Coping with Grief and Loss

Without doubt, grief associated with a significant personal loss is one of life's most intense emotional experiences. The immediate impacts of our loss are often profound. Even the hardiest of folks may take considerable time to readjust. This article is intended to raise awareness of some of the important issues encountered by individuals who have experienced a significant loss. I hope that the article might help to comfort you and give you strength for the days ahead. It will also direct you to additional independent sources of information, support and healing. Although this article is concerned primarily with the specific situation of bereavement, individuals who have experienced different types of personal losses will gain useful insights from the ideas and strategies it contains. There is an increasing recognition that many facets of life may expose us to potential emotional loss. Bereavement exposes us to a form of grief which is especially severe. Other specific situations can however provoke a sense of grieving which requires both recognition and effective management. These iclude:

Grief is Personal

Grief has many dimensions and is extremely personal. Individual circumstances are always different. Different people have different coping strategies. There is no clearly defined and generally accepted way to grieve. There are additional levels of uniqueness when we experience a major personal loss. One consequence of this uniqueness is that many people have considerable difficulty communicating their feelings in a way that other individuals can understand. Frequently we feel a deep sense of emotional isolation. Expressing these complex and profound feelings often takes time and patience. There are several factors which contribute to the uniqueness of our personal experience of grief including:

In the specific case of bereavement, there are other aspects relating to the circumstances of our personal loss. Coping with some particular situations is especially difficult. There is general acceptance that personal losses involving suicide, mysterious or violent events, death of a child, death of a spouse or multiple deaths are especially problematic. Another situation that is both common and difficult to accept is an unexplained disappearance. All of the individuals exposed to these particular situations have highly specific needs which must be recognised and managed effectively.

The Effects of Grief

The profound emotional impact of grief can last for a considerable time. The first six months is especially difficult for most individuals. Emotions are complex and intense. It is not uncommon to experience unfamiliar emotions including shock, sorrow, disbelief vulnerability, anger or even guilt. Often people are quite unprepared for the experience and may react in an unpredictable fashion. Typically, grief resolution is a process which occurs in a gradual fashion. We have already seen that the experience of grief is a highly personal journey. The resolution process is also highly personal and depends on personal circumstances, availability of support and individual coping strategies. There is no right or wrong way to resolve our private hurt. As grief resolves, there is a gradual acceptance and readjustment. We start to compensate for the loss and the pain slowly fades. There is also a progressive return to more normal activities.

Resolution of our grief is sometimes more difficult and may require the help of health professionals or counselors. There are particular situations where expert help is strongly advised. Some of those specific situations might include the following.

Never suffer in silence. People genuinely want to help and support you on your journey of healing. You must have the courage to take the first step and ask for help if coping is difficult. Asking for help is never a sign of weakness or failure. Seeking assistance is a sign of commonsense and logical thinking.

Healing and Rebuilding after a Personal Loss

How can anyone possibly begin to pick up the pieces after a significant personal loss? Where might you start to find comfort and strength? It is never easy to rebuild and often requires considerable courage. There are however many positive actions that do make a real difference. Legitimate feelings need to be expressed and managed. Fears need to be calmed. Let us look at some practical considerations which are relevant and important in the resolution of grief.

Healing takes time

We must be realistic in our expectations. Fully overcoming grief normally takes months or even years. Do not expect too much too soon. Understand that the healing process is a gradual one which requires patience. It never happens overnight but it does happen. Releasing deeply felt emotions is a complex process. It is important that you maintain a steady commitment to healing. Hang in there!

Solve practical problems

Ongoing practical problems increase our distress and provide constant reminders of our suffering. Addressing important practical concerns provides a sense of achievement and helps us rebuild. Matters such as financial arrangements and coping with domestic responsibilities are key concerns. Help and specialised advice may be useful. Do not be reluctant to ask for assistance.

Explore your spiritual side

Confronted with a major personal loss many people ask "Why me?" Intense feelings and unanswered questions often prompt us to explore our spiritual side in the search for explanations. Do not be afraid to ask difficult questions. Most people gain comfort and considerable support from religious scholars of all faiths at this time of great need. These individuals often have considerable experience in similar situations. Exploring your spirituality may allow you to find comfort, understanding and a degree of acceptance of your loss.

Consider delegating some responsibility

Short-term delegation of some responsibility may provide a chance to reflect and grieve appropriately.   Important decisions are best made with a clear head and may need to be postponed for a short period until the dust settles. When you feel more comfortable, it is important to progressively resume normal responsibilities. In the longer term, the resumption of activities is consistent with healing and grief resolution.

