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Ask the Counsellors: Healing Grief

Dear Aspire Too,

Almost a year ago my father attempted suicide.  I used to talk to him every day, but one day I hadn’t heard from him.  After a few hours of him not answering my texts or phone calls, I decided to go over to his condo where I found him.  I called the ambulance right away, and my dad ended up in the hospital on life support for a few days.  My dad never really talked about what he would want if he ended up on life support.  It was just something we never really discussed.  After a couple days of the doctors telling me he wasn’t going to survive, I made the decision to take my dad off life support.  Right after my father died, I didn’t really feel much of anything.  I think it took me a really long time to really accept that my dad was dead.  After a few months though, I started having flashbacks.  I can’t sleep.  I’m sad, angry, and feel an overwhelming amount of guilt all at the same time.  I’m having nightmares often.  I keep going over that day I found him, over and over again.  I have a close group of friends, who are like family to me.  They keep telling me to talk to somebody, but I keep telling myself I’m strong enough to just get over this on my own.  I’m starting to think differently now though.  Why is this happening to me?

– Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

I want to start off with saying that I am sincerely sorry for the loss of your father.  A death of a loved one is difficult, to say the very least, all on its own.  Grief is different for everyone.  It’s an experience that is unique to every individual.  Add a traumatic event, that you have undoubtedly experienced, on top of that and this makes the grief complicated.  Trauma can do weird things to the body too.  It’s a physiological experience, meaning the trauma doesn’t only affect you mentally, but it also affects you physically.
Grief is a relatively simple word we use to describe an extremely intricate experience for ourselves and others.  When we use the term ‘complicated grief,’ we mean that something is getting in the way of us coping with some sort of loss.  Losing a loved one is kind of like being physically wounded, and the psychological issues getting in the way of grief are like an infection that interferes with the wound from healing.  This is what we mean by complicated grief.

One’s levels of stress and arousal can fluctuate and the nervous system will set up a response to cope with the stress. Ideally, a person will stay within their own tolerable spectrum as their levels of stress and arousal fluctuate, and have more conscious choice in how they respond to the stress. When there’s fear and threat, memory and automatic survival instincts are made priority, and call on older systems to trigger a physiological response to best deal with the perceived threat. The body’s state then organizes the rest of the nervous system, which then sends a person into flight, fight or freeze in order to deal with the stressor.  When perception of threat has decreased, the nervous system will then work to acquire its regulation, and return to ones tolerable spectrum of stress and arousal. However, if the nervous system remains in a chronic state of heightened or lowered arousal, this is when symptoms of trauma sometimes appear.  From what you’ve said, this is what it sounds like you might be experiencing.

Now the question might be, “What do I do now?”  There are many strategies and techniques in dealing with trauma.  Learning more about what is going on with your body, as a result of trauma, is the first step.  Learning more about the symptoms you’re experiencing assists a counsellor in working with you, and developing these strategies to return the body to its tolerable range of stress and arousal.  The goal of working on the trauma piece, is that your nervous system will then be in a healthier state, and you can then begin to grieve.

Michael Kluba, BSW, RSW
Clinical Counsellor/Registered Social WorkerMichael Kluba, BSW, RSW
Clinical Counsellor/Registered Social Worker
Aspire Too Counselling & Professional Services
(306) 380-3744