Coping with Grief and Loss - Understanding the Grieving Process

Losing someone you love is never easy and is one of the most painful things you will ever go through in your life. When feeling this way it can seem like it will never let up and you will feel this sadness forever, yet it's important to remember this is a normal reaction to a significant loss in your life. While there isn't a right or wrong way to grieve, there are things you can do to help cope with the pain and in time, allow yourself to fully grieve and move on.

What is grief?

Grief is a natural response to losing something dear to you. Put simply, it is the emotional suffering that you feel, whether this is sadness, fear or anger, they are all natural emotions when you lose someone close to you. The more significant the loss is, the more intense the grief will feel.

Everyone grieves in a different way. It's important to remember that grieving is highly personal and differs between everyone. Don't compare how you are reacting to feelings of grief compared to someone else as you can have an entirely different reaction. The way you deal with a loss can depend on a multitude of things such as your life experience, your coping style, your personality, your faith and the nature of the loss. Healing happens gradually and there is no set timetable for when you should feel what. Be patient with yourself and let it happen naturally.

What are the different stages of grief?

There are five main stages of grief as penned by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. These are:

  • Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
  • Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
  • Bargaining:  “Make this not happen, and in return, I will ____.”
  • Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
  • Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”

Each of these stages are completely normal and you might go through all or just some of them during your journey of grieving. Some people might even resolve their grief without going through any stages, as stated above it is completely different for everyone and what happens to some person won't necessarily happen to you. These stages weren't put forward by Kübler-Ross to be a rigid framework. In the last book she wrote before she died in 2004, she said: "They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”

What are the common symptoms of grief?

Loss can affect us all differently, but there are some common symptoms of grief that you might experience. Remember that any feelings are completely normally following a loss. Some of the most common symptoms include shock and disbelief, sadness, guilt, anger and fear. As well as these psychological symptoms and feelings, you might also have physical symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight changes, aches, pains and insomnia.

How to cope with grief

Step 1 - Find support

The first thing you need to help you cope with grief is support. There are many places you can turn to for this and even if you aren't normally one for speaking about your feelings, it's important you don't grieve alone. Sharing your loss can help to ease the burden and allow you to heal. Types of support can include:

- Talking to your friends and family
- Turning to your faith to help guide you
- Joining a support group
- Talking to a therapist or grief counsellor

You can try them all or just one or two if you prefer, just find a way that helps you to cope as best as possible.

Step 2 - Take care of yourself

When you are grieving you can feel like giving up and forget to take care of yourself. It's more important than ever to look after your emotional and physical needs in order to get you through this hard time in your life.  To do this, you can try:

Facing your feelings - While this might be difficult to do, facing and acknowledging how you are feeling can help you to head. If you try to avoid any feelings of sadness and loss, you could end up prolonging your grieving process and also be more susceptible to depression, anxiety and health problems.

Express your feelings in a healthy way - There are many ways you can healthily express your feelings. This could be writing in a journal, writing a letter to your loved one of things you never got to say or joining a charity or organisation that was important to them.

Look after your physical health - Your physical health is just as important as your mental health and the two are connected more than you might expect. If you take care of yourself physically through things such as taking regular walks, getting enough sleep and eating well, you will feel much better emotionally. Avoid things such as drugs or alcohol to numb your pain as these will make it much worse in the long run.

Plan ahead for grief "triggers' ' - There will be times in the year that the grief will feel particularly painful. This includes anniversaries, holidays, birthdays and other special days that hold significance for the loved one you've lost. Be prepared for this and try to remember them in a positive way on the day. Why not get together with other friends and family members where you can all reminisce together and help support each other?

What if the grief doesn’t go away?

As time passes, you will still feel sad, angry and numb but this should be less intense as you work to process the grief and heal. If your grief gets worse rather than better it could be that your grief has developed into depression or complicated grief and you might need to see a professional to get some help.

Contact a grief counsellor or professional therapist if you:

  • Feel like life isn’t worth living anymore
  • Wish you had passed away when your loved one did
  • Feel guilty or to blame for failing to prevent the loss of your loved one
  • Feel disconnected and numb from others for more than a few weeks
  • Have difficulty letting other people in or trusting them since the loss
  • No longer find joy in your usual hobbies or activities