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Getting to know Grief and Coping with Loss

When people think of grief, their mind often associates grief with the death of a loved one. However, grief is an emotion that can follow many other types of loss such as the loss of a relationship, the loss of identity, the loss of health or safety, or the loss of a job including loss through retirement. There are many reasons that people grieve, and regardless of the reason, grief can be tough to get through.

Understanding Grief

Grief is a normal and natural response following a loss. It can be a strong emotion that might feel overwhelming. There is no “right way” to grieve given that the process of grieving looks different for everyone. Regardless of how intense or how long the process of grieving might be for you, it’s important to confront your emotions and process the grief actively to begin healing from the loss.

Throughout the process of grieving, it can be hard to identify or explain what we’re feeling. There are many secondary emotions that are often present with grief. Common emotions include shock, sadness, anger, loneliness, helplessness, anxiety, and fear. Additionally, people can experience physical symptoms such as fatigue, reduced energy, changes in appetite and frequent headaches. Overall, grief is a strong emotion that can be overwhelming. It’s important to recognize that throughout the process of grieving, the intensity and presence of these symptoms will change as we learn to adapt and mourn the loss.

Types of Grief

When we experience grief as a response to loss, there are numerous types of grief that can occur including:

  • Anticipatory – Grief that occurs before a death or loss

  • Normative – Grief that begins after a loss

  • Ambiguous – Grief that occurs without closure leading to unresolved feelings

  • Disenfranchised – Grief or loss that is not socially acknowledged or mourned

  • Complicated – Grief that results in the continued presence of intense symptoms that persist beyond 12 months

Stages of Grief

Although the way each person grieves is unique to their experience,

many people expect to experience different stages of grief. In 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified the 5 stages of grief and loss, including denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. Since then, research has shown that these 5 stages can relate to any type of loss and not everyone has to experience each stage in that order to heal. Although these stages are not meant to provide guidelines on how to mourn, there are common emotions and responses that are associated with each stage.

  1. Denial – Denial is a normal defense mechanism that protects us from the immediate shock of the loss. It is a reaction to the loss as we try to rationalize the overwhelming emotions. In a sense, denial helps us survive the loss by only exposing us to as much emotion as we can handle at the time.

  2. Anger – Anger is a secondary response and can reveal so many underlying emotions such as pain, fear, frustration, sadness, and so many other emotions. In this stage, we might have overcome the initial shock and are now searching for blame.

  3. Bargaining – We might find ourselves negotiating with ourselves, with others, with the pain, or with fate. Bargaining is an attempt to deal with the feelings of helplessness after loss. At this stage we often struggle to find meaning and resort to the “if onlys”. “If only I didn’t make that mistake”, “If only I came home earlier”, “If only they found the tumour sooner”.

  4. Depression – Feelings of depression following a loss is an appropriate response, and not necessarily a sign of mental illness. At this stage, we despair at the recognition of the loss we encountered. Our feelings and response at this stage might lead to intense sadness, lack of motivation, changes in appetite or other symptoms.

  5. Acceptance – At this stage, the reality of the loss begins to be accepted. This does not mean that we are “okay” with the loss; with some losses we might never consider the loss to be “okay”. Instead, acceptance involves learning to heal and learning to live after the loss.

Coping with Grief

The emotions that come up with grief may feel unbearable and overwhelming at times. The process of grieving isn’t easy, which is why it’s important to have knowledge on how to cope. Although our emotions do not need to be processed all at once, it is important to allow ourselves to grieve the loss and feel our emotions. Here are a few ways to cope that might be helpful when experiencing loss:

Gradually Confront your EmotionsGiving ourselves permission to feel our emotions helps us process the loss. There is no right way or set deadline to grieve. Try not to let others influence your experience of mourning and feeling your emotions. Acknowledge the pain and loss, rather than suppress it. Helpful and common ways to confront and express our emotions include:

  • Creative expression – Journaling, painting, drawing, writing etc.

  • Physical outlets – Using physical activities such as the gym to release frustration

  • Keep a mood journal

Take Care of Yourself It can be easy to let ourselves go as we get caught up in our emotions and the loss. Trying to engage in self-care is important at this time to help us maintain healthy behaviours and be there for ourselves. This can include actions such as:

  • Eating healthy meals at regular times

  • Maintaining proper sleep hygiene

  • Any activity or hobby we enjoy

  • Refraining from unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol

Seek SupportThe grief and emotions that arise following a loss don’t have to be dealt with alone. Connecting with others and seeking support can help provide us with an outlet to express our pain and emotions. It might also help diminish feeling of loneliness that may be present. Seeking support from others might involve connecting with;

  • Family or friends

  • Your faith

  • Support groups

  • A therapist

Grieving the loss of a person, place, or big change is not easy. If you or a loved one are grieving and feel like you don’t know what to do, reaching out to seek professional help can be beneficial. Through services such as therapy or support groups, the process of grieving can be confronted actively to work through difficult emotions and towards acceptance and growth.

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