as lonely. However, it can be easy to develop “tunnel vision” and fail to notice that there are most likely several reasons you are not this label too. Take the time to think of your overall life, achievements and day-to-day experiences and identify some other, more positive descriptions of yourself. One suggestion is to write down your possible descriptions (including “I am lonely”) and have a look at your reasons supporting and challenging these. You may find a lot of evidence to support more positive ways of viewing yourself and your situation.

Notice your thoughts

You may find you have frequent thoughts or self talk that tells you that you are all alone, worthless or incapable of being happy or sociable. This might keep you feeling lonely or stop you from pursuing friendships or relationships. Take the time to notice what you are saying to yourself, such as by writing key thoughts and feelings down. Our lonely thoughts may hold elements of truth, but they are often exaggerations or false descriptions (e.g. “People ‘always’ ignore me”). Noticing and challenging unhelpful thoughts can help regain control and stop such thoughts from holding us back. Alternatively, it can be helpful to keep your mind in the here and now and notice thoughts for what they really are- simply words and images. Allowing yourself this viewpoint can help reduce the impact of such thoughts. One strategy is to set aside a specific time of day to go through worrying thoughts and feelings, which can help stop them impacting on day-to-day life and gives you time to process them. If you find you are having trouble sleeping, doing this “brain dump” before bed can help improve your sleep! Journaling can also be helpful, where daily experiences and thoughts are written down and kept. This helps process the day and can be helpful to look back on later. Whatever your approach, limiting the power of negative thoughts helps us feel better and pursue helpful actions.

Identify your needs

Loneliness is a relative feeling, meaning people feel they have less social contact compared to someone else. Sometimes people who describe themselves as lonely actually have enough support to sustain them, but become envious of those with more. There will always be people who have more friends or popularity than you. Your new location or role may mean that there are only a few people to form close friendships with, or it may not be possible for your partner to be with you every weekend. Consider your situation and identify your needs. What is a realistic and helpful target for you? You may find you have a lot of quality social contact already! If not, then perhaps there are some steps you need to take.

Take opportunities to meet and interact with people

Working through your thoughts and self-perception is one way to lift yourself out of the feeling, but if you would still like more, then the answer is to make changes. There are a number of ways to do this! It may be possible to find like-minded people through interest, hobby or exercise groups or Internet sites. Talking to people at work, study, online or in other social settings can be a great way to get things rolling too. Invite new friends out or take them up on invitations. You may feel anxious about doing these, but it gets easier with time and experience! To get started, one approach can be to set a small social goal, such as saying hello to someone new, then increasing these goals over time. A helpful mindset to get started can simply be to find out more about people by asking questions and showing an interest in them.

Keep active

Regardless of whether you are by yourself or with others, remember to keep doing things that you find fun and meaningful. Doing things like practising a hobby, pursuing personal goals or trying new things helps stimulate the mind and reduces the impact of lonely thoughts. Doing something physical is recommended- This alone can stimulate brain function and encourages fitness that serves to lift your mood! Keeping a balance of sleep and healthy eating is also highly beneficial.

Resources

The above are some ideas that may help you break the loneliness cycle. However, sometimes it can be helpful to reach out and get further support. For more information on managing loneliness, please refer to the resources below or seek support from REGENT’s Counselling Services.

If loneliness is getting the better of you call Life Line’s National Crisis Call Centre on 0861 322 322. They offer a free 24 hour telephone counselling service designed to provide support for people in crisis.

Read Confidence: Stepping Out: An article that summarises the difficulty of engaging in social contact experienced by some people, as well as ideas for working through such feelings. Find the article at https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200702/confidence-stepping-out