Grief and loss can be experienced as a result of many things, including death, (either of a person or a pet), a breakdown of a relationship, loss of a job, moving to a new suburb, state or country, diagnosis of a chronic or terminal illness and loss of dreams.
A person may experience intense feelings, which can feel all-encompassing, making it seem hard or even impossible to think about anything else. For some people, these overwhelming feelings or thoughts may be so difficult to sustain that they push them down or mask them, either all or some of the time.
You may experience an intensity of shifting levels of emotional pain in relation to the loss and grief, as though you are on a roller coaster ride of feelings and thoughts. Often, this emotional pain is also experienced as physical symptoms.
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Symptoms of Grief
Here are some of the symptoms you may experience when dealing with grief and loss:
- Extreme tiredness
- Heart palpitations
- Feeling like your heart is aching or literally breaking
- A sense of physical unreality
- Feeling distracted
- Finding it hard to follow conversations
- Stomach cramps
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Overall body tension
- Loss of appetite
- Sleeping for long periods of time
- Feeling very foggy
- Feeling like a lightbulb has been switched on in your head, making it difficult to relax or sleep
You may also experience loneliness and alienation from others and may feel yourself withdrawing and decreasing social contact during this time. It might seem like other people don’t understand or that there is a perceived pressure to move on or get back to how things were prior to the experience of loss and grief. This may leave you feeling angry, confused, resentful and withdrawn.
You might also experience feelings of guilt or regret or a yearning for a time passed when the grief didn’t exist. These conflicting and/or unexpected emotions and thoughts can be very confusing, so it is helpful to know that everyone grieves differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
How do you deal with grief?
Often, when we lose a loved one, we feel bereft of ways to cope, and because everyone grieves so differently, what might help one person may not help another. While there is no complete remedy for your loss, there are several things you can do that might ease your distress somewhat and help you navigate a way through your grief.
Below are a number of strategies. You might like to consider each strategy and engage in those that feel right for you, in your own time. You can even tick them off as you try them out.
Tip 1. Seek Help and Comfort from Others
Often, when consumed by grief, we turn away from the one thing that might help us most…other people. We might feel that no one understands us, that we have to do this on our own, or that we’re a burden to others. Perhaps we are wary of others’ grief stories making us feel worse, or as time passes, people no longer being interested in our enduring distress. While these are all valid concerns, the benefits of sharing our pain with others almost always override the drawbacks.
- Reach out to family, friends, workmates, community members etc., but permit yourself to retreat when you need to be alone.
- Take the initiative to reach out to new people who have experienced a similar loss – they might be from social groups, sporting clubs, church groups, in the workplace or internet forums. It’s a good idea to make a list of these groups to turn to when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
- Force yourself to be around people and do things – even when it feels too hard. Try to have at least one thing in your calendar every day, along with a back-up.
- Allow yourself to grieve in public – it’s perfectly ok to have a cry.
- Share your story of loss. Go ahead and tell anyone who will listen about your loved one and your relationship even if they don’t have the words to respond.
- Give and receive random acts of kindness and tell others how much you admire, respect or love them.
- Care for others where you can such as your children and elders or pets and animals.
- Engage in faith, religion or spirituality if that is part of your life.
- Seek help from organised, supportive bereavement services such as retreats, group therapy and online forums. You may find one specific to the cause of death, such as cancer or suicide groups, or the type of loss such as a spouse, child, or parent.
- Seek help from mental health professionals if needed, including counsellors or psychologists.
- Increase your awareness about grief – there are many educational, relateable and even inspiring books written by professionals or regular people with lived experience.
Tip 2. Take Care of Your Mental, Emotional and Physical Health
Sometimes our grief brings on confusing, surprising and often unfounded thoughts and feelings. We might feel that we don’t know who we are anymore, experience shame or guilt, even feel like we’re losing the will to live. As a result, we can stop looking after ourselves. But we often start to see things more clearly and move through these dark thoughts by taking care of our health.
- Adapt your old routines to the changes in your life. Establish new daily routines that ensure you have a healthy diet, good hygiene, adequate sleep, and are attending to your medical care.
