The overwhelming emotions associated with a lost loved one or lifestyle change become deeply personal. Grief can mentally and physically manifest in every part of life and impact one’s well-being.
“Grief is individualized, and those experiencing grief may be affected from a physical, emotional, behavioral and spiritual perspective,” says Dr. Bart A. Rider, medical director of Saint Francis Hospice in Tulsa. “From a physical standpoint, studies have shown that grief can increase inflammation within the body as well as lower the immune system. This can lead to both physical pain and increased risk for infections.
“It can also have an effect on the adrenal system, raising cortisol levels within the body, which can increase heart rate, cause anxiety and elevate blood pressure. There have actually been cases of cardiomyopathy [heart damage] or so-called broken heart syndrome, brought about by stress associated with acute grief.”
Rider says the emotional effects of grief can be similar to those of depression and include sadness, hopelessness, guilt, fatigue, anger, sleep issues, insomnia or decreased appetite. In 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, not everyone experiences each stage or in that order.
“Clinically, grief is recognized as a diagnosis and it should not be overlooked,” says Jess Barr, bereavement coordinator with Saint Francis Hospice. “There is no set course for grief; not all symptoms will be felt by every
individual. Some individuals will bounce around the symptoms, going back and forth more than once, and some may have little to no symptoms at all.”
Barr stresses that no two people grieve the same way, even if they have suffered the same loss.
“There is no specific timeline for grief, and after a loss, it is important to give yourself grace as you find your new normal,” Barr says. “No one is the same after experiencing a loss; it is through their grief they are able to find what their new normal will be.”
Caitlin Eversole, admissions supervisor with Tulsa’s Grace Hospice of Oklahoma, says the best advice she’s received about grief is, “You can’t go around grief; you must go through it.” And it’s important to not go it alone.
“Our bereavement classes are facilitated by … professionals who understand the process and can help others through it, not only in a group context but also in a one-on-one setting,” she says. “In the best of circumstances, grief can be a difficult, highly subjective process, so we recommend that friends and family members try bereavement counseling at least once to see how and if it can benefit them.”
People often want to be supportive during tragedy but aren’t sure where to begin or what to do.
“If a friend is suffering from a major loss – be it … a deceased loved one, divorce or the end of a career – the best course is to simply be their friend,” Eversole says. “Listen to them and support them in any course that does not present a danger to them or to others.”