Mourning the loss of a loved one is a difficult process that involves a variety of emotions, including anger, depression, guilt, fear, and isolation. It’s understandable why so many people have a hard time processing grief and finding peace. Learn more about the psychology of grief and healthy coping mechanisms that might help you during this difficult time.
Grief Doesn’t Always Come in Stages
Most people associate grief with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief. According to Dr. Kübler-Ross, people handle grief through a sequence of emotions:
- Shock and denial
- Anger, resentment, guilt
Many people find comfort in this type of staging because it suggests a clear trajectory to the grieving process.
However, more recent research suggests that people’s responses vary depending on their circumstances, cultural background, and other factors. For example, the loss of a child or a sudden, traumatic death is sometimes more difficult to process than the loss of an aging parent or grandparent. And the grind of chronic illness offers its own challenges. Instead of clearly-defined stages of grief, people actually process multiple tasks, such as accepting the loss and adjusting to new realities simultaneously.
While you’re processing your loss, don’t worry if your anger, shock, depression, and other emotions overlap. This is a natural part of grief. However, you can take some steps to help manage your feelings.
Express Your Emotions
Keeping your pain, fear, and anger bottled up won’t help you cope with loss. Your feelings are a valid response during a difficult time. Suppressing or masking your emotions can lead to additional problems. When stress builds up in our bodies, we begin to experience physical responses, such as severe headaches, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, appetite and sleep disruption, and increased pain.
Instead, acknowledge your feelings and build a support network. You might attend support group meetings and spend time with friends and family that respect your grief and value your wellness. Have a good cry when you need one. You might also benefit from integrative health services that tend to your mind, body, and spirit after a loss.
Give Yourself Time
The human spirit is resilient, but grief doesn’t follow a schedule. Unfortunately, society expects people to meet certain cultural norms when it comes to grief. You might feel pressure from people to “get over” your loss and move on. Understand that your experience is unique, and you don’t have to meet someone else’s expectations when it comes to coping with loss.
The Value of Rituals
While many people associate mourning rituals with religion, a ritual is any symbolic activity performed in response to a meaningful event (such as loss). Besides funerals and other public traditional rituals, you might find solace in more personal ways. For example, you might take over a well-loved tradition, like a hosting a Sunday family dinner. In one study, a participant related that after her spouse died, she washed his car every week (just as he had). Studies suggest that both public and private rituals give participants a sense of control and peace during a chaotic time. This can help you decrease the intensity of your grief.
You Don’t Have to “Let Go”
The expectation that relationships and emotional connections end at death is unrealistic. Life is for the living, but you don’t have to completely sever your emotional connection to deceased loved ones. Instead, find healthy ways to retain a connection, such as celebrating their lives and reliving happy memories, building an internal dialogue with them, or participating in activities that crystalize their memory.
That said, holding onto a relationship with deceased loved one shouldn’t take over the rest of your life. Complicated grief (where your grief takes over, damages your personal relationships and belief systems, and creates a sense of meaninglessness) is a serious medical condition. Referred to in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 as persistent complex bereavement disorder, this type of overwhelming grief almost always requires mental health treatment.
Tend to Your General Health and Wellness
Grief, depression, and anxiety can impact your physical health. You might experience increased fatigue, pain, and other symptoms during a period of acute grief. Unfortunately, many grief-stricken people turn to drugs and alcohol to numb this pain. Instead of relying on distraction, keep in contact with your primary care physician to help you cope. Your doctor can help you manage your pain and grief and help you avoid falling into a pattern of substance abuse.
Additionally, physical activity, a healthy diet, and self-care can help you heal. Nourishing your body will give you the energy to tend to your spirit.
Canopy Health Supports Our Members at Every Life Stage
There are many resources for people coping with grief. Canopy Health’s alliance of hospitals, physicians, and care centers offers a wide variety of support groups, clinical services, integrative health options, and other resources. In addition, our carrier partners offer behavioral health services that could prove helpful for Canopy Health members struggling with loss and grief.
- Health Net: Managed Health Network
- UnitedHealthcare: Optum
Esfahani Smith, E. (2014, March 14). In grief, try personal rituals. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/in-grief-try-personal-rituals/284397/
Hall, C. (2011, December). Beyond Kübler-Ross: recent developments in our understanding of grief and bereavement. InPsych. Retrieved from https://www.psychology.org.au/for-members/publications/inpsych/2011/dec/Beyond-Kubler-Ross-Recent-developments-in-our-und
Kersting, Karen (2004, November). A new approach to complicated grief. Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov04/grief.aspx