Coping with Grief and Loss
Coping with the loss of someone or something you love is one of life’s biggest challenges. Often, the pain of loss can feel overwhelming. You may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. The pain of grief can also disrupt your physical health, making it difficult to sleep, eat, or even think straight. These are typical reactions to significant loss. But while there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain that, in time, can ease your sadness and help you come to terms with your loss, find new meaning, and move on with your life.
What if Grief?
It is a natural response to loss. The emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. The more significant loss, the more intense your grief will be. You might associate it with the death of a loved one, but any loss can cause grief, including:
- Divorce or relationship breakup
- Loss of health
- Losing a job
- Loss of financial stability
- A miscarriage
- Death of a pet
- Loss of a cherished dream
- A loved one’s serious illness
- Loss of a friendship
- Loss of safety after a trauma
- Selling the family home
Even subtle losses in life can trigger a sense of grief. Whatever your loss, it is personal to you, so don’t feel ashamed about how you feel, or believe that it’s somehow only appropriate to grieve for certain things. While experiencing loss is an inevitable part of life, there are ways to help cope with the pain, come to terms with your grief, and eventually, find a way to pick up the pieces and move on with your life.
Grieving is a highly individual experience; there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and how significant the loss was to you.
Inevitably, the grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to unfold naturally.
Five Stages of Grief:
- Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
- Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
- Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return, I will ____.”
- Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
- Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”
If you’re experiencing any of these emotions following a loss, it may help to know that your reaction is natural and that you’ll heal in time. However, not everyone who grieves goes through all of these stages, and that is okay. Do know you do not have to go through each stage to heal. In fact, some people resolve their grief without going through any of these stages. If you do go through these stages of grief, you probably won’t experience them in a neat, sequential order, so don’t worry about what you “should” be dealing with which stage you’re suppose to be in.
What you can do
Talk about your loss with friends, family, or a professional. Grief is a process, not an event
Grief is work, requiring time and energy. The memories, meanings and fulfilled needs provided by the lost loved one take time to work through
Let yourself enter the emotions of grief. Grievers tend naturally to avoid the painful feelings. Losing someone close to you means you deserve to allow yourself to feel all your emotions – sadness, anger, intense longing, guilt
Resume your life but leave time and space for grieving. Life marches on for the living. But try to resist the temptation to “throw yourself” into work or other diversions. This leave too little time for grief work you need to do for yourself
Consider seeking out other grievers. Someone who has also been through grief can empathize with you, and vice versa. Organizations recognize the value of sharing in a group setting.
Understand the difference between grief and depression.
Myth and Facts
Myth: The pain will go away faster if you ignore it.
Fact: Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.
Myth: It is important to be strong in the face of loss
Fact: Crying is a normal response to sadness, but it is not the only one. Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others. They may simply have other ways of showing it.
Myth: Grief should last about a year
Fact: There is no right or wrong time frame for grieving. How long it takes can differ from person to person
Myth: Moving on with your life mean forgetting about your loss.
Fact: Moving on means you’ve accepted your loss – but that’s not the same as forgetting. You can move on with your life and keep the memory of someone or something you lost as an important part of you. In fact, as we move through life, these memories can become more and more integral to defining the people we are.
Symptoms of Grief
While loss affects people in different ways, many of us experience the following symptoms when we’re grieving. Just remember that almost anything that you experience in the early stages of grief is normal—including feeling like you’re going crazy, feeling like you’re in a bad dream, or questioning your religious or spiritual beliefs.
Shock and disbelief: Right after a loss, it can be hard to accept what happened. You may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss actually happened, or even deny the truth. If someone you love has died, you may keep expecting them to show up, even though you know they’re gone.
Sadness: Profound sadness is probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief. You may have feelings of emptiness, despair, yearning, or profound loneliness. You may also cry a lot or feel emotionally unstable.
Guilt: You may regret or feel guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do. You may also feel guilty about certain feelings (e.g. feeling relieved when the person died after a long, difficult illness). After death, you may even feel guilty for not doing something to prevent the death, even if there was nothing more you could have done.
