Text by Miruna Scripcă / Illustrations by Cristiana Ștefănescu

grief (n.)

early 13c., “hardship, suffering, pain, bodily affliction,” from Old French grief “wrong, grievance, injustice, misfortune, calamity” (13c.), “from Latin gravare “make heavy; cause grief,” from gravis “weighty” (from PIE root *gwere- (1) “heavy”). Meaning “mental pain, sorrow”.

Scientifically, grief is described in the easiest form as: “a flood of neurochemicals and hormones that dance around in your head, that affect regions of the brain that play a role in emotion regulation, memory, multi-tasking, organization and learning; and that can lead to a disruption in hormones that results in specific symptoms, such as disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, fatigue and anxiety”. Psychologically, grief is described as: “in its most basic form – represents an alarm reaction set off by a deficit signal in the behavioral system underlying attachment”. Religiously, grief is “a state of mind that sweetens bitterness and brings hope to people”. Humanly, “It’s like a knife poking at my heart and stabbing it slowly every single time I think of him”.

In its latin origins, dolor, grief means pain.

What is this numb feeling?

Grief comes with loss. It is not always about losing a loved one, but also about ending something important – as a relationship or a stage in your life – or simply your independence as an individual through a possible disability.

World Psychiatry states that grief is a process that, for most people, can never be fully completed, as this is not about getting used with the separation from the person that we no longer have, but about learning how to continue our life in their absence. To be better understood, this process can be divided in two simple categories:

Acute grief

This is the represented by the way we feel early after the loss. It comes with intensive pain, emotions and behaviors that do not take part of our everyday life: “These include intense sadness and crying, other unfamiliar dysphoric emotions, preoccupation with thoughts and memories of the deceased person, disturbed neurovegetative functions, difficulty concentrating, and relative disinterest in other people and in activities of daily life.”

Integrated grief

The transition between those two can be seen as a healing path. This usually starts to settle in after a few months, when the reality of the death is properly assimilated; the person finds her rhythm in life again, and the wounds are ready to heal. This transition is influenced by the relationships with the loved ones and activities that the person used to enjoy before the loss. “The loss becomes integrated into autobiographical memory and the thoughts and memories of the deceased are no longer preoccupying or disabling. However, there may be periods when the acute grief reawakens. This can occur around the time of significant events, such as holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, another loss, or a particularly stressful time.” This doesn’t mean that you stop missing the loved ones or that there will no longer be sadness when they come in your mind, but the pain felt is manageable and under control; it is part of your life and no longer controls it.

As a natural process, grief usually comes in 5 stages:

Denial: “This isn’t happening”. You may feel shocked or numb, but it’s just your body dealing with the overwhelming wave of emotions in a defence mechanism.

Anger: This is when the pain and feeling of being helpless turn into frustration, and sometimes leading to anger.

Bargaining: “What if…”. In this stage, people try to find things or solutions that they could’ve done to prevent the tragedy.

Depression: Sadness sets in and takes control over the other emotions and over your everyday life. “Signs of depression include crying, sleep issues, and a decreased appetite. You may feel overwhelmed, regretful, and lonely.”

Acceptance: Here, the reality of the loss sets in; you can accept it and start coming back to your normal life. This is the final stage of grief.

Constantin Cigolea is a priest in a small village near Fălticeni, in the Northeastern part of Romania. For him, grief is not a process or a feeling, but a state of mind: “Grief is not only on the outside: I dress all in black and that’s it, I mourn for the one who left us. No. It is something that I feel and I live on the inside, with sadness and prayers. But, you see, we as Christians no longer pray this time for ourselves and for our loved ones; this time we pray for the soul of the one who has left us, for it to find peace.”

Mourning is represented by different colors all over the world. For example, Eastern Asia, Cambodia or indigenous Australian people wear white when they grieve as a sign of purity and to manifest the desire for the lost one to be reborn. Red also was a color of mourning as it represented honor and patriotism, but people started giving up on this, as it reminded them of blood or, for example in South Africa, its struggle for independence. Another representative color is purple – the color of spirituality. For Catholics in Brazil, purple alongside black is worn to mourn the loss of a loved one and it can even be considered disrespectful to wear purple if you “are not attending a funeral, as the color has a sacred, devotional meaning to it”. Other colors would be gold – ancient Egypt – as this was associated with the afterlife, the eternal one, and their all-powerful god Ra; and grey, in Papua New Guinea, a color that is applied on the skin and that comes from a light, stone-colored clay. But the most representative color for grief around the world is black, as it is associated with death and loss. Father Constantin explained the meaning of this color: “All peoples mourn and go through this state. We chose black because it represents pain, sadness and sometimes isolation. It is the lack of joy, so it no longer belongs to the normal of our previous lives; maybe we can even call it a restraint from the usual state of comfort that we have, to show that we are with the one who left us.”

