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Coping with Grief and Loss

You may have experienced a bereavement or have been affected by a tragic and traumatic incident.

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Grief and trauma are as individual as you are, there is no one way to grieve, and there is no one way to cope with trauma as we all experience them differently, but there are healthy ways to deal with the process of adjusting to the new reality of our life experience.

Coping with the loss of someone or something you love is one of life’s biggest challenges. Grief is the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. Often, the pain of loss can feel overwhelming, but we should remember that grief is a natural response to loss. As you go through the process of grieving you might find yourself experiencing a variety of difficult and unanticipated reactions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and a deep sense of sadness.

Grief can also make it difficult to sleep, eat and this can then affect your physical health. You may also find that you have difficulty thinking straight or have problems remembering things. These are normal reactions to loss and the more significant the loss, the more intense the reactions of your grief may be.

You may associate grieving with the death of a loved one—which is usually the cause of grief—but other things can cause feelings of loss and grief, including:

  1. Relationship breakdown or divorce
  2. A miscarriage
  3. Retirement or the loss of employment
  4. Serious health issues for you or a loved one
  5. Loss of financial stability
  6. Death of a pet
  7. Loss of a friendship
  8. A traumatic experience

Whatever it is that has caused you to feel the pain of loss, it’s personal to you, so don’t feel embarrassed about how you feel, or believe that it’s not appropriate to grieve for certain things or in a certain way.

However, whatever the cause of your grief, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain you experience, and this can in time, ease the sadness you feel and help you come to terms with your loss.

The grieving process

Grieving is an individual experience; your reactions can be as individual as you are. This is because grief is affected by a range of different things, including your personality and your life experiences, your faith, all of which have a bearing on how you cope with your loss.

Remember grieving is a process that takes time. It is a gradual process that can’t be forced or rushed. This means that there is no “normal” length of time for someone to be grieving. Some people start to feel they are coping or have come to terms with their loss in weeks or months. For others, the process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and with others and allow the process to occur naturally and as you feel able.

Even after you have come to the point where you feel able to cope with your grief and have perhaps come to terms with your loss, there can still be triggers and touchpoints for the feelings to return. A family wedding or the birth of a child, birthdays and anniversaries, places, sounds or smells; these familiar events can cause memories and emotions to resurface, even years after a bereavement.

The stages of grief

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed a theory that there were “five stages of grief.” Although her stages of grief were based on her research with patients suffering from terminal illnesses, her work has been used to map the process of other types of negative life changes and losses, such as bereavement or the breakdown of a significant relationship.

The five stages of grief (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., On Death and Dying – What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own families (New York: Scribner, 1969), 51-124.)

Denial: “This can’t be happening...”

Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to fault is it?”

Bargaining: “change this situation and in return, I will...”

Depression: “I’m too unhappy to do anything... I have no motivation.”

Acceptance: “I’ve come to terms with what happened.” Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one.

If you are experiencing any of these emotions, then please understand that your reaction is natural and that you will, in time, learn to cope with your loss.

However, not everyone who grieves goes through all of these stages, or goes through them in the order they are set out and you should understand that’s okay. Some people resolve their grief without going through any of these stages and that’s okay too.

Your emotional responses to loss

Shock and disbelief. it can be hard to accept what happened. You may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss really happened, or even deny the truth. If someone you love has died, you may keep expecting them to show up, even though you know they’re gone.

Sadness. A deep sense of sadness is probably the most commonly experienced symptom of grief. Feelings of emptiness, despair, or profound loneliness. You may feel emotionally unstable and even cry a lot.

Guilt. You may regret or feel guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do. You may also feel guilty about certain feelings (e.g. feeling relief after a person died after a long illness). After a death, you may even feel guilty for not doing something to prevent the death, even if there was nothing you could have done.

Anger. You may feel angry and resentful even if the loss was nobody’s fault. If you lost a loved one, you may be angry with yourself, God, the doctors, or even the person who died for abandoning you. You might feel there is some kind of injustice that was done to you.

