Losing a close friend or family member is horrible experience, yet all of us must eventually face saying goodbye to someone we love. Grieving is intense and overwhelming. The challenge is to somehow feel the loss, to grieve, and then to recover so we can continue on, remembering the one we lost with love and serenity. Finding peace after a loss can be a long process.
Shock and confusion over the loss can change into anger, profound sadness and/or depression. We may find ourselves unable to concentrate or returning again and again to thoughts and feelings that keep us from acceptance.
Typically, the passage of time can help, yet the process of grieving cannot be rushed. Sometimes those who are grieving feel pressured to “move on” after a brief period. Friends and family of those grieving need to give the mourner space and time to process their grief in their own way.
Social support and healthy habits can help the healing process. Most people can and do recover from a deep loss on their own, but it can take months or even a year. And, if we are second-guessing circumstances that lead to the loss, or if our relationship with the departed was a complicated one, this will add to the challenge.
People who continue to struggle, find themselves unable to cope with daily activities or withdraw socially may benefit from grieving counseling from a psychologist or licensed mental health practitioner specializing in grief counseling.
Everyone responds to loss differently, but there are some strategies that work for most people.
Talking often helps.
Talking about your loved one, and about your feelings, with close friends is usually helpful. Allow caring people to be there for you. Your friends may feel that they don’t know what to say to comfort you, or they may say something that feels insensitive. Friends of those grieving should know that there is no right thing to say except for, “I’m here for you. I care about you.” Showing up, both literally and figuratively, is the first step. Just being around friends, and having someone to hug or to cry with, is healing.
You may find a support group helpful.
Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help. If you are religious or spiritual, traditions and rituals, both alone and in the comfort of others, can offer solace. Sometimes a loss can shake one’s faith. Allow yourself to express your anger to your clergy or fellow seekers. Engaging and wrestling with these matters together can help you process and move forward.
Try to acknowledge and accept your feelings.
Some people try to pretend that everything is okay. They deny their feelings, push them down, and move on as if nothing has happened. This is not helpful. Such a reaction can isolate you from others, and from your own emotions.
Know that there is no right or wrong way to feel about a loss.
Besides sadness, which we expect to feel, mourners often feel anger, frustration, and exhaustion. You may experience denial, bargaining, or guilt. Some people have panic attacks. The loss can trigger fears about your own mortality, and about the future. You may feel overwhelmed and alone. Or, you may feel numb. Moods may change swiftly. You may experience physical symptoms such as sleeplessness, agitation, or loss of appetite. Try to be patient with yourself and your process.
Try to practice self-care.
Eating well, exercising and getting enough rest – as best as you can – will help you recover. If it’s too much to exercise formally, walking outdoors and being around nature is healing.
You may find that expressing your feelings in a creative way can be helpful and fulfilling. Writing in journal, or expressing yourself through art, music or other endeavors is a good idea.
As time passes
Even after time goes by and you start to feel better, you may experience sudden re-occurrences of intense grief all over again. Recovering from a loss is not a straight path upward to recovery, but a roller-coaster of ups and downs.
Trying to lose yourself in work is tempting, but overworking is a distraction that will delay full healing. Similarly, turning to drugs or alcohol will hinder your recovery, not help.
As you heal, celebrate and remember your loved one. Many people find that a symbolic act, such as donating to a favorite charities on their behalf, planting a tree or garden, or creating a memory album of photos, can help you in your healing journey.
Handling the loss again and again
Be aware that even after you feel the worst is over, triggers can send you back into profound grief all over again. Anniversaries, holidays and milestones often re-awaken feelings. You may be surprised to be suddenly hit by a wave of intense sorrow. Understand that this is normal, and doesn’t mean that you have “lost ground.”
So-called “anniversary reactions” reflect the importance that your loved one has in your life – still, now, even after they have passed. Realizing that you should expect these sudden onslaughts of renewed grief, and having coping mechanisms in place, can help you deal with these emotional blasts.
Actual anniversaries of your loved one’s birth, death, or other predictable milestones are not the only events that may trigger renewed waves of grief. Sights, sounds and smells are closely tied to the emotional part of our brains. Catching a whiff of one of your loved one’s favorite foods or hearing a song they used to sing can suddenly overwhelm you with emotions. Smell is a particularly strong trigger, as the sense of smell is closely linked with both memory and emotion in a physical way in the brain itself.
When waves of grief return, months or even years after your loss, it can feel as intense as it was when the loss was fresh. Try not to be frightened by the return of intense emotions. Understand ahead of time that these are likely to occur. Plan some strategies for coping, such as:
Anticipate a reaction. Just knowing that you may be pushed back into your grief temporarily can help you deal with it.
Plan an activity that feeds your soul. Getting together with friends, hiking in the woods, or attending religious or spiritual activities can help.
Embrace the person, not the loss. Rather than pretending that you’re not feeling grief, remember all that was positive about having that special person in your life. Realize how he or she influenced you, and how you were changed by knowing them. You may want to visit a place that was special to your loved one, or even write them a letter. Often, when we know and love someone well, we can feel that there is a piece of them inside us, even long after they are gone.
Turn the negative into a positive. Instead of allowing an anniversary to be all about the grief and the loss, try creating a new tradition. Use the anniversary of a death to perform an act of kindness, charity or beautification in your loved one’s name.
Turn to your friends and family. Let them in. Tell them how you’re feeling. Hug each other. Let yourself cry if you want to. Being with those you love and care about, and having physical contact like hugs, backrubs or a simple touch, is the best medicine for healing.
Don’t be surprised if your emotions are all over the place. When reminiscing about your loss, you may feel like crying one moment and laughing the next. Some people worry that they are somehow being disloyal if they finally find themselves happy again, after a loss. Remember that your loved one would not want you to be grieving forever. Give yourself permission to experience everything, including joy and happiness.
When grief is too much to bear
If, however, you find yourself continuing to struggle with grief, if it seems to get worse rather than better, or if you find yourself withdrawing from daily activities, then it may be time to seek counseling. Unresolved or “complicated” grief can lead to depression and other problems both mental and physical. Don’t feel that you have to be “strong” or “tough it out.” It is actually a sign of strength to seek help when you need it, as this represents a proactive stance toward regaining your foot-hold, rather than succumbing to despair. And if your friends or family have suggested counseling to you, listen to them with an open heart.
Friends and family, time, coping strategies and professional assistance can allow you to finally remember your loved one with gratitude. You will live and love again, while holding that special person close in your heart forever.