What is Grief and How Do You Deal with It?
Losing someone or something you love can be very painful and overwhelming. Extreme sadness mixed with other surprising emotions such as shock, anger, and guilt are normal and necessary reactions to loss. Everyone grieves differently, but allowing yourself to experience grief is an important and healthy part of the healing process.
Grief is an emotional response to a loss. Often the most intense grief is in response to the loss of a loved one or a divorce, but grief can also be experienced from the loss of other things that were important such as a job, a pet, a friendship, safety after a trauma, financial stability, and so on. Significant changes in your life such as a move, a job change, or retirement can lead to feelings of grief and mourning for your old life. Typically, the more significant a loss is, the more intense feelings of grief will be.
Stage or Symptoms of Grief
Grief is multifaceted with emotional, physical, social, behavioral, and spiritual aspects. Depending on the person’s personality, family values, culture, and religious beliefs, grief will manifest in a variety of ways. Researchers have moved away from the conventional view that grief moves through orderly and predictable stages in a linear fashion. Instead, a person can experience phases of grief spread out and repeated several times. Some days will feel like your level of coping with grief is moving backwards. There is not a typical response to a loss, nor a normal timeline for grieving. However, there are some common symptoms of grief:
- Shock and disbelief – Immediately after a loss or traumatic event, many people report feeling numb, have trouble believing what happened, or even deny that the event happened at all. Many say they keep expecting the person they lost to show up or even think they see them. These feelings are all very normal and can be expected of someone who has suffered a loss.
- Sadness – The most universal symptom of grief is the deep sadness that comes after an important loss. Feelings of emptiness, despair, yearning, feeling lost, deep sadness, and loneliness are natural and healthy, even though they are very unpleasant. Because of these feelings, a person may cry a lot and have difficulty composing themselves enough to perform daily tasks, but over time this pain will begin to subside. However, if you do not feel any forward momentum day after day, you may be dealing with depression and may need to seek help from a professional grief counselor or therapist.
- Guilt – Another common emotion is regret or guilt about things left unsaid, or undone between yourself and the person you lost. It’s normal to feel frustrated or mourn the fact that they won’t get a second chance to do things differently. When the loss happens suddenly it’s common for people to feel badly that they didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, or they may ruminate about the last time they saw the person while feeling guilty that they didn’t know it was the last time they’d see them. We often replay our last moments together or the last words we spoke over and over in our minds, accompanied by feelings of guilt. People may also feel guilty for not doing something to prevent the death, even if there was nothing they could have done. Other people can experience guilt over feeling relief after a long difficult illness by a loved one. In other cases, a person may feel guilty when they start to move on or when they find themselves having a moment of happiness.
- Anger – Often the loss of someone or something can feel unfair, making you feel angry or resentful. You may feel the need to blame someone for this injustice – God, the doctor, the person who died for abandoning you, even yourself. Placing blame is a way that we attempt to transfer our feelings onto another person or source as we try to alleviate the sorrow we feel. For many, working through their grief is an exercise in forgiveness or anger management. Out-of-control anger can lead to a pattern of negative behaviors that can hurt your relationships, career, even your mental and physical health. If a person’s anger does not subside or becomes uncontrollable, it’s important for them to seek professional help to deal with their feelings and learn tools for channeling their anger.
- Fear – A significant loss can trigger feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and insecurity. You may even have panic attacks. The death of a loved one may cause you to question your own mortality or feel anxious about your life and the responsibilities you now face alone. If you were involved in the same traumatic accident or event that killed your loved one, you may experience post-traumatic stress disorder or replay the fear of the situation over and over in your mind. You may experience vivid thoughts where you imagine the same event as if it had happened to you. You may fear for the safety of your remaining family and friends and imagine terrible things happening to yourself or your loved ones. These feelings of fear and insecurity are a normal part of the grieving process.
- Physical Symptoms – Due to the intense levels of stress associated with grief, the body often responds both physically and emotionally. The entire body can experience grief and people’s bodies will manifest grief in different ways. Common physical problems include fatigue, nausea, sickness, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, night sweats, heart palpitations, feeling faint or lightheaded, and insomnia.
