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National Grief Awareness Day: How to Understand Grief

By: Meghan Mausteller

National Grief Awareness Day, which is celebrated on August 30, was founded by Angie Cartwright in 2014.

Cartwright experienced grief in her life in the loss of her baby sister when she was only five years old, the death of her husband in a car accident in 1996 and the passing of her mother of a drug overdose in 2010. With so much loss in her life, Cartwright became overwhelmed by grief.

While dealing with her grief, Cartwright learned that “healing can only take place when grief is not shamed, rushed or tabooed,” according to her Change.org page. She believes that everyone experiences grief differently and that, as a society, we need to learn about grief and how to help someone who is experiencing it.

Like Cartwright experienced grief over the deaths of her loved ones, survivors of domestic violence often experience grief for a variety of reasons.

If you have a loved one who has experienced domestic violence, take the time to learn what grief is, why survivors must go through this period before they can heal and how you can support your loved one.

What is Grief?

According to Concetta Hollinger with the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, grief is the expression of loss through physical, emotional, behavioral and psychological reactions. This can include a wide variety of symptoms, including, but not limited to:

  • Feelings of numbness, despair, denial, anger and relief
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Neglect of self care
  • Muscular tension
  • Flashbacks
  • Triggers
  • Absentmindedness
  • Intrusive thoughts/memories
  • Crying
  • Seeking solitude
  • Withdrawing from friends and family

An individual can experience all or none of these reactions and many others as a way of dealing with and expressing their grief.

Each person will experience the individual symptoms of grief differently than the next, but it is usually experienced in five basic stages: denial, bargaining, depression, anger and acceptance.

How Do Survivors Experience Grief?

When they leave their abuser, a survivor of domestic violence can grieve over a lot of different losses.

Often times, survivors grieve over the loss of the relationship and their abuser. This can seem illogical to friends and family members who have not experienced abuse; however, it is important to remember that people become involved in abusive relationships because, especially at first, it isn’t all bad. Abusers are often charismatic and romantic at the beginning of the relationship, as they take the time to woo their victim. Once the relationship ends, this is the person the survivor misses: the caring romantic. They grieve over the relationship that might have been; that used to be.

They might also grieve for the person they once were or the person they thought they would be, as domestic violence is an experience that can drastically alter or destroy a person’s self-confidence and self image.

Unfortunately, these losses are categorized as “disenfranchised grief,” according to Hollinger, because society does not recognize the loss or respect the circumstances of the loss. This often forces the survivor to cope with their grief on their own.

How Can I Help?

As a support person, it is important that you give the survivor the help they need to grieve in a healthy way. This could be by listening with an open mind or possibly encouraging them to seek professional help, if necessary.

Hollinger recommends not allowing the survivor to reach a place where they begin idolizing the abuse or ignoring the relationship’s negative aspects.

She also encourages someone dealing with grief to write an obituary, eulogy or letter to the thing or person they lost and then burning it. Survivors can also do the “empty chair” exercise, where they hold a conversation with the person or thing they lost, represented by the empty chair.

Above all, you can support your loved one by legitimizing their grief and grieving process and giving them time to heal at their own pace.

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