Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who specializes in bereavement and trauma. He also is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he teaches psychotherapy.
Dr. Tedeschi, who has led support groups for bereaved parents since 1987, spoke to Discovery Health Online about coping with grief — whether you're the bereaved, or someone who wants to help the bereaved.
Q: What are some common emotions someone can expect to go through following a loss?
A: Well, depending on the kind of loss, all kinds of emotions can be involved. Sadness, of course, is the most predominant. Depending on the circumstances, perhaps, anger, guilt and, in some circumstances, relief. It's really a whole gamut of things. Emotions change over time, too; the emotions initially experienced may not be what people feel down the road.
Q: Is there a time frame for the grieving process?
A: There used to be these old models of grief that said that people go through certain stages and it takes a certain amount of time — those have been discredited. People now see grief much more as an individual process, so it's hard to put a time frame on it; it's hard to say that it goes through certain particular stages or phases for any individual. Some people manage to resolve the most intense emotions of grief relatively quickly, for others it takes a long period of time.
Q: What are some examples of how the grieving process may differ from person to person?
A: If you have a parent who is 95 years old, and you've had a good solid relationship with that parent, and then that parent dies because of declining health, you're not going to be surprised by this occurrence. You are going to be able to look at their life as a good thing, and this life is not particularly tragic, but natural. Because of your good relationship and the anticipation of the death, you've done your personal business with them. There's nothing that's really left unsaid or undone, and it feels that the relationship is somehow complete. So the emotions after that may not be particularly disturbing ones or difficult to manage, although there will be emotions none the less. Let's take a different example. Let's take a parent with a young child who dies and someone is clearly to blame, something went wrong. It's an unexpected death, it's shocking and it seems incomprehensible that your child would die, especially so young, and if somebody is at fault you'll have all sorts of feelings about that. So these feelings will be more intense and difficult and strung out over a longer period of time because of the unexpected nature of this — the fact that there has been some sort of wrongdoing involved, that this life has been cut artificially short. In other words, there is going to be a lot of unfinished business. It's going to be a lot different kind of grief than in the first situation I mentioned.
Q: What are some general suggestions for coping with grief?
- Don't be afraid of the feelings you're feeling.
- Don't think you're crazy for feeling the things you're feeling.
- Accept your feelings and don't let other people tell you how you should grieve.
- Trust your own judgment about your feelings and what you need to do to help yourself.
- Don't fall for the supposed grief formulas that some people talk about, that you go through the stage of anger, that you go through the stage of bargaining, that you go through the stage of resolution. It's all a mixed-up process — expect to be confused by it to a great degree.
- Talk to people. Find a good listener and someone who can hang in there with you for a long period of time.
- Expect that some people will be uncomfortable being around you. And not everyone will be someone you can turn to.
- Expect that in the immediate aftermath of the event, you'll get much more support than you will down the road, and maybe you'll feel like you still need support when people don't realize it anymore.
Those are some of the expectations people should have, and one of the most important ways of dealing with those things is to trust yourself. Realize that this is a process that may take some time, and find a good listener.