Coping With Loss - Bereavement and Grief

In our hearts, we all know that death is a part of life. In fact, death gives meaning to our existence because it reminds us how precious life is.

Coping with Loss
The loss of a loved one is lifeís most stressful event and can cause a major emotional crisis. After the death of a loved one, a person may experience bereavement, which literally means, "to be deprived by death."

Knowing What to Expect
When a death takes place, a person may experience a wide range of emotions, even when the death is expected. Many people report feeling an initial stage of numbness after first learning of a death, but there is no real order to the grieving process.

Some emotions commonly experienced include:

  • Denial
  • Disbelief
  • Confusion
  • Shock
  • Sadness
  • Yearning
  • Anger
  • Humiliation
  • Despair
  • Guilt

These feelings are normal and common reactions to loss. A person may not be prepared for the intensity and duration of their emotions or how swiftly their moods may change. A person may even begin to doubt the stability of their mental health. Assure a person who has experienced a loss that these feelings are healthy and appropriate and will help them come to terms with your loss.

Remember ó It takes time to fully absorb the impact of a major loss. A person will never stop missing a loved one, but the pain eases after time and allows them to go on with their life.

Mourning A Loved One
It is not easy to cope after a loved one dies.  A person will mourn and grieve.  Mourning is the natural process that one goes through to accept a major loss. Mourning may include religious traditions honoring the dead or gathering with friends and family to share the loss.  Mourning is personal and may last months or years.

Grieving is the outward expression of loss.  Grief is likely to be expressed physically, emotionally, and psychologically. For instance, crying is a physical expression, while depression can be a psychological expression.

It is very important for a person to allow himself or herself to express these feelings. Often, death is a subject that is avoided, ignored or denied. At first it may seem helpful to a person to separate himself or herself from the pain, but a person cannot avoid grieving forever. Someday those feelings will need to be resolved or they may contribute physical or emotional illness.

Many people report physical symptoms that accompany grief. Stomach pain, loss of appetite, intestinal upsets, sleep disturbances and loss of energy are all common symptoms of acute grief. Of all lifeís stresses, mourning can seriously test a personís natural defense systems. Existing illnesses may worsen or new conditions may develop.

Profound emotional reactions may occur. These reactions include anxiety attacks, chronic fatigue, depression and thoughts of suicide. An obsession with the deceased is also a common reaction to death.

Dealing with a Major Loss
The death of a loved one is always difficult. A personís reactions are influenced by the circumstances of a death, particularly when it is sudden or accidental. A personís reactions are also influenced by their relationship with the person who died.

A childís death arouses an overwhelming sense of injustice ó for lost potential, unfulfilled dreams and senseless suffering. Parents may feel responsible for the childís death, no matter how irrational that may seem. Parents may also feel that they have lost a vital part of their own identity.

A spouseís death is very traumatic. In addition to the severe emotional shock, the death may cause a potential financial crisis if the spouse was the familyís main income source.  The death may necessitate major social adjustments requiring the surviving spouse to parent alone, adjust to single life and maybe even return to work.

Elderly people may be especially vulnerable when they lose a spouse because it means losing a lifetime of shared experiences. At this time, feelings of loneliness may be compounded by the death of close friends.

A loss due to suicide can be among the most difficult losses to bear. Suicide may leave the survivors with a tremendous burden of guilt, anger and shame. Survivors may even feel responsible for the death.  Brief counseling during the first weeks after the suicide is particularly beneficial and advisable.

Coping with death is vital to a personís mental health. It is only natural to experience grief when a loved one dies. The best thing a person can do is to allow themselves to grieve. Here are some suggestions to help a person to cope effectively with their pain:

  • Seek out caring people. Encourage the person to find relatives and friends who can understand their feelings of loss. Suggest they join support groups with others who are experiencing similar losses.
  • Express feelings. Encourage the person to tell others how they are feeling; it will help them to work through the grieving process
  • Take care of their health. Encourage the person to maintain regular contact with their family physician and to be sure to eat well and get plenty of rest. Caution them of the danger of developing dependence from relying on medication or alcohol in dealing with their grief.
  • Help them accept that life is for the living. It takes effort to begin to live again in the present and not dwell on the past.
  • Postpone major life changes. Advise them to try to hold off on making any major changes, such as moving, remarrying, changing jobs or having another child. A person should give himself or herself time to adjust to your loss.
  • Remind them to be patient. It can take months or even years to absorb a major loss and accept the changes in their life.
  • Seek outside help when necessary. If a personís grief seems like it is too much to bear, encourage them seek professional assistance to help work through their grief. Itís a sign of strength, not weakness, to seek help.

Helping Others Grieve
Here are some suggestions for family members and/or friends of a person who has lost a loved one.

  • Share the sorrow. Allow them ó even encourage them ó to talk about their feelings of loss and share memories of the deceased.
  • Donít offer false comfort.  It doesnít help the grieving person when you say "it was for the best" or "youíll get over it in time." Instead, offer a simple expression of sorrow and take time to listen.
  • Offer practical help. Baby-sitting, cooking and running errands are all ways to help someone who is in the midst of grieving.
  • Be patient. Remember that it can take a long time to recover from a major loss. Make yourself available to talk.
  • Encourage professional help when necessary. Donít hesitate to recommend professional help when you feel someone is experiencing too much pain to cope alone.

Helping Children Grieve
Children who experience a major loss may grieve differently than adults. A parentís death can be particularly difficult for small children, affecting their sense of security or survival. Often, they are confused about the changes they see taking place around them, particularly if well-meaning adults try to protect them from the truth or from their surviving parentís display of grief.

Limited understanding and an inability to express feelings put very young children at a special disadvantage. Young children may revert to earlier behaviors (such as bed-wetting), ask questions about the deceased that seem insensitive, invent games about dying or pretend that the death never happened.

Coping with a childís grief puts added strain on a bereaved parent. However, angry outbursts or criticism only deepen a childís anxiety and delays recovery.  Instead, talk honestly with children, in terms they can understand. Take extra time to talk with them about death and the person who has died. Help them work through their feelings and remember that they are looking to adults for suitable behavior.