“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”Vicki Harrison
Last week, I had conversations with two men who were struggling with grief from recent losses they had experienced. One of the gentlemen had lost his promising young adult son in a harrowing car accident two months ago, and the other had just gone through a divorce. Despite the differences in their personal situations, age and background, both were grieving and struggling to cope with the painful and overwhelming emotions associated with their losses. These conversations reminded me of my own most painful experience in dealing with loss and prompted me to do some research on how to best cope with grief and loss.
I know from other people in my circles that these men are not alone. Over the last 2 years, many people have dealt with loss in some area of their personal or professional lives. Some of have lost friends, coworkers, neighbors and loved ones to the COVID-19 pandemic or were unable to be with a loved one when they died or to mourn the death in person with friends and family. Other kinds of loss that people have suffered from include a big move, illness, divorce, loss of employment, reduction in earnings, and even a loss of normalcy in their everyday routines and lifestyles due to drastic changes associated with the pandemic. But regardless of the type of loss experienced, grief is a part of life and a natural response that everyone has to loss.
Though everyone deals with or processes grief differently, some of the common responses to loss include but are not limited to:
- Anger and resentment
- Strong feelings of sadness or depression
- Loss of sleep and appetite
- Shock, disbelief, and denial
- Decline in mental health and overall well- being.
It is also important to note that there is so set time for grieving a loss. Grief like happiness is a universal emotion and people go through the process of grieving at their own rate and pace. Notwithstanding, understanding the grieving process will help you to cope with your own feelings when you experience a loss or help you show empathy and support to a friend or loved one who might be grieving. Additionally, it important to remember that you cannot measure another person’s grief or judge how they express their grief. Even with two people dealing with the same loss, you might find that one person is able to bounce back quickly, while the road to recovery might be longer and more challenging for the other person. Grief can be a singular and deeply personal matter. So, if anything, be patient and kind and do not judge.
Stages of the Grieving Process
As you can imagine, grieving a loss of any kind can be challenging in normal times and becomes even more so during the holiday season. For people grieving, holidays, anniversaries, and other key milestones can present painful reminders of loved ones lost or the drastic changes in life as they knew it. And this can make it even harder for people who are suffering to move through the different stages of the grieving process.
So, what does the grieving process involve?
According to WebMD, the grieving process includes five stages as follows:
- Denial: When you first learn of a loss, it’s normal to think, “This isn’t happening.” You may feel shocked or numb. This is a temporary way to deal with the rush of overwhelming emotion. It’s a defense mechanism.
- Anger: As reality sets in, you’re faced with the pain of your loss. You may feel frustrated and helpless. These feelings later turn into anger. You might direct it toward other people, a higher power, or life in general. To be angry with a loved one who died and left you alone is natural, too.
- Bargaining: During this stage, you dwell on what you could’ve done to prevent the loss. Common thoughts are “If only…” and “What if…” You may also try to strike a deal with a higher power.
- Depression: Sadness sets in as you begin to understand the loss and its effect on your life. Signs of depression include crying, sleep issues, and a decreased appetite. You may feel overwhelmed, regretful, and lonely.
- Acceptance: In this final stage of grief, you accept the reality of your loss. It can’t be changed. Although you still feel sad, you’re able to start moving forward with your life.
Having established the different stages of the grieving process, it is important to recognize that each individual moves through the different stages at their own pace and might go back and forth between the stages or skip a stage altogether. And when people who are grieving are triggered by events or something, they might experience feelings of loss all over again.
Tips for Coping with Grief and Loss
I’ll be the first to admit that I am not an expert in dealing with grief. My most significant loss occurred when I lost my guardian around age 16. I can still remember feeling a loss of security and a sense of regret for words of love not spoken often enough. I also felt immense guilt for choosing to skip a hospital visit to finish a school assignment the night before she passed, because I had planned to go see her the next day. And I can still remember how drastically life changed after she passed as the family struggled to maintain order and stability. Christmases were never the same thereafter and for a long time I found it difficult to celebrate Christmas or even to be around friends who were celebrating with their own families. But overtime, I was able to make peace with my loss, move pass the regrets and start to find joy in celebrating Christmas again.
People who fail to process their loss and grieve sometimes disconnect and become numb to their pain. However, this approach to internalizing pain and walking around as if things are normal is unhealthy and can undermine one’s ability to live a positive and healthy life. So here are 5 tips from the experts at Memorial Sloan Kettering Center to remember about coping with grief:
1. It won’t feel like this forever: MSK bereavement counselor Kimarie Knowles likens grief to waves cresting and then crashing at the shore. “Part of what people find helpful is riding the wave,” she says. “Understand it’s coming up, try to find support, take care of yourself, and allow it to go.”
2. You can handle it, even when you feel like you can’t: It’s human nature to want to avoid painful experiences. When we lose someone important to us, we may feel like we won’t be able to cope with the pain of grief. But “we only learn about our capacity to handle things by moving through them,” says Wendy Lichtenthal, Director of MSK’s Bereavement Clinic. When we try to stifle or avoid our feelings, they can come on that much stronger when something triggers them, she says. Making space to experience painful emotions allows us to practice our resilience and grow our own internal resources.
3. Be gentle with yourself: “Grief is exhausting,” says Reverend Jill Bowden. She suggests caring for your body during periods of intensive stress. Carve out time for naps, eat nourishing foods, and drink plenty of water. Alcohol and sugar may seem like quick fixes, but they can actually have the opposite effect.
5. Your feelings are normal: “The pain of grief itself is hard enough to tolerate,” says Ms. Knowles. “What can make it more challenging is when you or other people around you tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.” Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel: anger, sadness, even relief. The emotions that accompany grief are all valid, adds Dr. Lichtenthal. “Everyone comes to their loss experience with their own story, their own unique context and meaning,” Dr. Lichtenthal says. “Whatever they are feeling at a given moment, it always makes sense.”
In closing, if you or someone you know is grieving a loss, just know that time heals. Be kind and patient with yourself and others. You don’t need to know the right words to say, being silent is okay. Just be present or what the person needs in that moment.
Until next time, Remember ItsALearningLife!