Bereavement is an extremely touching experience, difficult to articulate in words. The normal reaction to losing a beloved person implies a mix of feelings that can vary from deep sadness to guilt, anger or emptiness. Usually the person experiences the tendency of spending some time by himself/herself in order to cry for the loss, remember the memories, realise what has happened and “adjust” his/her life with the absence of the departed one.
The five stages of grief
Even if psychologists support the theory of the Five Stages of Grief theorised by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, everyone has its own specific pattern of reaction. Usually we need a variable amount of time in order to cope with a loss and it is proportional to the intimate meaning and role that the departed person represented to us.
Often, the very first reaction to some shocking sad news is denial. Many times people remember that their first thoughts were: Are you serious? What are you talking about? That is not possible! Denial is a primitive and protective reaction and it can manifest in different forms: for someone denial can last only few minutes, for others it can last few hours or even days; the person can feel shocked, stunned, turned upside down without realising what is going on and without feeling the relative emotions yet. Denial can then be followed by anger: Why is this happening to me? Why him/her? It is not fair! Why did he/she leave? Anger is a protective reaction as well; our anger can be addressed to different objects or persons, even the beloved one.
After anger, the person usually enters the bargaining stage, when he/she starts to look for explanations and faults about what happened. The universal and most known stage is then the depressive one, when sadness and regrets are dominant. On the contrary, the last stage is characterised by acceptance: realising and accepting the death of the loved person is the first step to go back to reality.
Not everybody is able to reach the acceptance stage: it can happen, for many different reasons, that a person gets stuck in one of the previous stages and needs a little help to elaborate the loss.
What to do
If we have trouble in elaborating bereavement, time is not healing our wounds and we have the feeling of being trapped by intense and sometimes contradictory emotions, psychotherapy can be a useful tool to get past this.
This is for example what happened to one of my first patients and how therapy worked for her.
She was a lovely and smart lady over 80 years old, who I will call Maria here; she lost her husband a few years earlier and she was stuck in the depressive stage. Actually Maria didn’t just lose her husband, she had lost her unique, special and long-lasting love after 60 years of marriage, the person she totally relied on for almost all of her life. And she was not able even to think about her life without this precious man by her side. Maria was very depressed and felt lost; no antidepressant was helping her so she decided to start psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy supported her while going through almost all the stages of loss. Indeed she was not alone while she was crying all her tears, expressing all her anger towards her condition and her dead husband who left her alone, while passing through guilt and every regret and remorse. In the end psychotherapy helped her searching and strengthening her personal dispositions that could help her in coping with that difficult period. Little by little, Maria started reorganising her life, finding new ways, new goals and new meanings. After two years of therapy, Maria decided that it was time to end psychotherapy: she realised that she will always be missing her husband, that she could never forget him, but that she could focus on her nephews, her family and friends to feel better. And in that moment she felt that she could do it by herself.
This is a good example of how a psychotherapist can indeed help you express and understand your feelings, realise what is keeping you stuck in a particular stage of grief and prevent you from coping with your loss.