If you have experienced the death of a loved one, the unexpected ending of a relationship or other devastating life change, you know all too intimately how difficult and personal the grief that results can be. You may feel overwhelmed and even wonder if brighter days will ever be in your future again. Though it can be hard to believe, particularly when you’re in the midst of it, grief is a natural process that has a purpose—a necessary part of coping that will, eventually, help you move forward.
Reacting to Grief
It is important to remember that even though others around you may have gone through a like situation or may actually be affected by the same circumstances as you, grieving is an individual journey—one that can’t be hurried along or expected to mirror another’s path. That said, grief often brings with it some similar experiences:
- Uncomfortable feelings. Sadness, anger, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness and numbness are emotions that could arise. Though some may seem like opposites, it’s not uncommon to feel several simultaneously, which can be confounding. You might even feel guilty if you, for example, have a sense of relief when someone dies after a long, difficult illness.
- Physical sensations. We mostly think of grief as an emotional process, but it often involves physical symptoms, such as hollowness in your stomach, tightness in your chest or throat, over-sensitivity to noise, muscle weakness and fatigue, nausea or lack of energy. While these ailments can be worrisome and may prompt a visit to your doctor, they will most likely pass after you’ve had some time to emotionally heal.
- Changes in cognition or thought patterns. Coping with loss can cause your stress levels to rise, which can lead to disbelief, confusion, preoccupation, hallucinations or despair.
- Behavioral changes. These can include disrupted sleep, changes in eating patterns, absent-mindedness and social withdrawal. Bouts of crying, a loss of concentration at work, even talking to someone who’s died are not uncommon.
Dealing with Grief
You may start to feel better in a matter of weeks or months, or it may take years to recover from the emptiness and pain. Whatever your experience with grief, be patient with yourself and allow the process—and the healing—to naturally unfold.
These suggestions may help you cope with your loss and slowly begin to move on:
- Acknowledge your pain. Though it can be difficult, accepting the pain you're feeling is part of dealing with grief. Though we wish there were, there’s no fast-forward button to speed you through the process, but coming to terms with the discomfort is a first step in moving toward healing. “This feeling, this grief is part of being human,” says Ann Pardo, M.A., L.P.C., B.C.C, director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “We love and, because of that, we also grieve when what we love is lost.”
- Actively grieve and mourn. Grief is an inner sense of loss, sadness and emptiness, and mourning is how you express those feelings. You might plan a funeral or other commemorating memorial service. Or, you might choose to keep a memory journal, make a scrapbook, or collect mementos to keep in a special place. Releasing your emotions through actions such as these, as well as through things like exercise and meditation, can prevent you from making unhealthy or harmful choices that can come with bottled-up feelings.
- Turn to loved ones for support. Spending some time alone can be helpful—and is sometimes needed—but isolating yourself for an extended amount of time isn't a healthy way to deal with grief. Whether it’s a friend, confidant, family member or spiritual leader, talking to or spending time with someone dear to you can help. “Talking about what has been lost is a great way to let the memory live on, to resolve the edges of yearning that really cause the pain and to understand that others do understand,” says Pardo. “Staying connected is a very helpful tool.” Allow them to share in your sorrow or simply be there when you cry.
- Avoid making major changes. Grief clouds your ability to think clearly. If possible, postpone big decisions, such as moving, quitting a job or making major financial changes. If you must settle a situation right away, seek the input or guidance of those you trust.
- Take care of yourself. The mind and body are connected, so making sure you’re physically well can also help you feel better emotionally. Eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep and exercising are important during this time. Consider making an appointment with your doctor to make sure your grief isn't adversely affecting your health, especially if you have any preexisting conditions.
- Expect a “new normal.” Though it’s different for everyone, the first year may be your most difficult period after experiencing loss. But as time passes, the pain will begin to lessen—though, for some, never completely disappears—and you’ll continue on and, eventually, find a place of happiness again. Accepting and embracing this “new normal" might help you reconcile your losses and may even stimulate new insights and awareness.
- Expect a few triggers. While grieving is just a stage, there will be moments and occasions, such as anniversaries and holidays, when those feelings of sadness and loss may resurface. Accepting that these moments will come and go, instead of trying to avoid them, will help you weather them. If possible, surrounding yourself with close friends and family during these occasions may ease the pain. If you’re grieving a lost loved one, even acknowledging him or her can help; maybe you raise a glass for a toast or hang that person’s favorite ornament on the Christmas tree.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you don’t feel better after some time, or you’re feeling worse, it may be a sign that your sadness has developed into a more serious problem, possibly depression. If you have symptoms, such as acute weight gain or loss, chronic insomnia, suicidal thoughts of any kind, or lack of energy for daily tasks, you may need to seek professional treatment. Counseling, medication or support groups are options you may want to discuss with your doctor.