Anger: Even if the loss was nobody’s fault, you might feel angry and resentful. If you lost a loved one, you might be angry with yourself, God, the doctors, or even the person who died for abandoning you. You may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that was done to you.
Fear: A significant loss can trigger a host of worries and concerns. You may feel anxious, helpless, or insecure. You may even have panic attacks. The death of a loved one can trigger fears about your own mortality, of facing life without that person, or the responsibilities you now face alone.
Physical symptoms: We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves physical problems, including fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, and insomnia.
The pain of grief can often cause you to want to withdraw from others and retreat into your shell. But having the face-to-face support of other people is vital to healing from loss. Even if you aren’t comfortable talking about your feelings under normal circumstances, it’s important to express them when you’re grieving. While sharing your loss can make the burden of grief easier to carry, that doesn’t mean that every time you interact with friends and family, you need to talk about your loss. Comfort can also come from just being around others who care about you. The key is not to isolate yourself.
Turn to friends and family members – Now is the time to lean on the people who care about you, even if you take pride in being strong and self-sufficient. Rather than avoiding them, draw friends and loved ones close, spend time together face to face, and accept the assistance that’s offered. Often, people want to help but don’t know how, so tell them what you need—whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, help with funeral arrangements, or just someone to hang out with. If you don’t feel you have anyone you can regularly connect with face to face, it’s never too late to build new friendships.
Draw comfort from your faith – If you follow a religious tradition, embrace the comfort its mourning rituals can provide. Spiritual activities that are meaningful to you—such as praying, meditating, or going to church—can offer solace. If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to a clergy member or others in your religious community.
Join a support group – Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around. Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help. To find a bereavement support group in your area, contact local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling centers, or see the Resources section below.
Talk to a therapist or grief counselor – If your grief feels like too much to bear, call a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.
If it Doesn’t Go Away
As time passes following a significant loss, such as the death of a loved one, it’s normal for feelings of sadness, numbness, or anger to gradually ease. These and other difficult emotions become less intense as you begin to accept the loss and start to move forward with your life. However, if you aren’t feeling better over time, or your grief is getting worse, it may be a sign that your grief has developed into a more serious problem, such as complicated grief or major depression.
Symptoms of complicated grief include:
- Intense longing and yearning for your deceased loved one
- Intrusive thoughts or images of your loved one
- Denial of the death or sense of disbelief
- Imagining that your loved one is alive
- Searching for your deceased loved one in familiar places
- Avoiding things that remind you of your loved one
- Extreme anger or bitterness over your loss
- Feeling that life is empty or meaningless
The Difference Between Grief and Depression
Grief and depression share similar symptoms, but they’re distinct experiences. Since the symptoms can be so much alike, how can you tell the difference, and does it matter? Attempting to make the distinction is important for several reasons. With depression, making the diagnosis and seeking treatment can be life saving. At the same time, experiencing grief due to bereavement is not only normal but can be very healing.
Other clues that it may be major depressive disorder include:
- Feelings of guilt not related to the loved one’s death
- Thoughts of suicide—although in grief there can be thoughts of “joining” the deceased
- Morbid preoccupation with worthlessness (grief does not usually erode self-confidence)
- Sluggishness or hesitant and confused speech
- Prolonged and marked difficulty in carrying out the activities of day-to-day living
- Hallucinations and delusions; however, some people in grief may have the sensation of seeing or hearing the dead person
If you recognize any of the above symptoms of complicated grief or clinical depression, talk to a mental health professional right away. Left untreated, complicated grief and depression can lead to significant emotional damage, life-threatening health problems, and even suicide. But treatment can help you get better.
Contact a grief counselor or professional therapist if you:
- Feel like life isn’t worth living
- Wish you had died with your loved one
- Blame yourself for the loss or for failing to prevent it
- Feel numb and disconnected from others for more than a few weeks
- Are having difficulty trusting others since your loss
- Are unable to perform your normal daily activities