Overcoming Grief: How to Deal With a Loved One’s LossLuke Coutinho
“Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language, and the grasping for language.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Notes on Grief
Death is inevitable and so is the paramount grief that threatens to drown you following the loss of a loved one.
It could be a close friend, your partner, spouse, child, a relative, or even your pet. Many say grief is the price we pay for love. And maybe it is. Because losing a loved one can alter the course of your life. And for many, it may never be the same again. Yet, it is a journey one ought to take.
It may induce shock, disbelief, or even anger when it hits you first. But it will also ease your sorrow, help you accept your loss, and move forward with renewed resilience.
The way we grieve is one among the many aspects of life that the coronavirus has changed forever. Funerals and final rites once involved people flocking together to pay homage to the deceased, now only have a limited number. Many of us, especially those who may have lost our loved ones to this deadly virus, were robbed of the chance to bid our loved ones goodbye at their deathbed. And that kind of open-ended loss with no closure can be all-consuming if left unaddressed.
This is our humble attempt to acknowledge your pain and help you navigate this difficult period with a few learnings.
If you have ever resorted to picking up reading or looking up how to cope with grief, you may certainly have stumbled upon Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief.
Ross’ concept gained fame after appearing in her 1961 book On Death and Dying. It was based on her study that closely observed and analyzed the emotions of terminally ill patients. But today, these five stages are applied to situations beyond it. For instance, negative life changes and losses, such as the death of a loved one or even a break-up.
What are the five stages of grief?
Grief is an individualistic experience. Photo credit: Unsplash
Denial. It cannot be happening to me.
Anger. Why me? What did I even do wrong?
Bargaining. If you heal my loved one, I will do my best to cherish them.
Depression. My life is crumbling. How can I go on?
Acceptance. I have now accepted my loss.
Over the years, there were several schools of thought that disagreed and criticized Ross’ findings too. Ross, herself agreed that not everyone who goes through grief may experience these stages in sequential order. Many may even cope with grief without going through any of these stages.
So, don’t feel pressured to feel a certain way. Remember, grief is not a phase. It is a journey.
Don’t compartmentalize grief
Grieving is a very individualistic experience. We cannot fit it into categories. There is no right way to grieve. It is deeply personal and differs based on your unique self, coping mechanisms, life experiences, and the kind of loss.
It doesn’t happen overnight either. Grieving and healing take their own time and you can’t hurry it up. While some people take days, others take months, and some even take years. All you need is patience. Trust the strength of your mind and body to fully process it and allow you to naturally recover.
In the early days, people would take their own time to grieve, take a break from work and then gradually resume their normal lives once they felt centred. However today, most of us don’t embrace this process fully. We place so much pressure on ourselves to get back to our daily routines in no time that we do not allow our bodies to process the emotions and pain associated with a loss of a loved one.
There are several myths that we would like to burst when it comes to grieving. People may say, “Try not to think about it. Ignorance is bliss.” Only it isn’t. Forcing yourself to ignore the raging pain you feel by drowning out the noise, emotional bingeing, drinking, or resorting to recreational drugs will only let you escape temporarily. And then when the deep-seated pain resurfaces at the most unsuspicious moments, it can lead to a mental breakdown. To heal, we need to acknowledge the grief we feel and take small steps to face it every day.
You don’t have to put on a brave facade when faced with loss. Losing someone is already burdensome. Don’t add to it by hiding your true feelings just because others around you ask you to be strong and protect your family. It is okay to feel sad, scared, or even angry. Crying isn’t a sign of weakness. If anything, a good cry can be cathartic. It releases your stress, allows you to relax, alleviates pain and hurt, allows you to sleep better and balance your emotions. Read more about the benefits of a good cry here.
You may also come across people who may call you cold if you don’t cry. At times like these, remember not crying doesn’t mean you don’t feel the loss. You are UNIQUE. Nothing can take away the fact that you feel deeply. The way you are trying to cope with it or fill the void can be different. Don’t let anybody shame you for that.
Redefine what moving on is. Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting about your loss. It only means that you have reached the stage of acceptance. The person you love may have gone, but their memories will linger. They will remain a part of you, wherever you are, and in whatever you do.
What are the symptoms of grief?
Grief manifests itself through different emotions. Some of these include:
If the death was unexpected or sudden, you may be in a state of disbelief. It can be tumultuous to process what has happened, let alone accept it. The feeling of numbness, denial or false hope that they will return home is common.
Emotional instability and profound sadness
The feeling that you may be losing your mind, deep aching sadness, emptiness, despair, loneliness, or a sense of longing are natural responses, too. You may either find yourself unable to either stop your tears or not cry at all.
It is only human to backtrack to your last conversation with the lost ones. Fights, arguments, or deeply hurtful words you may have exchanged, can add to the pain. Feeling that you left things unsaid or didn’t do enough to save them, even if it was outside your control, can also add to the guilt. Long-term caregivers often grapple with the guilt of feeling relieved when a loved one dies after a long illness, too.
You may feel enraged. You may question your faith or belief. You may feel angry at yourself, your immediate family, or the hospital, blaming them for not doing enough. You may even get angry at the deceased because you think they abandoned you.
Losing someone can cause tremendous fear too. If you’ve lost your spouse, for instance, you may feel anxious about the future. The insecurity of navigating life without them, taking over the responsibilities they left behind, or fear of your own death can be dreading.