- Strengthen your body by reconnecting to it through exercise and movement. This can be low intensity such as a gentle walk, yoga or tai chi or more vigorous such as returning to the gym, running, even dance…there are many ways to move your body.
- Forgive yourself if you are confused, distracted, make mistakes or have trouble remembering things – remember that your mind needs time to heal.
- Avoid excessive consumption of alcohol, prescription or illicit drugs, smoking and caffeine.
- Rather than avoiding life, engage in it. Occupy your time with meaningful activities such as work, hobbies, sports, arts and crafts.
- Allow yourself to pursue positive emotions and to feel compassion for yourself and others. Be open to love, happiness, laughter, gratitude and hope.
- Identify and name your feelings. Rather than avoiding them or fighting them, try to accept them and slowly they will become easier to manage.
- When you feel negative emotions try mood-regulating techniques such as mindfulness, slow breathing or prayer
- Give yourself permission to cry and give words to your distressing emotions. Work towards distinguishing grief from other feelings such as fear, uncertainty, guilt, shame and anger.
- Express your thoughts and feelings. You can use the written word such as journaling, poetry or letter writing, or other expressive ways such as painting, photography, scrapbooking, dance and music.
- Practice gratitude exercises. Remind yourself how grateful you are for the time spent with your lost one or how thankful you are for others’ love and support. It’s often helpful to tell them too.
- Create a safe and comforting space for yourself. This can be in real life or your imagination.
Tip 3. Continue the Bond with Your Loved One While Coming to Accept That They Have Gone
Sometimes, we stop ourselves from forming an enduring connection with our lost loved one because we fear what others will think of us or feel guilt, shame, humiliation or disgust. We may even feel anger or have thoughts of revenge. However, establishing a different form of connection with your loved one even though they have passed away has been shown to bring considerable relief.
Here are some tips for continuing the bond;
- When you are ready, you could visit your loved one’s grave or memorial site, hold a candlelight vigil, organise a public memorial or celebrate special occasions such as their birthday or your wedding anniversary.
- Commemorate them with an honouring space at home. This might be a small ‘shrine’ with candles and photos, a memory box, meditation space or photo-board. Whatever works for you. This is a place you can go to any time.
- Become involved in a cause that was important to your loved one. Perhaps you could further their mission or attain their charitable goal.
- Create a legacy in their name. This might be planting and nurturing a memorial tree, starting or maintaining their Facebook page, sponsoring a plaque on a park bench, starting a charity, scholarship or awareness campaign.
- Feel free to talk to your loved one and be open to signs from them.
- Write them letters. You can share your ups and downs, ask for advice, and seek forgiveness if you need it. Many people also answer as they think their loved one would, which can be very soothing and helpful.
- Come to accept that you will carry the grief and sadness with you from here on with different intensities, yet over time, it will become more manageable.
- Develop ways to recall positive memories. This might be through special stories, photos, songs, jokes or a meaningful possession. You might like to sip your morning coffee from their favourite coffee cup, wear a piece of their jewellery, swap your lenses into their reading glasses or take over the care of their beloved pet. Find something that brings fond memories.
- Actively reminisce and hold onto your relationship in your heart and mind.
- Find ways to support others who are grieving for loved ones like yourself.
Tip 4. Establish Safety and Build Self-empowerment
Our grief can consume us with thoughts that cause fear and avoidance and make us believe things will never get better or that we should never be happy again but there are ways to feel safe and strong again.
Here are some tips for feeling safe and in control;
- Know that there is no quick fix and that the process of grieving will take time and patience. Give yourself time to heal.
- Start to understand what triggers you and figure out ways to limit your exposure to these, whether it be certain people, places or things, until you can approach and process them in your own time. Say ‘no’ when you need to.
- Recognise important activities, places or things that you are avoiding and slowly reintroduce them if you can or, if they are impossible to overcome, allow yourself to omit them from your life for good. Remember to give yourself time before you make any big and lasting decisions.
- Identify your strengths and remind yourself of the challenges you have overcome before this. Change your self-image from a ‘victim’ to a ‘survivor’ and even a ‘thriver’.
