Although there is no order to the phases of grief of often the phases are experienced several times, it seems that in the most part, the depression phase seems to follow after denial, anger and bargaining – as if the one grieving has just lost the will to fight against the grief any longer.
The most important thing to remember in this phase is that, depression is a completely natural, normal and expected part of grieving. You are not crazy, you haven’t developed a mental illness, you don’t need to “snap out of it” or “get over it” – you are experiencing a legitimate emotional response to an earth-shattering event in your life. It is entirely reasonable that you should feel depressed and numb. In fact, if you didn’t feel sad and depressed over the loss of a loved one (or your grief event) THAT would be greater cause for concern.
Depression is the fog of sadness and a feeling of numbness that comes once the loss truly settles in your soul and you realise that your loved one isn’t coming back and there is nothing you can do but try to work out a way to continue to function with a massive hole in your heart.
What to expect?
Depression itself can take many forms. Some who grieve are overwhelmed by intense waves of sadness. Sometimes this can mean spending hours on end crying and reflecting and remembering. Some will lose sleep, others will want to sleep constantly. Some lose their appetite and others take comfort in food or in alcohol. Some will want to pull a doona over their heads, others will want to escape the world by throwing themselves into exercise or activity.
Sometimes those who are grief-stricken will want visitors to sit with them, or to take over basic daily chores. Others will prefer to be alone. Some may question whether there is any point in going on with life, others will wonder if they will ever find the strength to smile or laugh again. Some will find joining a support group helpful, others will not want a bar to do with seeking out that kind of support.
Over the 20 plus years of working with grieving families, I have seen that depression during grief takes many forms. For some clients– the sadness of their loss travels with them like a cloud. It is almost palpable. Some speak openly about their feelings. They openly confess that they are having an awful time and cry freely. Others are still and contemplative. Some clients want to talk often, others prefer silence and written communication.
Different ways of dealing with depression
For some clients the depression stage in grief means that they just don’t want to deal with the “stuff” they need to handle – it just becomes “too much”. Dealing with forms and writing letters, just expends too much energy which seems unimportant in the scheme of things. Other clients find the “doing” therapeutic in a way that it allows them to feel like they are taking control of the practical and transactional steps as a way of moving forward.
That is why we offer different types of estate management services to our clients – we assist clients with the probate paperwork, and then guide them on how to take on the administration for themselves. Or for those who just want to hand everything over to someone else, we manage the whole transactional processes.
The hardest part of my job as a specialist wills and estates lawyer, is watching clients struggle with depression in grief in the context of an estates battle, where all the additional emotional overlays of feeling rejected, unloved, unappreciated, taken aback, surprised and upset only add to the feelings of depression over the loss of a loved one.
How long will the depression last?
When you are in the midst of depression (or on the outside, supporting someone depressed during grief) it is natural to wonder how long the depression will last.
Obviously, there is no set formula for grief, no time frame to follow, nor should there be. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, the psychologist who first identified the stages of grief famously quoted:
The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. No should you be the same, nor would you want to.
How quickly (or slowly) someone might take to start to come out of depression, to start to function “normally” again will depend on several factors.
How close they were to the one who died, will have a big impact – the closer the relationship, the more difficult it will be. The loss of a child, or a spouse and even the natural loss of an elderly parent can be utterly devastating and take a long time to process.
Whether the death was sudden, unexpected, accidental or a suicide can impact greatly on those left behind.
If a death happens around a holiday period like Christmas, Easter or Valentines Day or other important date can also make it difficult to overcome depression particularly on anniversary dates when others are celebrating during your time of mourning and remembrance.
Sometimes personality types can influence how long depression might last. Some will naturally look for the silver lining, others will focus only on the clouds. How we choose to respond to loss will influence how long the grieving process will take.
When to get professional help
If you find that after a few months you are still struggling with poor sleep, loss of appetite, loss of weight or suicidal thoughts, then you should talk to your doctor as soon as possible, so that your normal sadness does not develop into a clinical depression, which will require treatment to resolve. Even then don’t be afraid to seek help and accept that you may need the assistance of anti-depressants for a short time to help you heal.
How to help others who are depressed
The key thing to remember while supporting those depressed while in grief, is that they do not need to be “fixed”.
Don’t avoid talking about the loved one who has passed. Instead openly speak about them, use their name, remember events where they were present or share your own thoughts on how they might’ve reacted to something if they were still here. Keeping the memory of the loved one alive and easily spoken about, speaks volumes to the person grieving their loved one. You will likely find that in sharing this way, you will find something uplifting or even funny to focus on.
Remember that your loved one may never recover from this loss. They will find a way to function daily, but their loss and pain will never leave them. Showing them that you remember anniversaries, or reach out during times when they are likely to miss their loved ones the most, is so very important.
If you find your loved one is losing weight, is not sleeping property, is abusing alcohol or drugs, or is avoiding all forms of connection, with close family, friends, or support groups for an extended period of time, it is important to encourage them to seek professional help.
Steps to take to cope with depression
Below are a few tips on ways that might help you to cope with the depression phase:
- It is ok to feel the pain and any other emotions that might come. Don’t let anyone else tell you how you should feel and don’t listen to the internal voice that might tell you that you need to be strong. You don’t need to be anything for anyone. Give yourself permission to cry, scream, laugh hysterically, speak, be still, punch something – feel whatever it is that you need to feel, unique to you.
- Take care of yourself. Eat. If you can, try to eat healthy. Exercise even if it is just to walk around the block for fresh air. Physical activity is a good way to release tension. Be kind to yourself. Take a hot bath. Get a massage.
- Avoid drinking too much alcohol or using other drugs. This can harm your body as well as dull your emotions. It’s also likely to slow your recovery and may cause new problems.
- Try to maintain the routine of your usual lifestyle. For the first year of grieving, try not to make any major life changes which can act as stressors (e.g. changing jobs, ending or starting a relationships).
- Find distractions like going to a movie, dinner, or watching sport, reading a good book or listening to music. These things might seem mindless and unimportant, but they can distract your mind, for a moment, out of the otherwise all-consuming pain and sadness.
- Get support. Ask others for what you need. If no one else seems to understand then find and talk to others who have been through something like you.
You may never recover from the grief, but the wound will heal over time. You will forever be left with a scar, sometimes quite tender to the touch. Future triggers, some big, some small will make your wince in pain. Changed forever. Mortally wounded, but alive. How you respond to life now will be what makes you.
Have you ever felt the touch of depression on your shoulder? What did you find that helped you the most?