Fear. Fear is often shown in feelings of anxiety, helplessness, or insecurity; you may even have panic attacks. The fear of being alone is perhaps the most common reaction, However, being confronted by the death of a loved one or witnessing the death of someone can also trigger fears about your own mortality.

Physical symptoms of grief

We often think of grief as an emotional process, but grief often involves physical reactions, including:

    • Fatigue
    • Nausea
    • Lowered immunity
    • Weight loss or weight gain
    • Aches and pains
    • Insomnia

Seek support

The pain of grief and trauma can often cause people to withdraw from others and retreat into themselves. Nevertheless, having the face-to-face support of people is an important part of the healing process. Even if you’re not normally comfortable talking about your feelings, it’s important to express them when you’re grieving.

Sharing your burden can make it easier to carry, but that doesn’t mean that every time you interact with friends and family, you need to talk about your loss, it's important not to be isolated. Comfort can come from just being with people who care about you.

Turn to friends and family members. It is important to be able to lean on the people who care about you, even if you take pride in being strong and self-sufficient. Try not to avoid them, but draw friends and loved ones close, spend time together and accept the assistance that’s offered.

Friends, family and neighbours often want to help but don’t know how, so don’t worry about telling them what you need; it might be a shoulder to cry on, or help with funeral arrangements, or even just someone to spend time with. If you don’t feel you have anyone you can regularly connect with in person, it’s never too late to build new friendships; perhaps find a local support group, church, synagogue, mosque, temple or social events.

Accept that many people feel awkward when trying to comfort someone who’s grieving. Grief can sometimes be a frightening emotion for many people, especially if they have experienced a similar loss themselves. People can feel unsure about how to support or comfort you and may even end up saying or doing the wrong things. Nonetheless, don’t use that as an excuse to avoid social contact; if a friend, neighbour or loved one reaches out to you, it’s because they care.

If you have faith. If you have any religious faith that you can embrace the comfort its mourning rituals can provide. Spiritual activities that are meaningful to you—such as praying, meditating, or going to a place of worship, can offer solace. If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to a member of the clergy or others in your religious community.

Join a support group. Grief can feel very lonely, even if you have family around you. Sharing your loss with others who have experienced similar losses can help you come to terms with your grief. To find a bereavement support group in your area, contact your GP, hospices, funeral homes, and counselling centres.

Talk to a therapist or grief counsellor. If your grief feels like it is still too much to bear, talk to your GP about grief counselling. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome difficulties you face with the grieving process.

Using social media for grief support

Memorial pages on social media sites such as Facebook have become popular ways to inform people of a loved one’s passing and to reach out for support. As well as allowing you to communicate practical information, such as funeral arrangements, these pages also allow friends and family to post their tributes and condolences. Reading the messages can often provide comfort for those grieving the loss.

But there needs to be a note of caution; Memorial pages are often open to anyone with a Facebook account and this may encourage people who hardly knew the deceased to post well-meaning but inappropriate comments or advice. What is worse, is that memorial pages can attract internet trolls. There have been many well-publicised cases of strangers posting cruel or abusive messages on memorial pages.

You can create a closed group on Facebook rather than a public page, which means people have to be approved by a group member before they can access the memorial. It’s also important to remember that while social media can be a useful tool for reaching out to others, it can’t replace the face-to-face support you need at this time.

Selfcare and grief

When you have been bereaved or have suffered a traumatic incident, it’s important to take care of yourself. The stress of a major loss or trauma can quickly drain your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional wellbeing will help you get through this testing time.

Be honest about your feelings. You can try to suppress your feelings, but you can’t avoid them forever. Avoid those feelings of sadness and loss only prolongs the grieving process. Unresolved grief can also lead to problems such as depression, anxiety, health problems and even substance abuse.

Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel. Your grief is personal to you, no one can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or to “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever emotions you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to find moments of joy and to laugh, to yell at the heavens, and to let go of the grief when you’re ready to so.

Look after your physical health. Our minds and bodies are connected. When we feel physically healthy, we are better able to cope emotionally with stress and fatigue. Also by ensuring we are getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising we can help build our resilience. Don’t use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of grief or lift your mood artificially, this doesn’t work and will make things worse in the longer term.