- Note down coping strategies on post-it notes to turn to when you’re struggling. Stick them to high-use items such as your computer, steering wheel or fridge.
- Start a coping diary in which you rate each day between 1 and 10 according to how well you coped. Ask yourself what you can do to increase your score and work on increasing the number of good days compared to bad.
- Remember, you always have choices, no matter how hard things seem. Don’t settle by thinking “it is what it is”.
- Realise that your grief is a measure of the love you had for your loved one.
Avoid “time-sliding” into the past using these four steps;
- Ground yourself into the present by becoming aware of your surroundings,
- Change your self-talk. Tell yourself, “I am safe, and this will pass,”
- Regulate your physical reactions through slow-breathing,
- Turn to people’s faces, voices or touch or contact a friend for reassurance.
Tip 5. Gain a Better Understanding of Yourself and a Healthy Future Outlook
As people start to move through their grief, they might come up against misleading beliefs that stall or regress their healing. They may believe their recovery means they are dishonouring their loved one or that they are leaving them behind or even that their love is fading. However, by moving towards a better future, you are surely honouring your loved one’s hopes and dreams for you.
Here are some tips for gaining strength and moving forward;
- Start taking control of your future and set goals for yourself – short, mid and long-term. Find a sense of purpose and hope for a meaningful life.
- Re-establish a sense of identity. Even though your life has changed, the essence of you has not… consider your values and create action plans that align with these.
- Create purpose by keeping the memory of your loved one alive… transform your grief into meaning-making endeavours to ensure good comes out of the loss. This might be lobbying to change a law, holding a fundraiser, or simply telling their story to raise awareness. There are many different options.
- Allow your beliefs to comfort you and give you hope. You might believe that your loved one is looking down on you and keeping you safe until you are reunited, that they are no longer suffering and at peace, or perhaps that their legacy will live on and inspire others…these beliefs are integral to your enduring connection.
- Come to understand what has been helpful to you in your grief journey, that is unique to you and differs from others. Knowing your personal grief process can help you map out your further progress towards meaning, hope and growth.
Neimeyer, R. (2017). Techniques of grief therapy : assessment and intervention. Routledge.
How to support someone who is grieving
It is a natural and common experience to feel unsure, uncomfortable or overwhelmed about what to say when someone is grieving.
People want to say and do the right thing but are afraid of saying the wrong thing and causing greater distress. Others feel the need to come up with a solution for the grieving person which of course is impossible. Or perhaps they feel as if there is nothing they can do or say. They feel that they want to avoid the grieving person because it is so painful. They might think that they will catch up with them in a while when things are more settled however the longer there is no contact the harder it might be to reconnect with the person.
These are all very natural responses.
It is important to know that everyone grieves differently and expresses it in different ways and in different time frames. For example, one person may present as doing fine for the first couple of months following the experience of grief and loss and then unexpectedly become withdrawn and distressed. This can be a confusing reaction if you thought they were over the loss. Another person may initially respond with intense grief for several months and then appear fine until there is an anniversary or a meaningful time that reminds them of their grief or loss and makes it all quite raw again.
As a person supporting a person who is grieving, it is very common to feel:
- Focus on solutions
These feelings and thoughts are very common and natural responses to wanting to take away another person’s pain and not knowing how to do this.
Recognise these responses in yourself and know that the person you are supporting is also feeling overwhelmed and that you don’t need to come up with solutions or avoid speaking about the loss. Recognise that you can sit with your own feelings of discomfort, knowing that they will decrease with time.
Your natural fears and worries do not to have to get in the way of supporting someone. Being able to acknowledge a person’s loss and their grief does help.
Let the person know that you don’t know what to do or say but that you are there for them to listen and support them, and if they need your help with any practical tasks, you are more than happy to help.
Knowing that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, nor a timeline for the grief to run its course and, that there will be times when the person expresses extremes in emotions, should help you to understand more about the grieving process.
If the grieving person is wanting to talk about the situation that has led to their loss and grief you can discuss it with them but don’t push them to do so – they will in their own time.
Just checking in with them regularly, being there, listening and supporting them in ways that work for them will make a difference.