Have you lost someone dear to you recently? Perhaps a long time ago your life changed due to a loss of someone or something special to you, and you are still unable to return to your normal way of functioning. Are the holidays a painful reminder of your loss instead of a joyful time? If your answer is yes, then this blog entry is for you. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry you are in pain. I hope you find this blog entry helpful.
Grief is an intense feeling of sadness that occurs after experiencing loss. The most common cause of grief is the loss of a close person. However, feelings of grief can be triggered by other events. For instance, end of a relationship, suffering a serious injury, loss of a pet, or losing a part of you that defined your identity can also trigger feelings of grief. No matter how big or small your loss to someone else, what you are experiencing is valid. You are not alone in what you are going through. Most people go through grief at one point in their life. Please see my links and resources for additional support. There is no right or wrong way for an individual to go through the feelings of grief. However, there is no shortcut to feeling happy again either. A mentor and a professor I had the privilege to learn so much from explained the process of going through grief as “having to swim through ice cold water to get to the shore” or “walk through fire.” Understandably, you may want to find a shortcut and go around it (hence, doing things to numb the pain and avoid it, such as denying and minimizing the loss, using drugs and alcohol, isolating, etc.) but the only way to come out of it is to actually go through it; to go through all the unpleasant feelings; to swim though the ice cold water; to walk through that fire.
Depending on the type of loss you experienced, the length of the healing process and your reactions may differ. The healing process of bereavement is a personal experience, however, several stages are known to exist. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. (suggested reading: “On Death and Dying”) there are five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Please note that you may not experience these stages in this particular order. Additionally, you may not go through every single stage.
In a state of shock following a loss, an individual may feel numb, unable to accept reality. This is a defense mechanism designed to protect one from the reality that is too difficult to accept at that moment. In time, the denial will diminish and the individual can then process their feelings.
Anger can be directed to those who have passed away, creating feelings of guilt at the same time. Anger can be directed towards a higher power for allowing such a tragedy to occur. It can be directed towards friends and family members. What is the purpose of anger, you may ask? Well, temporarily, it may give one a sense of control. Being “out of control” and not having a solid ground to stand on can be emotionally devastating. Anger can also be an easier (more acceptable) emotion to express than hurt and sadness, which require vulnerability.
The purpose of bargaining is to obtain a sense of hope. This too, is a method to regain a sense of control. It is a normal reaction to feeling hopeless. An individual may find themselves making promises to behave differently, stop doing certain things and start doing other things. Pleas can be directed to individuals in one’s life or to one’s God.
Once an individual accepts that there is nothing he/she can do to change the situation, depression develops. At this time symptoms of depression occur such as crying spells, difficulties concentrating, sleep and appetite disturbances, feelings of hopelessness and sadness. These feelings are an important factor in helping individuals heal.
Accepting a death of a loved one can take a long time. However, in time reality is accepted. The person will still feel various emotions when thinking about the loss, but he/she will be ready to embrace the idea of participating in life again. Acceptance does not mean forgetting the loss or recovering from it completely. It simply is a start of healing, creating a “new normal.”
Please note that there are various factors affecting the experience of grief. Support system availability, finances, cultural background, expected vs. sudden loss, and age are all factors influencing this process. For instance, young children may not comprehend the meaning of loss due to their developmental level. (Suggested reading: “Talking with children about loss” by Maria Trozzi.)
Suggested Coping Skills for Grief and Loss
1) Support System
Allow others to help you. Let people in. Help can include helping you prepare meals, take care of your children, chores, assist with funeral arrangements, or going for a walk and providing you with a space to breathe and process your feelings. Sometimes just having a caring person can help tremendously. If you don’t have a support system, joining a support group may be helpful. (See links and resources provided on my website.)
Self-care is very important. People experience grief differently. Allow yourself to heal by giving yourself time. You will feel many different emotions. Allow them to come and go, without getting stuck on them. Journal your thoughts, go for walks, see a therapist. Don’t put pressure on yourself to take care of everything. You may not be able to be as functional as before following a loss. This is temporary. Simplify your life, take a break from your expectations.
3) Plan Ahead
Holidays, birthdays and anniversaries can be difficult when you are grieving. Often times, they can remain painful years following the loss. Planning ahead can be helpful. Decide which holiday traditions you are comfortable keeping. It’s ok to let go of some. Decide who you’d like to be with on those days and where. Reach out to your support system and inform them of your plans. Understand that holidays and other days that used to be special will be difficult emotionally, but there can still be times of joy and love. And if you find yourself enjoying the moment, allow yourself to feel something positive without feeling guilty.
4) Spirituality/Religious Beliefs
If you have spiritual beliefs or follow a religion, you may find it helpful to find comfort in it. Praying, going to church, meditating, talking to others at your church or temple can increase your sense of hope and belonging.
5) Create symbolic traditions to honor your loved one’s memory
Creating new ways to remember your loved one can be very therapeutic. Some examples can include visiting their favorite place, volunteering at a charity your loved one would have supported, making their favorite meal and remembering the happy times you shared, planting a tree in their name, etc. The goal of such activities is to preserve their memories in a meaningful and soothing way for you.
6) Avoid Self Medicating with Drugs and Alcohol
When in emotional pain, you may feel tempted to numb your feelings, escape from your problems, find a shortcut to feeling “happy” again. Often times, alcohol and drugs (including misusing prescription medications) is used to achieve this. Unfortunately, it only serves as a band-aid that temporarily makes you feel good but causes more problems afterwards. As mentioned before, the only way to heal is to actually go through the unpleasant feelings without numbing them.
7) Express Yourself
You may be tempted to isolate and keep your feeling bottled up inside. Keeping feelings buried inside only brings more pain. Talk. Reach out to others. Consider talking to a therapist or joining a support group. In order to heal, feelings need to come out. If not expressed, they will manifest in other ways, such as health or behavioral problems.
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”
― William Shakespeare, Macbeth