A guide to coping with grief and loss
How to deal with grief and cope with the loss of a loved one
The loss of a loved one is among one of the most overwhelming and painful experiences you are likely to encounter. It comes uninvited and it takes you through a range of emotions which often contradict one another and make no sense. The physical pain of it can have a negative effect on your health and is likely to affect your thinking, alter your behaviour, and disturb your sleeping, eating and thinking.
This article will provide advice and guidance on coping with grief. It will help you understand the grieving process, its symptoms, and how to take care of yourself whilst grieving.
What is grief?
Grief is a natural reaction to loss. It is a personal experience characterised by some shared physical and emotional symptoms which are often unpredictable and determined by individual circumstances. The duration and severity of those symptoms depend on the individual’s ability to cope with their loss and adapt to its challenges.
Although this guide is about grief after the loss of a loved one, it is important to note that any major loss can provoke grief. That includes the loss of a pet or a job, financial losses, divorce or a break up, loss as the result of theft, loss of a person’s independence due to disability etc.
Emotional symptoms of grief
It is quite normal to be shocked at the news about your loss and to refuse to accept it at first. You are also likely to go through a phase of being angry, insecure and fearing life on your own, particularly if you are grieving the loss of a spouse or a partner.
Witnessing or learning about the death of someone you love is likely to leave you in shock and numb your senses. It’s often followed by expecting to see that person and refusing to accept their death. These reactions are normal and they are part of the early stages of grief.
Being angry with yourself, a doctor or the deceased person is a normal response to your loss too. You may even feel the need to blame someone for what’s happened or hold them responsible for the injustice. Not everyone feels angry but if you do, please find a way to address the anger and express it in a way which doesn’t leave unintended consequences.
Feeling sad and crying after the death of someone you love is one of the most obvious symptoms of grief. Whilst not everyone cries when sad, crying itself is not a sign of weakness. You mustn’t suppress your tears because they allow you to discharge your pain and heal.
Losing a loved one can provoke a number of fears including those related to your own mortality. Those fears include the feelings of being helpless, worried about the future and life without that special person. Some people become anxious and experience panic attacks whilst others feel insecure and helpless on their own.
Depending on the circumstances, you may feel guilty that you didn’t do enough to prevent the death of your loved one even though it wasn’t anyone’s fault. The relief in the cases of death after a long illness can also be a trigger for guilty feelings. You may even feel guilty about things that you did or didn’t say or do.
Physical symptoms of grief
Grief doesn’t limit its effect to a series of feelings and emotions. It comes with some very clear and persistent physical symptoms too. Quite often, bereaved people suffer different aches and pains, fatigue and lowered immune system or they experience weight changes and disturbed sleeping patterns. Most of the physical symptoms of grief are due to the increased stress and trauma of losing a love done.
Extreme tiredness and exhaustion are the first and most prominent physical symptoms of grief. The fatigue becomes chronic and you are likely to struggle to get out of bed and find the energy to carry on with the rest of your day.
Be patient with yourself and make sure that you eat a healthy diet and you keep hydrated. Slow down and work on lowering the stress by meditating, listening to relaxing music, exercising or doing deep breathing exercises.
Aches and pains
The fatigue and stress of grieving can make you tense and achy. Be prepared to suffer severe headaches, backaches, tightness in your chest area etc. This is your body’s way of telling you that you need to slow down and start caring for it.
Consider meditation and other activities which help to reduce stress. Do some stretching and book a massage to get rid of the tension and to relax your muscles. If you suffer chronic pain, please make an appointment to see your doctor. Don’t self-medicate with drugs and alcohol!
Lowered immune system
The constant release of stress hormones whilst grieving and the fatigue are likely to result in a weakened immune system, making you prone to sickness and illness. Older adults who are grieving suffer worse.
You can strengthen your immune system by reducing the stress and getting a good night’s sleep. Eat a healthy diet or at least make sure that you get the vital nutrients, vitamins and minerals required for the normal functioning of your body. If you are in the older adult category make an appointment to see your doctor who can assess your health and if needed - prescribe supplements to boost your immune system.
Weight loss or weight gain
There is a deep connection between our physical and emotional health which can affect the digestive system. That’s why some of us turn to comfort eating in stressful situations, whilst others don’t eat enough.
Make sure that your diet is nutritionally balanced and contains the necessary nutrients for your body’s functioning. If that’s a problem, you need to see your doctor or a dietitian for further help and advice.
According to some specialists, you are more likely to win the lottery than get a good night's sleep whilst grieving. That’s particularly true at the beginning stages of grief due to the initial shock and trauma of your loss.
Your TV, smart phone and other electronics release blue light which is perceived as sunlight and tricks your brain to keep you awake. If you struggle to get a good night’s sleep, stop using them at least an hour before you go to bed to give your brain the chance to relax. Read a book or journal in bed instead of watching a film or scrolling through social media.
Remember that grief is determined by your relationship with the deceased person and the circumstances of their death. You mustn’t be alarmed if you don’t experience all of the above symptoms or if you are affected by symptoms which are not mentioned on this list.
Either way, if your grief symptoms persist and if they affect your daily life, please make an appointment to see your doctor or click on the GriefChat box at the bottom of this page to talk to someone who is qualified to help.