Look out for grief “triggers.” Anniversaries, birthdays, and a host of other triggers can reawaken memories and feelings of loss. Be prepared for an emotional surge when you come to events or situations that can reawaken memories and feelings, and recognise that it’s completely normal to feel those feeling. If you know that you are going to face one of those triggers, be open with friends and relatives, talk to them ahead of time about their expectations and agree on strategies to honour the person you loved and have lost.

Try to maintain your hobbies and interests. Getting back to the activities that bring you joy and connects you to other people can help you come to terms with your loss and aid the grieving process. We can find comfort in the routine of familiar activities.

Find ways to express your feelings. Some people find that writing about their loss in a journal helps to order their mind and process their feelings. Others turn to poetry and write about the person they have lost, or write a letter saying the things you never got to say. Some people make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life. You might get involved in a cause or organisation that is important to you or your loved one.

When grief doesn’t go away

As time passes it’s normal for feelings of sadness, numbness, or anger to gradually subside as you begin to accept the loss or trauma and start to move forward with your life. However, if your feelings aren't getting better over time, or your feelings of grief are getting worse, it may be a sign that your grief has developed into something more serious, such as complicated grief or major depression.

Complicated grief

The feelings of sadness when you lose someone you loved never completely goes away, but it shouldn’t remain the main focus of your life.

If the pain of the loss is so relentless and severe that it keeps you from restarting your life, you may be suffering from a condition known as complicated grief. Complicated grief is like being trapped in an intense state of mourning.

You may have difficulty coming to terms with the loss after it has happened or be so preoccupied with the person who died that it disrupts your daily routine and maybe undermines your other relationships.

Symptoms of complicated grief include:

    • Intense longing and yearning for your deceased loved one
    • Intrusive thoughts, memories or images of your loved one
    • Denial of the death or sense of disbelief
    • Imagining that your loved one is alive
    • Searching for your deceased loved one in familiar places
    • Avoiding things that remind you of your loved one
    • Extreme anger or bitterness over your loss
    • Feeling that life is empty or meaningless

If your loved one’s death was sudden, violent, or otherwise extremely stressful, disturbing or traumatic, complicated grief can manifest as psychological trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If your loss has left you feeling helpless and struggling with distressing emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away, you may have been traumatised. But with the right guidance, you can make changes that will help you adjust and come to terms with this loss that can help you move on with your life.

The difference between grief and depression

Distinguishing between grief and clinical depression isn’t always easy as they share many symptoms, but there are ways that a medical professional can tell the difference. When you’re in the middle of the grieving process, you will still have moments of pleasure or happiness. In contrast, people who are depressed constantly feel sad. They find it difficult to enjoy anything or be positive about the future.

Other symptoms that suggest depression, not just grief, include: 

    • An intense, pervasive sense of guilt
    • Thoughts of suicide or a preoccupation with dying
    • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
    • Slow speech and body movements
    • Inability to function at home, work, and/or school in the normal way
    • Loss of interest/Lack of pleasure
    • Memory loss
    • changes in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)

Can antidepressants help grief?

As a general rule, normal grief does not require the use of antidepressants. While medication may relieve some of the symptoms of grief, it cannot treat the cause, which is the loss itself. Moreover, by numbing the pain that is a natural grief reaction that needs to be worked through, antidepressants delay the mourning process. As an alternative, there are other steps you can take to deal with depression and regain your sense of joy and purpose in life.

When to seek professional help for grief

If you’re experiencing symptoms of complicated grief or clinical depression, talk to your GP. Left untreated, complicated grief and depression can lead to significant emotional damage, life-threatening health problems, self-harm and even suicide. But treatment can help you get better.

Visit your GP and ask for a referral to a professional therapist if you:

    1. Feel like life isn’t worth living
    2. Wish you had died with your loved one
    3. Blame yourself for the loss or for failing to prevent it
    4. Feel numb and disconnected from others for more than a few weeks
    5. Are having difficulty trusting others since your loss
    6. Are unable to perform your normal daily activities