To say that grief only takes an emotional toll is misleading. Many times, it can affect your health and manifest itself through physical symptoms too. Remember, your emotions may not be the root cause of disease, but they affect your body and deteriorate any existing health condition. Read more about it here. Some of these physical symptoms include:
- Dampened immunity
- Overeating or undereating
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Constant fatigue
- Physical aches
The big question is how to navigate grief? What kind of support do you need to cope with grief? Since grief can be both emotionally and physically draining, looking after your overall wellbeing is crucial.
Acknowledge your grief.
Bottling up your grief can do more harm than good. Don’t avoid what you are feeling. Unresolved grief can push you on a downward spiral and result in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.
Don’t isolate yourself.
It is okay to take all the time you need. Your pain may push you to isolate yourself, withdraw from your friends and family, and shut the world out. But leaning on those who care can go a long way in helping you heal. Seeking comfort can be a tad more difficult if you have always been the strong pillar that others rely on. But accepting assistance from your friends and loved ones doesn’t make you weak. It makes you stronger.
Vocalize your needs.
Do you need to cry? Do you need someone to wash your hair? Do you need someone to hold your hand or embrace you in a long hug? Or do you want to hang out to distract yourself? Say it out loud.
Speak about your loss, if needed.
You don’t have to bring your loss up in every conversation, but just being around those who are capable of bringing comfort will make the burden a little more bearable.
Know that people around you are unaware and scared too.
They may not know what to say or do to comfort you, especially if they haven’t faced a similar loss. And sometimes, they may say the wrong things. Don’t detach from them completely. Their actions or words may have been misconstrued. Perhaps, their heart was in the right place.
Seek comfort in prayer.
If your faith, rituals, spiritual practice, or religion bring refuge, engage in them. If your grief has made you question your beliefs, speak to your trusted religious head, spiritual guru, or community to trace your steps back to it.
Rekindle your hobbies.
Finding it difficult to speak to anyone about your emotions? Express them creatively. Write them down, paint, sing, dance, or volunteer for a cause. Engage in your hobbies. Do things that make you happy.
Take care of your health.
Your emotions and physical health are deeply connected. Eat right, stay hydrated, exercise, sleep deep, and avoid resorting to alcohol or drugs to deal with your grief.
Birthdays or anniversaries can bring up painful memories. Find your safe space. Spend time around those you love to get through those days.
Join a support group or sangha
You may feel lonely even when surrounded by loved ones. When you feel that others around you are moving on, yet your life has come to a screeching halt, know that you are not alone. There are many others around the globe struggling to cope with similar losses. Sharing your sorrow with them can help. Join a bereavement support group.
Seek professional help, if needed.
Speaking to a grief counseling expert when everything becomes too overwhelming can help. They will listen to you, assess your situation, and help you manage intense emotions.
Sort their belongings out.
For many of us, grief may intensify as we continue to live with the belongings of our deceased loved ones scattered around the home. These are fading traces of them being there – clothes in the wardrobe, abandoned pair of shoes, journals, gadgets, photographs, and so much more. Whenever you decide it is a good time, try to sort these belongings. Do it with a trusted individual. Create piles of things to keep, donate, or discard.
Avoid immediate life changes.
Allow yourself enough time to adjust and accept your loss before making a big life change, whether it is moving, remarrying, planning another child, so on.
How to help others grieve?
- Encourage them to speak. Don’t share your two cents unless asked for it. Just lend a non-judgmental listening ear. Listen to their memories of the lost loved ones and reassure them whenever they need it.
- Avoid offering false comfort. Don’t ask them to be strong or say stuff like, “Maybe it was their time to go. Or that you’ll get over your pain.” It is insensitive to add to their burden.
- Actions are louder than words. Help them practically. Bring a home-cooked meal, spend time with them, babysit their toddlers if they need help, or run errands when required.
- Encourage them to seek help if you see them struggling with too much pain, unable to cope alone.
- If you are helping a child grieve, especially if they have lost a parent, offer comfort and make them feel protected. If they are confused and distraught about sudden changes, figure out a way to broach the topic sensitively. Keep the surviving parent or a professional in the loop.
- If you are a parent helping your child grieve after the loss of your spouse, try to control your anger. Instead of adding to the child’s anxiety or confusion, speak to them about the death and the deceased. Help your child process and manage their feelings.
Celebrating their lives and memories
There is a profound life lesson that we learned from one of our patients. In his early 60s, the gentleman spoke to us about one of the most impactful events in his life. The death of his 25-year-old son. Yet, when we engaged with him, he seemed genuinely positive. When asked how he navigated through what one could possibly call the biggest loss for any parent, he said something that stayed with us.
“I grieved him. But as I was on that journey I moved on to focusing on not what I had lost, but the 25 beautiful years I had spent with my son. It’s been 15 years, and still, there are days when I look at his picture and miss him. But I keep reminding myself of the happiest memories that we spent together. And that’s what keeps me going.”
This reminded us of one of the biggest life lessons. Life is uncertain and fragile. When we lose someone, we tend to focus on the loss so much that we don’t celebrate their lives the way they deserved it. Our time is finite. So instead of wasting time on heated arguments, paybacks, anger, unforgiveness, and resentment that don’t serve us, let’s use our time to tell our loved ones how much we love them and prove it through our actions. For those who are gone but never forgotten, let the lives they lived and memories they made continue to be our source of joy.
Here’s wishing you strength, peace, and an abundant life always.
Also Read: The Simplicity of Death
– Luke Coutinho
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