The grieving process
Contrary to popular belief, grief is not the same for everyone and it doesn’t have a set expiry date. Instead, it involves a range of emotions, feelings and actions which are likely to cause you pain and suffering. They are important parts of the grieving process and ignoring them or trying to disguise them in any way, is likely to result in complicated grief.
A number of clinicians and psychiatrists have come up with different grief models which aim to explain the grieving process and help the bereaved to “make sense of it”. Here are some of the most popular ones:
Growing around grief
Dr Lois Tonkin presents an alternative to the grief models which are based on different phases or stages of grief. His theory teaches us that grief is constant and it stays the same but those affected by it grow around it. This model is also known as the “fried egg model of grief” - life is the big white circle and the yolk in the middle is the black hole left by the deceased person. The “egg yolk” is always there and forces us to grow our lives around it.
Six R’s of Mourning
Dr Therese Rando has developed a model in which she takes the different emotional states a bereaved person is likely to go through and grouped them into three emotional categories - avoidance, confrontation and accommodation. The Six R’s of Mourning are:
- Recognise the loss
- React to the separation
- Recollect and re-experience
- Relinquish old attachments
Reconstruction of Meaning
Robert A. Neimeyer sees grief as “a process of reconstructing a world of meaning which has been challenged by loss.” This model is particularly well-suited to those struggling to get back to “pre-loss level of functioning.” It employs constructivist therapy strategies in helping people to come to terms with their loss and find a way to move forward.
Dual Process Model of Grief
Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut’s theory divides the grieving process into loss-oriented and restoration-oriented process. The bereaved person oscillates between the two processes and in doing so, learns to balance the reality of their loss and learning to live life after it.
The Dual Process Model of Grief is suitable for men and those who struggle to confront their feelings and emotions. It encourages bereaved people to use restoration-oriented activities such as learning new skills and forming new relationships as a way of coping with grief and moving forward with life.
Four Tasks of Mourning
William Worden suggests that in order to complete their grieving process and move forward, the bereaved individual must accomplish four tasks:
- Accept the reality of their loss
- Process their grief and pain
- Adjust to the world without their loved one in it
- Find a way to maintain a connection to their lost loved one whilst embarking on their own life
Five Stages of Grief
Although this is the most popular grief model, it was originally developed by Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to explain the process terminally ill people go through after diagnosis. The Five Stages of Grief are:
It’s worth noting that grief is not as linear and predictable as this model suggests.
Learn more about the different models of grief.
How to take care of yourself whilst grieving
Whether you are grieving the loss of a spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend or someone else close to you, please remember to take care of yourself.
Give yourself permission to grieve
Although we live in a society which expects us to “be strong” and “carry on”, you need to appreciate the fact that grief is quite needy. It consumes most of your energy and it demands your full attention at all times, whether you like it or not. The only way to move forward and adapt to life without your loved one is to give yourself permission to grieve. Don’t let others define your grief and tell you how you should feel.
Listen to your body
Your body is perfectly capable of letting you know what it needs and when. Listen to it and eat if you feel hungry, drink water if you are thirsty and sleep when you feel tired. Get into the habit of exercising as it improves not just your physical but your mental health as well. When you exercise, your body produces endorphins which lift your mood and improve the way you feel. Learn some breathing exercises and meditation to help you calm down and reduce the stress you are going through.
Don’t bottle up your emotions
Pretending that you are OK when you are not does not make grief disappear. You need to go through the motions and find a healthy way of expressing your feelings. Talking to someone helps and so does grief counselling but if that’s not the way you do things, then there are other ways to help you achieve the same result. Start a journal and write about your feelings and thoughts in it. That would help you to validate your grief and enable you to work though it in a healthy way.
Whilst wanting to withdraw from public life and restrict yourself to the boundaries of your own home is quite normal under the circumstances, you must make an effort to prevent it from becoming a habit. Interacting with others and spending time with those close to you are important parts of the healing process.
Family and friends
Your family, friends and those close to you are your support network and you need to let them be there for you. Give them the chance to do what they can to make life easier for you at this difficult time. Don’t let your pride and independence stay in the way and alienate them. Be proactive and reach out to them. If appropriate, involve them in the funeral planning process, ask for second opinion on decisions you need to make etc. Let them know that they are an important part of your life.
If you are not comfortable sharing grief with family and friends, join a local support group or an online one. These groups provide a safe environment in which you can share your feelings and draw inspiration from the experience of others. Grief creates a strong bond between people and you can benefit from being among others who are on the same journey.
GriefChat is a free online service which connects you to a bereavement counsellor who is specially trained to listen to you and to point you in the direction of further help and support. It’s available Monday to Friday, 9am to 9pm and you can benefit from it by clicking on the GriefChat box at the bottom of this page.
Please refer to our Grief Help and Support page for more information and contact details of bereavement charities and organisations which specialise in helping people who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
Contributed by Mark Welkin
Mark Welkin is the author of three grief books and a journalist who has worked for various media outlets in Europe and Asia. He lost his long-term partner in 2014 and a few months later, Mark turned to a grief counsellor for help. The results inspired him to share his experience and help other bereaved people to resume life after the loss of their loved ones.