Is grief a negative emotion?

Grief is not a negative emotion and needs to be experienced just like any other
Is grief a negative emotion?

Megan Devine, in her book, It's Okay That You Are Not Okay, talks about how our views about grief are entirely negative. “Grief is seen as an aberration, a detour from the normal happy life. Our medical models call it a disorder. We believe that grief is a short-term response to a difficult situation, and as such, should be done and over with within a few weeks,” she writes.

Grief is an emotion experienced by an individual in the face of loss — of something or someone — that was irrecoverable or irreplaceable to them. This is why a person grieves when they have been through a breakup, lost a loved one, lost a pet or been diagnosed with a chronic illness — because reality no longer matches their perceived picture of happiness. 

It is important to understand that grief depends on the situation that the person is in and their relationship with the loss (of the person or thing) faced. It is this that defines the degree of intensity of the grief that a person experiences.

The different stages of grief

Psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book Death and Dying, talks about her theory of grief and its stages:

Denial: The person is unable to accept the situation and may be telling themselves that they are fine.

Anger: In the face of grief, the person is either angry with themselves or with the people they are close to. That anger forms a natural part of grief is important to note as it can help people around the grieving person look beyond their anger and have a better understanding of what the grieving person is going through.

Bargaining: For a person with terminal illness, this can be something on the lines of "Let me live at least until my daughter is married.” They are bargaining about their life situation with the help of their faith. Similarly, for a person grieving after a break up, bargaining could look something like, "Can we at least be friends?"

Depression: In this stage, the person begins to truly understand the magnitude of the loss they have suffered. At this time, they may avoid their family, appear constantly sad, feel emotional and spend a lot of time crying. It is common for people to ask the person to stop crying and look cheerful or move on; but experts stress that this is when the person is taking their time to process the grief. It is important to let them feel the different emotions they are dealing with without censure. 

Acceptance: At this stage, the person has come to terms with their loss and are trying to find ways to overcome the situation or cope with the consequences. This might involve doing things like searching for ways to increase income if they have lost money, or trying to move on after a relationship by removing reminders of your ex-partner.

While these are usually the different stages that a person goes through, it is not necessary that everyone will experience all the stages or go through it in the exact same fashion or order.

Research has shown that when a person is grieving, the neurons in the brain are undergoing a change. This has an impact not only on the brain but also on other organ functions like that of the digestive system and regulation of the heart.

Talking to someone who is grieving

Often, people don't have enough understanding about how to respond to someone dealing with grief. They worry that they may cause more pain by talking to them and end up distancing themselves from the person altogether. On the other hand, some people push the person to overcome their grief as soon as possible and get 'back on track' in life. Dr Poorva Ranade suggests that both approaches may not be helpful to someone who is grieving. Here are some pointers that will help while talking to someone in such a situation:

Empathize and reflect: Instead of saying “You need to get over it” or “It's okay,” you could say “I can imagine this is a very difficult time for you.”

Make a suggestion in an open-ended manner: Instead of saying, “I think you should (...),” you could say “Would you like to consider (...)?”

Be there for them: If you feel that they are hesitant to talk, you can say, “I am here for you if you would like to talk to someone at any point.”

Seeking help

Prolonged grief and depressive symptoms can look very similar, and there’s only a thin line that separates the two. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) states that while the process of grieving is natural and may resemble severe depression, grief and depression are different from each other.

If in addition to the feelings of grief, the person is unable to function in their daily life and has suicidal thoughts (like wanting to join their loved one in death) even after a long time has passed, they may need to seek the help of a mental health professional.  

Everyone grieves differently. For someone, grieving the loss of a loved one may involve abstaining from indulgence. But for another, they may engage in activities they enjoyed with their loved one as a way to grieve.

"Every person's experience of grief is different from the other's — and all stages will not be experienced exactly according to theory. A lot of this depends on the person's social and cultural environment that they have been exposed to, as well as the resilience they build in themselves to deal with the grief," says Bangalore based psychologist Dr Poorva Ranade.

This article has been written with inputs from Poorva Ranade, a psychologist based in Bangalore.

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