Why does sadness feel so overwhelming

The four stages of grief


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In the first moment, the death of the loved one often causes a kind of shock that can last for hours or days. The mourner cannot believe what has happened and feels frozen. At this stage, he may need someone who can provide practical help with everyday tasks. Then the emotions usually break open. The bereaved are overwhelmed by feelings such as fear or anger and desperately look for an explanation for the loss they suffered. In this emotional chaos, he primarily needs someone who just listens.

At some point the overwhelming feelings usually calm down, but in many small everyday situations the mourner feels reminded of the deceased - and has to keep reminding himself that the painfully missing person is no longer there. This phase, which Kast calls the search and separation, can last weeks or years. It requires patience and forbearance from the environment, because many things seem to go in circles. Only when the search weakens does the view of the future open up: The mourner begins to rediscover the world and himself. It is possible that the helpers from earlier phases even appear to him as an obstacle - and he is looking for new friends for a new life.

Mourning doesn't work according to any scheme

However, the process of grief cannot be schematized. Not everyone experiences saying goodbye in the same way, and certainly not according to the same schedule. And the prerequisites for finally coping with the loss are also different. That was the opinion of the psychologist and trauma researcher George A. Bonanno, who teaches at Columbia University in New York. He has found that around ten percent of the bereaved have long-term difficulties coping with the death of a close relative. You experience what psychologists call "complicated grief". They torment themselves for years and long for the deceased permanently.

Another twenty percent also suffer severely - with the difference that after a few months they work as they did before. That they somehow work, even though they are still very hurt inside. All of you may need help.

Herbert Harnacke knew immediately after the death of his wife that he would not be able to deal with what was happening on his own. During the day he worked as if nothing had happened, and in the evening he looked after his little daughters. But at night, when everything was quiet in the house, he could hardly sleep. His thoughts kept revolving around the question: How can it go on? So Herbert Harnacke looked for support. He spoke to psychologists, went to funeral seminars with his children, took them on a cure and exchanged information on the Internet forum verwitwet.de with other bereaved relatives.

After a few weeks he redesigned the bedroom. "The children wanted a picture of her everywhere," he recalls. “But at least I needed a mourning-free room.” If you ask him how intense his grief is now, he points to the kitchen table: “At first it took up half the plate. Today she has retired to a corner that is sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller. It's part of my life. ”But it no longer dominates his everyday life.

In fact, mourning is not about leaving or shedding something like black clothes after the year of mourning. As a process, it serves to deal with the pain. This can go faster or it may work more slowly. "Time is not a criterion," says the Bernese psychologist Znoj. "And everyone grieves differently."

Some only take a few months to cope with the loss, others years. Some people help grave visits or prayers; some deal with everything on their own, many conversations help. "The only important thing is that the bereaved look inwards, accept the loss, change their relationship with the deceased and thus look forward again," says Rita Rosner, grief researcher and psychologist at the Catholic University of Eichstätt.

People who have sufficient resilience succeed in doing this particularly well. This is the name given to the mental resistance that gives support even in difficult situations; the word is derived from the Latin "resilire" for spring back. »Resilient people can adapt well to new circumstances. They do not freeze permanently in their grief, but rather restore the emotional balance after a while. They have a corresponding personality structure, «says Karena Leppert from the Institute for Psychosocial Medicine and Psychotherapy at Jena University Hospital. »They have confidence in their own abilities and do not feel like a plaything of fate. Even under stress, they can give meaning to what has happened. And they look for experiences and relationships that are good for them. ”They feel and act like Herbert Harnacke, who says sentences like:“ I never saw myself as a victim. ”Or:“ I had to take action. ”

It takes a lot of spiritual strength to accept what we cannot change and not to waste our own strength in strife. As the American scientist Bonanno notes, resilient people can experience moments of joy even under the most adverse circumstances.

Those who lapse into complicated grief fail to do so. They sink into their grief and strife. Because they cannot accept the loss of the loved one, they are permanently restricted in everyday life. They suffer extremely, withdraw and feel that life no longer has any meaning. Some bereaved families simply do not manage to free themselves from this downward spiral on their own. Others feel downright obliged to suffer for a long time - for example, when they have been with the deceased for decades. "Many believe: If I feel well again quickly, the relationship has been worthless," says Rita Rosner.

Complicated grief can have many causes. It occurs in people who have developed too little life of their own in their relationship with the deceased - who did not know what they wanted and did not have a social network. Even those who were already mentally ill or were not allowed to experience secure bonds in childhood are at risk. In addition, the nature of death can cause relatives to sink into grief: if it suddenly broke in, for example as a result of an accident, and you were unable to say goodbye to the dying person, there is a greater risk that the pain will persist.

Karin Meißner also felt taken by surprise by death. When her husband came to the hospital, she didn't know how bad it was for him. “He just said, 'This is being treated,' and didn't reveal anything about his real condition.” He probably wanted to keep her from worrying. The quarter of an hour that was left in the hospital for the unexpected farewell to the deceased was simply not enough.

Today, five years later, she is still in an inner dialogue with her deceased husband. "I know he's dead," says Karin Meißner. “But I would love to have him back. I feel alone without him. ”On the one hand, she thinks about what he might have done in this or that situation. On the other hand, she fears the memory of the time together. She no longer listens to CDs, "because that's all our music together". And when a program about Italy comes on TV, it switches off: "We always spent wonderful holidays there."

Complicated grief is curable. Psychologists have developed various therapies. And those who know about the risk factors can take precautions. Many resilience researchers believe that the mental resilience with which we overcome crises can be specifically promoted even in adulthood: by listening to ourselves and exploring our needs, surrounding ourselves with people who are good for us and looking for tasks that satisfy. Karin Meißner is on her way there: She recently moved and expanded the new apartment according to her ideas. During the summer vacation, her grandchildren were with her almost every day. That she is needed by her family, she says, gives her strength. So she has now dared and booked a vacation - Italy. With her brother and sister-in-law. And she doubts: How will it be - without him? But it is a start. It seems to be beginning - her afterlife.

* Name changed by the editor