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What is grief

You’ve probably heard the word grief, but what actually is it, how does it make us feel and how can we support ourselves and others, including children, through it? Read on to find out.

Grief is our response to loss. When we lose someone we love - a partner, parent, taitamaiti / child, relative, friend or a much-loved pet – we grieve.

We also grieve when we lose something of ourselves - our health or mobility - and sometimes we grieve over lost opportunities, lost employment, and lost things.  

Grieving is an intensely personal experience. People may say, "I know what you're going through” because they may have had a similar loss to you, but their experience will be different to yours.

Grief doesn't observe a timetable. It takes as long as it takes, and it comes and goes. Grief can be overwhelming and unexpected and, over time, becomes part of us and the life we lead.

How we grieve

When we grieve we can feel really alone, even if we’re surrounded by whānau and friends.

After the loss of a loved one, it's as if the world we knew has changed forever. In many ways, it has.

Experiencing a flood of emotions and sensations, all at once, is part of it too. Sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, guilt, emptiness, tearful, out of control, irritable. These feelings are part of the grieving process.

There are physical symptoms too as your body responds to stress and grief, for example: insomnia, loss of appetite, extreme fatigue, headaches, and weight loss.

Some days you may not want to get out of bed. Sometimes you might sit up all night or lose your temper in a flash. It’s normal for some of these emotional responses to shock you.

How to support yourself

Give yourself time and permission to grieve.  

  • Talk to others you trust and share your feelings.
  • Establish some rituals to honour the loss - perhaps take 15 minutes to light a candle and be with your memories.
  • Ensure you have private time to grieve.
  • Understand the grieving process by reading about it.
  • Take time off work if you can.
  • Seek professional help if you’re struggling.
  • Remember that crying is healing - cry as much as you need to, by yourself or with someone you trust.  
  • Avoid alcohol and other drugs as they can fuel depression.
  • Join a support group if you feel this would be helpful for you.
  • Be patient and kind to yourself - grieving takes time.

How to help your grieving tamariki / children

A child's understanding of death and loss depends on their age.  

Giving your taitamaiti / child 'age appropriate' information, communicated in a way that they can relate to, will help them gain some understanding of death, dying, and grief. If there is serious illness  within the whānau, keeping your tamariki / children informed is a continual process.

Conversations with your tamariki / children about death, dying, illness and loss are ongoing because they will keep asking questions and sometimes ask the same question more than once. A child's understanding of a situation may change over time because their ability to make sense of something will change with their age and developmental stage. Unlike adults they can't always remember what happened and may need repeated explanations and conversations to make sense of it.  

Ongoing research suggests that providing tamariki / children with age-appropriate support during times of grief and loss can improve their understanding of death and dying and avoid emotional problems later in life.

  • 0-2 years respond more to the distress of their caregiver rather than to the person who has died or is seriously ill.
  • 2-5 years can’t find the language to talk about death and loss, so their responses manifest as actions.
  • 5-8 years have a better grasp of death but don’t fully understand the concept, still believing that the person who has died will come back, or that the person who is seriously ill will get better.
  • 10+ years tends to be when tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people are egocentric. Although they understand death and serious illness, they might resent having to do more to help out or hate the feeling of being different if a parent or caregiver dies or is seriously ill.