Grieving over the loss of a loved one is a normal and necessary process of adjustment. The most common trigger to feelings of grief is of course the death of someone we hold dear. However feelings of grief can also be triggered by other forms of loss such as an intimate relationship breakdown or the breakdown of a long-term friendship.
Grief is experienced from the moment one finds out about a loss, or an impending loss, and typically lasts for several months (in some cases grief can commence before a person dies, for example if a loved one is diagnosed with terminal cancer). Typically, extremely intense feelings of sadness will be felt for a period of 2-4 months initially, which slowly becomes less intense in the months that follow. The intensity of grief, particularly if it is in response to the death of a loved one, may be so strong that it stops a person from living their lives normally. For example, intense sadness may hinder a persons ability to go to work or complete daily activities as they normally would (e.g., cooking, cleaning).
The intensity of a person’s sadness and grief typically becomes less intense as the person develops a greater acceptance of the loss. This process can take many months or even a few years. Sadness over the loss of a loved one may forever remain, but the process of grieving usually involves a significant reduction in its intensity that allows the grieving person to resume a normal lifestyle.
The grieving process sometimes becomes interrupted and the normal reduction in the intensity of sad feelings over time doesn’t occur. In cases of Abnormal grief, the intense feelings of sadness are severe, continue for an unusually long time and interfere with the resumption of normal daily activities and lifestyle. Alternatively, abnormal grief is sometimes characterised by an inability to grieve normally for the loved one (this might involve a person who never seems to cry or express the sadness that would otherwise be expected). Three specific types of abnormal grief may occur, these include delayed grief, distorted grief and over-grieving.
As the name implies, delayed grief is grief experienced long after the loss. Because delayed grief can occur many years after the initial loss it can sometimes be misidentified as depression. Unresolved feelings of grief that may have been pushed away or ‘buried’ by the grieving person are sometimes re-triggered by a particular event or less important loss. Those events might include for example reaching the same age as the person who died.
Distorted grief may occur either immediately following the loss or many years later. It might be characterised by an unemotional response initially or by physical illnesses that appear completely unrelated to grief. Distorted grief can sometimes seem unending, persisting intensely for years after the loss and may lead to frustration on behalf of others for the grieving person to be “done with it!” Warning signs of distorted grief can include idealisation of the lost person, avoidance behaviour (e.g., a person who never cries or shows other signs of grief that would be expected) or efforts to preserve the environment as it was when the deceased was alive. Distorted grief can be caused by complicating factors such as the absence of family and friends able to provide emotional support, multiple losses or inadequate grieving for past losses.
A somewhat rarer form of grief, over-grieving is characterised by a wholehearted acceptance of the loss, but the mourner doesn’t seem to experience the expected reduction in its intensity that normally occurs. Over-grieving is sometimes maintained by a perception that it’s a person’s expected role or duty, which can be based on guilt or an unresolved issue for which the prolonged grieving compensates.
Disclaimer: The information covered on this website is for educational purposes only. A diagnosis of any psychiatric or medical condition must only be made by a medical or mental health specialist. Diagnosing a psychiatric concern is a complex process that involves formal training, do not ‘diagnose’ yourself. If you have concerns that a particular disorder or condition applies to you, please speak with your General Practitioner for further assessment and medical/psychological care.
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