Be aware of issues

Things do not always proceed smoothly. Significant events such as anniversaries provide ongoing reminders of our loss. Some individuals may be unaware of your loss and say inappropriate things. Remain patient. Particular locations may also remind you of specific events. Our reaction to events such as anniversaries needs to be anticipated. Where possible, there needs to be awareness of how much progress has been made on our healing journey.

Look after your physical health

Make a specific commitment to maintain your overall health. Many people develop illnesses when they experience personal loss. Make a point of visiting your doctor regularly and checking your health. Talk specifically about how you are feeling. If you are not coping, ask for help and referral. Take care with your diet and maintain an appropriate exercise program.

Do not indulge in excessive alcohol, drugs or gambling

The experience of grief or a major personal loss is a common trigger for addictions of all kinds. Never let this happen to you! Addictions never help. They provide no comfort and only add new problems. You deserve support, healing and comfort.

Maintain your self-esteem

Grief often provides a serious challenge to our self-esteem. We often feel vulnerable and uncertain about the future. Do not allow your self-worth to erode. Take specific steps to safeguard your self-esteem.

Eliminate negative emotions

Some emotions have an effect of increasing our suffering. When we experience a personal loss there is a temptation to experience intense emotions including rage and guilt. Many people seek to blame someone. Such feelings are entirely understandable. They provide no answers however and may prevent resolution of feelings of loss. Negative emotions must be acknowledged and managed appropriately.

Become involved with positive activities

When you feel ready, resume involvement with activities which make you feel good and contribute to personal growth. Do not be afraid to participate in new activities and learn new things. All of this assists the gradual process of acceptance and healing. It also maintains our self-esteem. Life will never be the same again. It can however still be rewarding and happy.

Build a support network

In many traditional societies there are strong social networks such as extended families that provide considerable support in times of great need. In some modern societies there is a tendency to feel isolated and alone. Grief resolution is greatly assisted by the availability of a support network. Where possible make a point of seeking the support of trusted friends and family members. Some of these individuals may have similar feelings and might appreciate the opportunity to talk things through. In certain situations there are specific support groups which exist. Seek them out.

Seek help when appropriate

Many people can offer meaningful practical assistance and emotional support. Expert grief counselors are available in many countries. Many doctors and health professional have developed excellent support skills. The field of grief and trauma support is rapidly expanding. Seeking help is a clear sign of your commitment to healing.

Disclose your feelings

Most people find that expressing their feelings aids the process of healing. It allows acknowledgment, rationalisation and acceptance. There are several ways of disclosing inner feelings. Talking is the most obvious way. Some individuals have discovered that writing their feelings down in a journal is quite helpful. In recent times, the web has also provided the opportunity to chat online. Do what's right for you.

Indulge a just a little

Simple pleasures frequently provide some relief from the intense sadness. They also reinforce our self-esteem. Punishing yourself does not help in any way. Do not be afraid to take some time out for reflection and the enjoyment of simple pleasures. See a favorite movie, visit an old friend have a massage or enjoy a nice meal. When did you last have a holiday? More than ever, you deserve to be spoilt a little!

Remember what you still have

Your loss may be considerable and painful. Some of the hurt may never fade completely. When things settle down you may however realise that many good things remain. Even in the case of bereavement, the deceased often leaves a powerful enduring legacy. Memories of happier times and achievements do not fade. In the midst of a personal crisis there is often considerable personal growth. Frequently, our personal relationships are reinforced. Often there is renewal and a chance for a new start.

Learn more

There is a great deal that has been published about the experience of grief and loss. Most libraries contain excellent books and resources on this important issue. As you learn more, your understanding of the events will significantly increase. Do not be afraid to seek understanding about the critical issues. You will find more about resources for coping with personal loss in the following section.

Where to Find Help

1. Local doctor
2. Religious figures
3. Psychologists and professions experienced in counseling
4. Telephone crisis services
5. Friends and family (especially older ones who have experienced loss before)
6. The Web (Considerable information and support is available in cyberspace. We regard
   this issue so critically important that we have devoted an entire category of our useful
   links to grief and loss services)
7. Books (Many excellent books are available on this issue. Try your local bookshop or
   library. If all else fails, visit an online book retailer and browse through their collection)


Irrespective of the specific nature of your personal loss, always remember that there are other people who care about you and genuinely wish to offer you love and support. Seek them out! We hope that you soon find comfort, strength and happier days.

By Andrew Rylatt (Medical Doctor)
7th March 2004

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