These emotions become less intense over time and as you begin to accept the loss. The sadness may never completely go away, but it shouldn’t remain in the forefront of your mind either. In time, you will be able to move forward and find peace. Grief may feel like it will last forever and that you will never feel better. Each phase is painful and uncomfortable but moving through the stages of grief is the way towards healing. Many people would rather suppress the feelings associated with grief, yet this doesn’t make them go away. Instead, feelings of sadness, guilt, and anger will persist until a personal eventually accepts and allows them.
However, if you do not feel any forward momentum day after day, or your grief is getting worse, it may be a sign that grief has triggered a more serious mental health problem such as major depression or complicated grief. If the pain of grief is so severe and constant that it keeps you from resuming your life, it’s a sign that you require professional help to cope with your feelings of loss.
Tips for Coping with Grief and Loss
Being gentle and understanding with yourself, the best way to deal with grief is to allow yourself to experience the emotions and feelings as they arise. In addition to accepting your feelings, there are other things you can do to help yourself during this difficult time:
Tip #1 – Do Not Grieve Alone
The most important factor in healing from loss is having the sufficient support from your family, your friends, your faith, a bereavement support group and/or a therapist or grief counselor. Sharing your loss makes the burden of grief easier to carry. Some ways in which a strong social support network can help with the grieving process include:
- Friends and family can help with the funeral arrangements or help with the many new responsibilities you may have. Friends and family can also provide a shoulder to lean on or can lend an ear when you need to talk about your feelings.
- Religion can offer comfort with mourning rituals and community activities.
- Bereavement support groups provide an opportunity to share your sorrow with others who can relate to your loss and how you feel.
- A grief counselor or therapist can help you work through these intense emotions of grief in a safe and constructive setting.
Tip #2 – Take Good Care of Yourself
The stress of a major loss can negatively affect your immune system placing you at risk for illness. Now more than ever, it is imperative you take care of your physical and emotional health. Because the mind and body are connected and you will need your health in order to face and properly manage your grief. Avoiding your feelings will only prolong the inevitable, and unresolved grief can lead to complications such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse or prolonged health problems. Some tips to staying healthy through the grieving period are:
- Do something creative. Expressing your feelings in a creative manner can help you to move through them more effectively – write, scrapbook, paint or get involved in a cause that honors the memory of your loved one. Allowing yourself to get lost in a creative project can be a welcome break from the sorrow that you’re feeling.
- Eat, sleep and exercise. Your physical health is directly connected to your emotional well-being. Fight the stress and fatigue of grief with healthy lifestyle choices. Gentle exercising, aiming for eight hours of sleep each night, and eating nutritious and wholesome foods, even if you don’t feel like it, will keep your body strong and healthy even when you do not feel that way emotionally
- Be patient with yourself. There is no set time-frame, or list of emotions you “should” feel. Let yourself feel what you need to feel without judgment or shame. It may seem that others have moved on or processed the loss quicker or more easily than you have, but allow yourself to go through your own unique grief process without comparing your feelings to your perception of how others are coping.
- Understand your grief triggers. It’s normal for certain milestones or holidays to trigger sad memories and intense feelings of grief. Be prepared. It can be very effective and therapeutic to plan ahead and make sure you have a constructive outlet to grieve on the impending day. This could mean letting friends and family know that you’ll need extra support during that period, taking a day off work to allow yourself the space to grieve, or perhaps scheduling plans to keep busy during a difficult time.
Tip #3 – Seek Professional Grief Counseling
Many find that additional support from a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist helps to promote a healthy healing process. Grief is a process in which the more you understand and actively work through, the more effective the healing is. A professional counselor can help guide you through the grief process and assist you in understanding and coping with the intense emotions you are feeling. It can be difficult to navigate grief alone and a trained professional can help you make sense of your feelings after a significant loss.
Treatment and Support Options for Grief and Loss
Psychotherapy – A psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional can help you deal with feelings of grief and loss. In psychotherapy, people are encouraged to discover the deep emotions they are experiencing as part of their grieving process so they begin to work through them and learn to accept their loss.
Alternative Therapies – In addition to talk therapy as a way of dealing with grief, there are many things that an individual can do to channel their intense emotions after a loss. Self-care activities like meditation, massage, journaling, spending time in nature, and social support are all useful outlets for helping to cope with grief.