Coping with Grief and Loss
Understanding the Grieving Process
Losing someone you love or care intensely about is extremely painful. Experiencing many difficult emotions is common and it can feel as if the sadness you are going through will never let up. These reactions are normal in response to a significant loss. Although there is no wrong or right way to grieve, there are healthy ways for you to manage and cope with the pain. Over time these healthy ways to cope can permit you to move on.
Grief is a very natural response to loss. We can suffer greatly when something or someone we love is taken away. The intensity of the grief one feels is linked to the significance of the loss. While grief is often associated with death of a loved one any loss can cause grief. Subtle losses, for example, selling a family home, retiring from a career you loved, breaking up and even graduating from college can leave you experiencing grief.
How you grieve depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the loss, your individual personality and style of coping, your faith and your life experience. Grieving is such an individual experience. While there are many myths around how long the grieving process takes it cannot be hurried. The most important things is to be patient with yourself through this process as it unfolds naturally.
Stages of Grief
It was in 1969 that Psychiatrist Kubler-Ross introduced what would become known as the ‘five stages of grief.’ Although her studies were carried out on patients with terminal illness, many people have generalised them to other types of negative life changes.
It is okay to experience the stages in an order different to that listed below. It is often helpful to look at these stages as guides in the process of grieving as they help you to understand and put context on where you are.
- Denial and Isolation
The initial reaction to learning of a terminal illness or death of some dear is to deny the reality of the situation. Denial is a very normal reaction and the tendency is to rationalise overwhelming emotions. At this stage we often hide from the facts and this defense mechanism helps buffer the immediate shock. This is a temporary response that carries us through the initial pain we feel.
As time moves on the reality and its pain re-emerge. The intense emotion coming from the vulnerabilities we feel are expressed in anger. The anger may be aimed at the deceased (or dying) loved one; they can also be directed at family or friends, at strangers and inanimate objects. Even though the person is not to be blamed, emotionally we may resent the person for causing us such pain or leaving us.
The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control–
- If only we had sought medical attention sooner…
- If only we got a second opinion from another doctor…
- If only we had tried to be a better person toward them…
We may try to postpone the inevitable by secretly making a deal with some higher power. This defense is also to protect us from the painful reality of what we are experiencing.
Depression can come in two forms, one related to the practicalities and implications relating to the lost and the other a personal preparation to separate. In the first, sadness and regret predominate this type of depression. We can worry about the lack of time we have spent with others that depend on us, we may also worry about the burial costs. Clarification and reassurance can often help us in this phase. The second type is subtler as we quietly prepare to bid our loved one farewell.
Reaching this stage is not be afforded to everyone. We may never see beyond our anger or denial. Denying ourselves the opportunity to make our peace is not necessarily a mark of bravery. This phase can be marked with withdrawal and calm, although this is not a time for happiness it must be distinguished from depression. Studies have shown that those who are terminally ill or aging appear to go through a final period of withdrawal.
Nobody can understand all of the emotions that you are going through and coping with loss is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience. Resisting the feelings that go with grief will only prolong the natural process of healing. The best thing to do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you.
Kübler-Ross herself never intended for these stages to be a rigid framework that applies to everyone who mourns. In her last book before her death in 2004, she said of the five stages of grief: “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”
Coping with grief and loss tip 1: Get support
Having support from other people is the single most important factor in the healing after loss. While it can be difficult to talk about how you are feeling it can be important to express them. Do not grieve alone; sharing your loss can make the burden of grief easier to carry.
- Finding support after a loss
- Turn to friends and family members
- Draw comfort from your faith
- Join a support group
- Talk to a therapist or grief counsellor
Coping with grief and loss tip 2: Take care of yourself
When you’re grieving, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. The stress of a major loss can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time.
- Face your feelings.
- Express your feelings in a tangible or creative way.
- Look after your physical health.
- Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either.
- Plan ahead for grief “triggers.”
When grief doesn’t go away
It’s normal to feel sad, numb, or angry following a loss. But as time passes, these emotions should become less intense as you accept the loss and start to move forward. 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.
The sadness of losing someone you love never goes away completely, but it shouldn’t remain center stage. If the pain of the loss is so constant and severe that it keeps you from resuming your life, you may be suffering from a condition known as complicated grief. Complicated grief is like being stuck in an intense state of mourning. You may have trouble accepting the death long after it has occurred or be so preoccupied with the person who died that it disrupts your daily routine and undermines your other relationships.
Axelrod., J. (n.d.). The 5 stages of Loss and Grief. Retrieved on, 12th December 2013, from, http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-04015-9
Smith, M., & Segal, J. (2013). Coping with Grief and Loss: Understanding the Grieving Process. Retrieved on 11th December, 2013, from,http://www.helpguide.org/mental/grief_loss.htm