Coping with Grief and Loss

Grief and loss are part of the human experience and we all deal with it at one time or another. There is no one way to grief, nor is there a particular time frame for healing that is accurate for everyone. For some, grief eases in weeks or months; for others it can take years. There is no one right way to grieve and we all experience it a bit differently.

Loss comes in a great many forms, carries different meanings, and is experienced in different ways. One thing for sure: We, and everyone we love, will experience loss at some time in our lives. Consider these brief stories of people who are managing a loss:

Colleen’s mother died 6 months ago. She has been struggling with low mood, lack of motivation, and not feeling herself since. She has good days and bad days but given that her mother’s death was expected after a series of strokes, Colleen is surprised she can’t seem to “take it in stride”.

Nur was diagnosed with colon cancer a year ago. Unfortunately, she needed surgery, a colostomy, and chemotherapy. Although she is recovering and is likely to do well, her mood is low and, like Colleen, is not feeling herself at all. She feels like the “rug has been pulled out from beneath me” and that she doesn’t know how to get her life “back on track”.

Folami’s dog Minzi has been with him since Folami he was a young boy. Minzi recently died at 16 years of age. Folami has been extremely upset about his dog and is shocked and embarrassed by his reaction. He is working hard to hide his feelings from family and friends. But most days that has been difficult and he is finding it hard to function at work.

Jeff recently divorced from his partner of 24 years. He was not expecting that his spouse would leave him. In fact, he was completely shocked, thinking that things were fine between them. He has been unable to function well day to day, and his doctor has recommended a month off work to start. Jeff worries he might be depressed but his doctor thinks what Jeff is experiencing is a normal, intense reaction to loss.

All of these people are grieving. For Colleen and Jeff, the loss is of important people in their lives; Folami is grieving the loss of his long-time pet. And Nur is reacting to the loss of her life as she knew it, dominated as it now is by fears of cancer recurrence, as well as the loss of the body she once had and her health.

Grief is a normal reaction to loss. As human beings we are hardwired to be in relationships with others, including our pets. We form attachments to our beliefs and dreams too — such as the belief that our lives are predictable, that the world is just, that we will always be healthy, or married. When an important attachment is severed through death or other forms of loss such as divorce, people often react intensely. The fact that a loss may be welcomed, such as in the case of divorce, or expected, such as in the death of an elderly or unwell parent, does not prevent intense reactions. Our reactions can take us by surprise, especially if we have never experienced a significant loss before. Common emotional reactions include things like crying, or being unable to cry, feeling sad or numb, or feeling anxious and unable to function in our day to day lives, especially right after the loss.

Symptoms are not only emotional either. Many people experience fatigue, headaches, chest pains, nausea, or difficulty sleeping. While emotional and physical symptoms are often intense in the early weeks and months after a loss, typically they ease after that. However, it’s a myth to believe that people will adjust to a loss in a year, an often-quoted time frame. The time needed to heal varies tremendously, depending on many factors such as the meaning of the loss, someone’s experience with previous losses or traumas, or levels of life stress.

Gradually, over time, most people adjust to the loss. This doesn’t mean they don’t still feel sad at times, particularly at important anniversary or other significant dates. It also doesn’t mean they won’t ever again experience very intense grief feelings. Grief often sneaks up on us when we least expect it, even years after a loss. It does mean though that we adjust our lives and go on living day to day, able to function as we normally did.  We develop a new relationship with the person we have lost for example, one that evolves without their physical presence through memory. Those memories become an important part of who we are going forward. And, we adjust our beliefs to accommodate the loss. Some people do have more difficulty than others and benefit from professional grief support, which is discussed a bit more below.

How to Care for Yourself After a Loss

Many people have difficulty asking for help. Some people are ashamed of expressing strong emotion and crying in front of others. But strong emotion is part of grief and cannot be avoided without some cost.  Everyone needs support at times like that. Below are some tips for looking after yourself if you have suffered a loss.

  • Draw on the support of others. Whether you feel like talking about your experience or not, feeling the support of other people around you can ease the pain of loss. Friends or family members who understand and are willing to just be company for you, may offer some distraction, which can be a huge help. A mental health professional may also be needed! When the time is right, accessing a bereavement or other loss related support group can also be very helpful.
  • Consider planning for daily soothing activities. Listening to music, doing yoga, meditating, or going for a walk may all be helpful. Identifying places that you find comforting and spending time there can also help, even if that place is simply a favourite chair and a soft blanket. Look after yourself physically too. Eating well, getting enough sleep, physical activity, and limiting alcohol or other recreational substances all help emotionally.
  • Reconnect with your spirituality. If you hold religious beliefs or practices these can be particularly helpful. Or, if you did in the past it may be beneficial to reclaim those. Exploring your spirituality can bring a lot of comfort. However, spiritual practices do not need to be associated with particular religions. Any practice that you experience as meaningful and that helps you to connect with something larger than yourself, even principles such as peace, or altruistic activities, can help in coping with a major loss.
  • Be patient with others who don’t seem to be able to respond as you hope. Many people do not have much experience with loss and are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they withdraw and say nothing. Or, actually do say unhelpful things. Try to see behind the words or the behavior to the intent, which is usually kind. A simple “thank you for your kindness” can help you both to move past the awkward moments. However, if it is someone close and the relationship is very important to you, gently educating the person about what you do find helpful (or not) is often welcomed.
  • Face your feelings. Disbelief and numbness are common initially. Sadness, guilt, anger, anxiety, and fear are also common. Find a way to express those, whether in conversation or through creative channels such as journaling, creating a scrapbook or photo album, dance, or other artistic media. Working for a cause that is meaningful to your loss can help also.
  • Don’t let others tell you how to grieve or when it’s time to move on. Everyone grieves differently and your grief is your own. There is a wide range of experience that is “normal”!

Do you need extra help?

Given time, most people adjust to loss. While you will not forget the person or focus of your loss, over time your grief should move from dominating your life to being to one side. The strongest emotions will ease, and you will be able to go about your normal life. However, occasionally people develop other difficulties and do benefit from professional counselling.

If your grief is not easing at all after a number of months, or symptoms seem to be increasing, you may be developing other issues such as complicated grief or a clinical depression. Certain kinds are losses are commonly associated with complicated grief, such as when a death has been violent, as in murder or suicide, or, when a body is not recovered. Complicated grief is like being perpetually stuck in mourning. Thinking about the person is so persistent and accompanied by such intense emotions that one’s life and other relationships are significantly disrupted. Both of these can be treated so if you are concerned, start by speaking to your doctor, nurse, or a mental health professional.