Dealing with loss of any kind is not easy, whether it is the death
of a loved one, a marriage ending in divorce or a home lost to a natural
disaster.Grief is a difficult and complex process because each of us experiences it differently.During my own time of grief, after the
sudden death of a family member, my six-year-old daughter remarked how sad it was but how happy she was that the relative was going to heaven. I thought about how much simpler the world would be if we could always view life through the eyes of a child. The feelings of injustice and shock that consume us following the death of a loved one would disappear. We would see the world as better, having shared life with someone so special. We would laugh as we remembered the good times and cry when we felt the pain of our loss. We would recall warm hugs and holidays together and draw pictures of times we shared.
We would be sad one moment and then go play the next, never feeling guilty for doing so. We wouldn’t blame ourselves for what we felt we should have said or done.If only we could always view the world this
But we aren’t children; as adults our thoughts are much deeper. We hurt, we grieve, we blame, we question. Although many of us go through similar stages in our grieving, such as anger and sorrow, we all experience loss in our own time and way. There is no right or wrong way to feel grief. And because we all experience pain differently,
it is impossible to say how and at what pace a person should mourn.
As a therapist, I receive calls frequently from individuals who have just
experienced a loss and are looking for “medication to make me stop hurting.” A quick fix can be much more appealing than the process of grieving. Although in many situations medication is warranted,
in most cases we need to feel pain to move through the loss. By allowing ourselves to feel, we reinforce the reality of our situation. Attempting to deny our loss, or the pain associated with it, often prolongs the grief process. Accepting that we have lost someone or something that meant so much—and realizing that life will be
different—is necessary for growth. We become aware that we now must find a new way to “be.” Coping is hard. But awareness of
the grief process and using practical coping skills can help. Here are some suggestions:
Maintain a connection. Often one of the greatest struggles following the
death of a loved one is the loss of connection, the loss of a special relationship. But you can maintain a connection to the deceased. Some do this by making frequent visits to the gravesite; others may use prayer. It is not important how you do it, but remaining connected will help you establish a new type of relationship with your special person instead of trying to forget about or replace him or her. One unique
way of doing this is by creating a connection box in which you write down all the special things you would like to share with your loved one—an accomplishment, a funny joke, a bad day. Write each one down and put them in a special box. This technique is especially helpful with children. Let them decorate the box with pictures, drawings and other reminders of their loved one. The box then serves as a different way of being with that person.
Surround yourself with supportive people. Family and friends should allow you to feel and experience pain in your own way. Often, people just don’t know what to say and will make comments such as, “It’s for the better,” “At least they didn’t suffer,” or “It was God’s plan.” Most of the time, these people mean well; but if their need for you to be resilient overshadows your need to grieve, then their comments
are not helpful. When others have expectations about how you should be coping, the grieving struggle becomes greater. I have been asked many times, “Shouldn’t she have moved on by now?” or “Doesn’t a year seem too long to be sad?” These expectations can cause you to stagnate in the grief process or feel that you are not coping well. Often, we find support in those who have experienced similar loss. Seeking out a bereavement support group may provide just the right kind
Communicate with those around you. Because most people aren’t sure what to ask a grieving person, some may say nothing; others
may ask too much. It is good to let others know where you are in the
grieving process. If you want to talk about your loss, talk; if you aren’t
ready, let those you love know you just need more time. Being honest about your feelings will help you take control of your own emotions so that you can move through the grief process at your own pace.
Experience your emotions. It is fine to stay busy, but it is also OK to
be sad. I am often amazed by how many people associate crying with an inability to cope. People often say, “I know I need help because I have been crying every day.” Crying is a natural response to loss. It is a way that our bodies help us cope and process feelings. I have heard people describe crying as feeling out of control, but trying not to cry can actually make us feel more out of control. Most of us feel better after a good cry, and science shows doing so calms us and can even
improve our mood through the release of stress-related hormones. So, while it is OK to sometimes keep your mind busy and remain active, it is also important to take time to feel.
Ask for help. Because there is no perfect amount of time to grieve or a “right” way to feel, it may be difficult to tell if the normal grief process has become something more.Although you may feel like you cannot handle a loss, most of us can pull through without the need for medication or intense intervention. However, in some circumstances a
person may become clinically depressed, so be aware of your own feelings as well as the feelings of those you may be supporting through the grief process. Depression that interferes with normal functioning may require professional help. Indicators that a person needs help include excessive sleeping or not sleeping at all, considerable weight loss or weight gain, pervasive feelings of hopelessness, and suicidal
thoughts or behavior. If any of these behaviors emerge in a grieving person, contact a mental health professional.
Loss is hard. Making your way through the grief process takes time and patience. However, through basic coping skills you can find a new way to “be,” while giving your loss the attention it deserves. And whenever facing the pain becomes too hard, try seeing the world through the eyes of a child.
Kristen Fowler is a licensed marriage and family therapist/licensed professional counselor who provides outpatient counseling at Connected Counseling Services in Newport News.