Peace of Mind: Grief

Grief is a natural response to a significant loss like the death of a loved one, a family divorce, or a relocation to another neighbourhood, city or country. Adolescent grief can be particularly acute given the developmental stage and physiological changes occurring within the young person. This explains why grief was selected for this edition of Peace of Mind.

Types of grief

It is important for guidance counsellors to be aware that there are different types of grief that youth are apt to experience after a loss. They include:

  • Normal – perhaps this should be expressed in quotes as ‘normal grief’ with the quotes indicating there is no discernable normal when it comes to the grieving process. However, there are common physical, emotional, and behavioural reactions to a loss. If a person seems to be healing and moving toward acceptance of the loss, they are in a so-called normal state of grieving.
  • Anticipatory – when a person knows that a loved one is going to pass away or that their family is about to move to another city, and they will be leaving their friends behind, a grief process takes place in advance of the eventuality. Acknowledging the grief and celebrating the time left with family and friends is the best way to deal with (and the most challenging way to deal with) anticipatory grief.
  • Disenfranchised – when a loss is seemingly invalidated by society. For example, many people struggle with the grief process when they lose someone to suicide, a drug overdose or a family pet passes away. Some people make assumptions (they were weak, they lacked self-control, it’s only an animal) that invalidate the grief and create isolation for the grieving person.
  • Chronic – when the grief process does not get better over time. A chronic state of grief that either lingers or intensifies often requires professional intervention.
  • Traumatic – a heightened emotional response when a loss occurs suddenly and often horribly. For example, when a parent dies in a car crash or a loved one is murdered. This can be even worse if a person witnesses the violent death of a loved one. Due to the complex nature of traumatic grief, professional grief counselling is often needed.
  • Absent – when the grief process does not appear to be happening. This is often an expression of shock and denial of the loss that has occurred. If absent grief appears in the short term only to be replaced by actual grief later, there is not much to be concerned about. However, if the grieving process is never initiated, this is a cause for major concern.

It is also important to know how grief expresses itself. Grieving young people are likely to show their grief:

  • Emotionally in the form of sadness, despair, guilt, relief, anger, and resentment. 
  • Physically – in the form of an upset stomach, changes in their eating habits, poor sleeping patterns, muscle tension, and exhaustion.
  • Mentally – through an inability to concentrate, persistent thinking about what or who has been lost and/or an illogical bargaining process that vainly attempts to reverse the loss. They might also be plagued by unconscious questions like: Did I cause the loss? Could I have prevented the loss?
  • Spiritually – existential questions about the meaning and purpose of life.

How a guidance counsellor can help

Often guidance counsellors are the first to know that a student is about to experience or has experienced a loss. Concerned parents and caregivers often share the news with the school of a pending divorce, the illness or death of a loved one, or a dramatic change in their child’s life. When a guidance counsellor is aware of or suspects that a student is grieving, they can offer them an outlet to express their feelings.

A few things to consider when dealing with a grieving student:

  • Grieving differs from person to person, and one form of expressing grief is not necessarily better than another form of expressing grief.
  • The grief process takes time, and a person often doesn’t know that they have reached the point of acceptance until they have arrived there.
  • It is important that students avoid isolation and stay connected with others at home and school.
  • Remind students that you are there to help and that you can be relied on as a resource as they navigate their grief.
  • Encourage students to maintain a healthy diet, stay active, and get enough sleep.
  • Familiarize yourself with expressions that are not helpful to grieving students (i.e., ‘they’re in a better place now,’ ‘you should try not cry so much,’ ‘don’t think about it.’) and use expressions that are helpful (i.e., ‘I am sorry for your loss,’ ‘know that I am here for you,’ ‘I can’t imagine how you feel.’).

Empathy and compassion

It is inevitable that guidance counsellors will encounter students who are navigating the cloudy waters of grief. Empathy and compassion, as always, are the guiding forces in handling these students. By doing so, guidance counsellors can help students recognize that loss happens in life and that there is always hope.

By: Sean Dolan