Coping with loss: Tips for yourself and others

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Loss is an inevitable part of life and coping with it is always a painful. At times, it can be an excruciating experience. However, with the help of ourselves, family and friends, we can learn to cope more effectively.

Towards healing:
Grief and mourning

Grief is how we express our response to loss. It is the personal emotional, physical and spiritual process we go through to heal pain. The causes of grief differ and may include from the loss of a spouse through divorce or the loss of a physical or intellectual ability.

The most profound grief of all is caused by the death of a loved one. This event leads to many different emotions that are both common and healthy: shock, disbelief, denial, anger, relief, hurt, despair, guilt, sadness, yearning, humiliation and confusion. It doesn’t matter if the loss is expected or unexpected; it takes a toll on our physical, emotional and spiritual health. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler state in their book On Grief and Grieving, “Grief always works.” It is when we don’t allow ourselves to grieve that we experience ill effects.

It may seem difficult to understand how allowing ourselves to experience the intense and unpleasant feelings of loss will ever help us heal. However, unless we allow ourselves and those around us to feel and experience the emotions, we may never fully complete the healing process. Successful grieving is what helps us re-establish our life. We never “get over” the loss of a loved one, but we can learn how to live with it and move forward with our lives.

Learning and understanding

Knowing what to do and how to react is not a natural ability. We need to learn the process just as we needed to learn to walk. Thinking back on your first experiences with loss as a child—whether it was a pet that died or perhaps a relative—you may gain some insight as to what you were taught about coping. Perhaps their passing was kept a “secret,” or you were told to “be strong” or that “life goes on.” The intent may have been to protect you from pain, but what you actually learned was how to avoid the whole subject. Although avoidance may work in the short-term, it never helps us to cope in the long run.

Strategies for coping

Coping with loss is not a simple process. As we grieve we also are missing the person and the void left in our life. Perhaps it is also the loss of a lifetime of shared memories and the hope for a future together. A bereavement can often lead to the resurfacing of old issues. While this may feel overwhelming, it is very common and provides another opportunity for us to find new ways to heal ourselves and complete the grieving process.

Helping you cope with loss

It can be difficult to think about how to help yourself at times like this. However, the following strategies are suggested by experts:

Know you will survive

Knowing that you will get past the overwhelming and excruciating pain of this situation is the first step. Once you begin to believe that you will manage, you will then be moving yourself forward.

Acknowledgement

The idea of simply recognizing that you need time and space to effectively grieve sounds like an easy step. In order to succeed with this strategy, however, you must first accept the need for the mourning process. Start by giving yourself permission to feel what you are feeling. If you feel sad and teary-eyed, allow yourself to cry. If you feel angry, let yourself shout out your anger. Experiencing and expressing your emotions are the first steps.

Put yourself first

It is important that you put your own needs first. Those around you may try to help by inviting you to social events because they think you shouldn’t be alone. What you are going through takes energy, and if attending a social event would deplete your energy then you need to feel good about politely declining.

Write in a journal

Writing in a journal is an excellent way to help externalize and release your thoughts and feelings in a private place. You have control over both what and when you write. Your entries may be as short as one word that describes a thought or feeling. You may decide that you want to write a letter to your loved one or write something about all the wonderful memories you shared. The act of writing can provide a source of comfort.

Create memories

Consider making a collage of favourite photographs and displaying souvenirs collected over your lifetime. Placing different photos of your loved one around your home can help foster positive memories.

Honour your loved one

Honouring your loved one can take many forms. Consider naming charities or children after the deceased individual. You can also honour your loved one personally every day by choosing to emulate one of his or her attributes that you most admired. If your loved one was especially outgoing and you admired that quality, you may choose to honour him or her by pushing yourself to attend social activities that you would have otherwise declined. This not only keeps your memories alive but also contributes to the lives of those around you.

Permission to move on

Over time, you will be ready to resume old pastimes and engage in new interests. You will need to give yourself permission to move on with your life and begin to explore new interests and relationships. Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting your loved one—it simply represents another stage in the healing process.

Helping others cope with a loss

It is often very difficult and painful to watch a good friend or family member suffering. You may feel utterly helpless about knowing what to do and how to help. Here are some suggestions for helping those around you.

Be available

Letting the bereaved individual know you are there for them is one of the greatest gifts you can offer. You can communicate your sincerity by calling and offering to help, especially in those first few days when they may be too overwhelmed to call you.

Ask how you can help

Taking the initiative and asking how you can help opens the door. It is easier to respond to the direct question “What do you need right now?” than to the more general question “Is there anything I can do for you?” Asking on a regular basis gives your loved one a chance to reconsider if they’ve already refused.

Practical assistance

Offering to do simple things such as grocery shopping, running errands, helping out with funeral arrangements and answering the telephone in the first few days can be a great help. In the weeks that follow, if you cannot be available to assist then you might offer to arrange for a personal support worker from a homecare service agency to help out with household tasks and provide some companionship for a few hours a week.

Listen

Assuring the individual that healing takes time and will happen provides much needed comfort, especially in the first few days and weeks. Listen with care and compassion. Sometimes just having a candid conversation and demonstrating that you are comfortable discussing the deceased individual can encourage someone to talk about their feelings and memories.

Be patient

It is difficult to sit by and watch anyone you care about experience the pain of a loss, but pushing them through the process really won’t help in the long run. Your patience should provide the space the bereaved individual needs to support him or her through the grieving process.

Avoid unsolicited advice

Offering unsolicited advice as to how an individual can feel better or get through the grieving process more quickly may be perceived as a lack of understanding by the individual. It is natural to want to try to remove the pain of loss, but the death of a loved one is not something that can be easily or quickly fixed—it takes patience, caring and time.

Watch for warning signs

It is common for individuals to feel depressed and confused in the first few weeks after a significant loss. However, if over the next couple of months there isn’t progress or if your loved one becomes more withdrawn, begins to neglect his or her personal hygiene or isn’t sleeping at night, it may be a sign of something more serious. In situations like these, you can help by encouraging the person to seek professional support.

A learning process

Successfully coping with loss is a learning process. We all experience grief in our own personal way, but for the most part the process remains the same. Everyone needs the time, space and support to experience and express their own thoughts and feelings about the loss. It is the process of externalizing our thoughts and feelings that frees us from the pain of the loss and opens the door to a new life ahead.

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About Paula Price, RN, PhD

Paula Price, RN, PhD, is the Director of Client Services at Living Assistance Services. She plays a key role in ongoing efforts to recruit and retain the highest calibre of caregivers. To learn more about Living Assistance Services, visit www.laservices.ca or call 416-483-0070.

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