When asked what he thinks about the other states that come with mourning, besides sadness, such as rejection and anger, Constantin explained, after a short pause in which he seemed to weigh what he was about to say: “From a laic point of view, there is no mourning without religion, but reproaches, sadness and non-acceptance of a too cruel reality come. From a religious point of view, all this is assumed for the Christian. And sooner or later, God will take away all that is pain from their souls. That should be our perception of the people: sacrifice and resurrection”.

As a priest, Constantin Cigolea is the one who helps people understand and overcome mourning; as a human being, equal to all of us, Constantin lost and mourned people close to his heart too. “I lost my father far too early, 26 years ago, and my sister a few years later. I strongly believe that the loss was the one that led me to this world of the church. I was overwhelmed with pain and despair, but somehow, from somewhere, I felt a little joy that one day I would see my father and sister again. I pray all the time for their souls. But sometimes fear comes. I wonder if I’ll really be with them, if I deserve it. This motivates me to be a better person, to try to be as close to God as possible, to do good and, maybe one day, to be next to them”.

When father Constantin was asked if he wanted to give advice to those who may be in this situation, his words came softly and with such confidence: “When it comes to mourning, as people, we turn our face to faith. It is like a guiding lighthouse, offers support, and whatever religion may be, it is a religion of light. Our souls will always go to this light. We are called there and we should go calmly, with hope, because all of us, sooner or later, in one way or another, will return to being good. And grief? Grief, though hard to believe, sweetens the bitterness and brings hope”.

Accept the pain

Laura is a student in Cluj-Napoca, and grief came into her life when she lost her father this year because of cancer. In Latin, grief means pain. For Laura, grief cannot be described in one word or sentence, but more as a storm of emotions: “To be honest with you, I can’t even describe it into words. I can sometimes feel the longing, the pain, the sadness inside of me that comes rushing to the surface, and sometimes I feel good, like nothing ever happened. But the fact that I miss his face, voice and eyes, every single day, brings out so much pain… It’s like a knife poking at my heart and stabbing it slowly every single time I think of him”.

Studies say that grief usually comes in 5 stages. Laura states that after the tragedy, she experienced all of them: “Studies are right. In my case it was the same. I was in denial completely. I couldn’t wrap my head around what had happened. I couldn’t believe it! It happened so quickly. After all of this… anger came. I was so angry on the doctors, on this pandemic and I was angry on myself too because I know that, it might sound crazy, but I knew that he was about to die soon and I couldn’t do anything about it. I was angry on the world. Then I started asking myself ‘what if I did this or that?’ to help him, in any way possible. What if we got to a doctor earlier and so many other what ifs”. After the reality of the loss sets in, and the presence of that person is replaced with emptiness, depression surrounds the ones that are left behind: “Depression comes when you just don’t want to wake up from your bed, or eat, or do anything and then… I found myself doing all of these things and I just knew that I have to wake up and move on with my life, instead of just moping around. Then finally I had to accept that he is not here anymore and I thought about what he told me: that I have to be happy even if he will not be here at some point”.

Scientifically, acute grief doesn’t last forever, and it usually starts to heal and makes the person live with the absence of the one they lost. Humanly, healing takes time. “It’s true, you can find the rhythm in life again but when you are truly healed. I am in the process of healing and I’ve learned to go on with my life and somehow make myself busy with a lot of tasks. It’s getting easier day by day, but sometimes I fall down and then get back up again. It’s truly a process, but you always feel that something it’s missing, like your day isn’t how it should’ve been”.

Laura ended by giving a small and honest advice, from someone who is still young, but got to feel the pain that should be unknown until far in our life, to the ones that maybe go through the same thing as she did, and still does: “I would tell them that life doesn’t stop there. You have to believe that you are stronger than you thought, because people come and go. You have to thank God that you got the chance to have them in your life, even if it was for a short period of time. Don’t give up. Keep going! If you have a passion, pursue it, because it can calm your soul. I know it sucks. Life does sometimes, but we need to see things from a different perspective; we have to appreciate everything around us and we have to be grateful that we got to live here and now, because we get one life. Trust me, after you lose someone, you gain a lot of amazing people around you who love you just for who you are. So don’t worry, you are never alone! We got this!”

