Published on June 2nd, 2016 | from CAMH
Coping with loss and grief
By Dr. Katy Kamkar, Clinical Psychologist, Work, Stress and Health Program
There is no shortage of news on death and deep loss. Everyday there are headlines that resonate with us.
There are many forms of grief but while grief is usually associated with death, it can come with any type of loss. The more unexpected it is, the more fear it creates as we feel increasingly powerless and helpless.
The grief associated with the loss of a loved one tends to be the most intense grief we experience. But it is also helpful to know that grief can occur with any loss we go through in our life, including relationship breakup; losing our health or career or finances; death of our pet; having a family member suffering from a serious illness; losing an asset of a sentimental value, such as family home.
Grief is a normal and natural response to loss, and all the above losses can create a lot of pain and suffering.
The grieving process is very individualized and personal such that everyone processes and experiences grief differently. Whereas some might feel better after a few weeks, others might need years to feel better. There is no set time. In all cases, it is important to cope with grief actively and not ignore it.
A variety of emotions are often experienced when we are in grief such as:
- Being in shock
- Feeling sad
- Feeling angry
- Feeling lonely, guilty or helpless
- Fear and anxiety.
- Feeling alone or that we won’t be able to cope are normal reactions.
We also often experience a variety of physical symptoms including a reduced immune system which can make us more vulnerable to illnesses, feeling weak, body aches, nausea, reduced energy and fatigue, insomnia.
Most have heard of the “five stages of loss and grief” introduced by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969:
- Denial and Isolation, where we tend to deny the reality and it becomes a defense mechanism to help us with the shock and the pain.
- Anger that could be aimed at anyone or anything because of the emotional pain.
- Bargaining occurs when as a result of feeling helpless, powerless and vulnerable we feel the need to take some control by asking ourselves if we could or should have done something differently.
- Depression with associated sadness, worries, regrets, and loneliness.
- Acceptance, which is about accepting the reality and recognizing that the new reality is the permanent one.
It is important to know that not everyone goes through those emotional stages and there is also no sequential order. However, it helps to know them in case we experience any of them, and to know that we are not alone and what we are feeling is normal.
Ways of Coping
As part of coping, we need to accept our emotions and know that they are normal. Here are a few things we can do:
- Connecting with others and seeking social support
- Some people also find it helpful to turn to their faith for further coping
- Searching for a meaning by creating a foundation or charity has also helped some moving through the grieving process.
- Joining a support group to talk about our pain, our suffering and the loss and the emotions we experience.
- Engaging in self-care such as trying to eat healthy meals and at regular times; engaging in some daily exercise (even walking for 15 minutes can be beneficial); engaging in proper sleep hygiene despite the insomnia you might experience; and refraining from unhealthy coping, such as with nicotine, caffeine or alcohol.
If the grief becomes very difficult to cope with, or you don’t feel better over time, or you develop major depression associated with grief, seeing a mental health professional would be recommended to further help you with the intense emotions and pain you are experiencing.
Signs of major depression associated with grief could include intense feelings of guilt, hopelessness or worthlessness; suicidal ideation; reduced psychomotor activity (slowing down of thoughts, speech or physical activity); inability to engage in our daily responsibilities or activities.
Complicated grief occurs when our grief worsens over time and we feel unable to move forward or to resume our daily life and activities and functioning. Some symptoms of complicated grief include: denial of the loss/death; imagining the loved one is alive and/or searching for the person; profound longing; avoiding anything that remind us of the loss. It is important to talk to a mental health professional if you experience any signs of major depression or complicated grief. It helps to remind ourselves that our loved one wanted us to move forward and not to get trapped into our suffering and pain and loneliness.