Coping with a Loss
The death of someone you care about can bring intense and painful emotions. Grief or bereavement is the normal, natural response to loss. However, the emotional, physical, cognitive and spiritual distress may be initially overwhelming, particularly with the death of a loved one. For a sudden or violent death, life changes instantly, which is a shock to the bereaved. On the other hand, for a death following a prolonged illness, sadness may be accompanied by relief as suffering is over.
Other losses that may cause grief are loss of a romantic relationship or friendship, loss of a job, financial setbacks, miscarriage or fetal loss, death of a pet, loss of health with illness or age, loss of a life dream or loss of a sense of safety after a trauma.
Emotional symptoms of grief may include:
- Sadness and tearfulness that may come in waves
- A sense of unreality or denial
- Feelings of emptiness and anguish
- Anger, guilt or blame
Physical symptoms may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Weakness and tiredness
- Heart palpitations
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath
Cognitive symptoms may include:
- Repetitive and intrusive thoughts
- Preoccupation with the image of the deceased
- Forgetfulness, slowed thinking, distractibility, confusion
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Dulled senses
- Self-criticism or negative thoughts
Spiritual reactions may include:
- Questioning the meaning of life
- Feelings of despair, abandonment and hopelessness
- Lack of spiritual fulfillment
- Anger at God for pain, suffering and loss
- Disruption in one’s beliefs and value system
The intensity of grieving varies, depending on the importance of the loss. For most, symptoms of uncomplicated grief diminish over time. Although sadness remains, people can invest in other activities and relationships in order to feel better. For some, however, grief may be more complicated.
After two to three months, symptoms of grieving should gradually diminish. Three months after your loss, take this self-assessment:
- I still feel depressed and hopeless much of the time.
- Alcohol and drugs help me get through the days.
- I spend most of my time alone. I don’t really feel like seeing people.
- Over and over I see and think about my loss. I have intrusive pictures of the end.
- I don’t enjoy activities and people who used to bring me pleasure.
- I don’t like myself very much and I blame myself for a lot of things.
- I often wake very early in the morning and can’t fall back to sleep.
- I don’t have much to live for and sometimes I have thoughts of hurting myself to end my pain.
- My eating habits have not returned to what they were.
If you answer yes to two or more of these, you may want to consult a behavioral health specialist who has expertise in coping with grief.
- Family and friends. It’s important to stay connected and talk to family and friends. They can help you accept the reality, share your sadness, remember happier times and offer companionship.
- Rest, relaxation, and exercise. Grieving and going through the ritual mourning process can be exhausting. Give yourself permission to take a break, a nap or a walk.
- Short term goals. Life can seem empty of meaning, so giving yourself something to look forward to may help you get through those early days of bereavement. Scheduling coffee with a friend, a visit to a museum or a trip gives you anticipation of small pleasures.
- Be aware of alcohol and drug use. They don’t help and may actually prolong your grieving. They might also cause other problems such as health or legal issues.
- Prepare for holidays and anniversaries. Particular times of the year may trigger a resurgence of intense emotions. Plan to spend the time with family and friends or engaged in an activity.
- Be kind to yourself and lower your expectations. Bereavement is likely to make you more distracted and less productive at home and at work. Your mind is not as sharp. Don’t take on a demanding project for a while.
- Give yourself time. Grieving takes as long as it takes. Some say it takes a year to go through an annual cycle without your loved one, others believe it lasts longer. Don’t force yourself to “get over it”.
- Clergy. They are skilled in counseling and supporting bereaved. For those with a spiritual belief, they can offer comfort. For families with divorce or conflict, they can smooth difficult moments.
- Support groups, either self-directed or professionally led. Hearing about the losses of others and sharing your experiences may reduce your feelings of isolation, normalize what you are experiencing and offer hope for the future. Finding a group of people with similar loss can be more helpful than a general grief group. For example, a group where the loss is a spouse or a child may be more specific to you. There are specific groups for people who have had a suicide, murder or fetal death.
- Financial and legal professionals. Depending on your loss, you may need to seek counsel from financial and legal experts to help you understand what resources you have and what plans you might need to make for your future and sort out inheritances.