Endings for new beginnings

Grief does not always come only with death, but also with the loss of a loved one who is still alive. The symptoms of grief feel just as clear and intense even in the case of a breakup, as Ramona, a 28-year-old woman, says. “I think I realized that the grief can come this way too after I noticed that my clothes were starting to get loose. I didn’t have the strength to eat anymore. It was a 5-year relationship, after all. You feel like you can’t function anymore, that you lost something that gave you balance and you can’t walk straight without it”.

For Ramona, grief would be defined by a single word: heavy. “It feels like a huge weight coming and falling on you. It pulls your hands, feet and everything you are, down. Something is taken from you, for which you fight, and is taken straight from your palms, and there is nothing you can do about it. Powerless. You feel like you can’t get up, even though you’re very aware that you were walking straight, with your head up before that person came into your life, and you know you can do it again, but it just feels … heavy. “
The healing process was long and, according to Ramona, she woke up noticing all five stages: “There were all, from denial to bargain. But I think the most prevalent feeling was anger. It simply consumes you. And I knew that the best thing to do was to go as far as possible from everything he meant to give me a chance to heal properly.”

Ramona left for France shortly after, where, after only a few months, she would meet her current fiancé. “I think it’s frustrating and funny how, whatever it is up there, it works and plays with our destinies in such a way. Now I’m engaged, and in less than two months we’ll have a wedding. And… If I were to give some advice to those who go through the same type of loss, I would tell them to accept every emotion they feel, without fear. It can get scary, but it’s part of the process, it’s what makes us human, and it’s the body’s normal and natural way to heal. Don’t be afraid. You walked straight before you were unbalanced and you will do it again, one step at a time

What goes on

For Ionuț Negură, grief came into his life in 2019, when his grandfather died at the age of 88. “We were very close, probably because a lot of people said that I look and act like he used to. We used to talk a lot. About… Anything a kid could talk with his grandpa. About life, about his life, about what I expected back then from my life. About love, about war, about grief also (he lost both his parents by the age of 25). About our community back in the day. We used to talk a lot about life, with its good and bad sides”.

If scientists describe grief as a whole process and a storm of emotions, for Ionuț grief is just a moment: “Grief would be, in my opinion, the moment when you realise that nothing and no one is immortal. It makes you realise that you have to really enjoy your dear ones’ company while they are still around.”

Grief, as studies show, is about healing; and for Ionuț this came after a short period of time, but in small steps: “In my case, once I accepted the idea that he is not here anymore, it became easier to deal with the loss, even if most of the time you remember the lost one from the places you visit, photos, people’s stories or just beautiful memories; moments you spent with the one who is now gone”. Even though Ionuț learned how to find his rhythm in life again, there are moments when he finds himself missing his grandfather more than usual: “It usually hits me when I visit my grandparents’ house, or when people say that I look a lot like my grandpa, or… when I go to his grave. Or at family reunions, when we remember grandpa’s jokes or stories. We usually still talk about stuff when I go and visit him there. I still tell him about my life…”

When asked if he thinks that grief and all the pain that comes with it has a good effect on people in the end, Ionuț’s answer came after a long moment of silence, as if he was balancing the arguments: “I think it does. It makes you realize that death is inevitable; that all of us will have to deal with it one day and that we have to value the moments we spend with our loved ones because they are going to leave. I think, in some way, grief teaches us to enjoy life; to be aware of the present. To remember and value the most beautiful moments we had with the people who died; to be aware that we can practically die any day, a thousand times, so we should value ourselves, the ones around us and the time we spend together. I guess… Grief teaches us that we should live our lives just as we feel to, because tomorrow may never come and you may simply become a memory and a source of grief for the ones you love, anytime”.

Ionuț ended his story by saying something, one honest thought, to the ones that maybe have a hard time going through this themselves: “I’d tell them that the hard times will pass. That the people we mourn are still alive through us, they talk through us, they are never gone while we are still alive to tell their stories, the good side of them, the worst side of them, the happy and sad moments… Everything they were, they wanted to be, they couldn’t be, it’s still here, with and through us. No one truly dies while we still have a family, friends, loved ones who can tells our story and remember us, just as we were. And always value the now rather than regretting the back in the day.”

So grief is not only about pain, but also about healing. It is a painful experience, it comes in steps, it makes one angry and lost and it touches, sooner or later, each and every one of us.  Scientifically, grief is “a flood of neurochemicals and hormones that dance around in your head”. Psychologically, grief is “an alarm reaction set off by a deficit signal in the behavioral system underlying attachment.” Religiously, grief is a state of mind that sweetens bitterness and brings hope to people. In its Latin origins, grief means pain. Through the eyes of the ones who lost someone dear to their heart and felt this on and under their skin, grief, in the end, will always be described as a pain that heals.

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