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Coping with the Pain of Grief and Loss

Closeup of a female hand, white, touching a tanned male arm of another person whose fingers are interlaced
Coping with grief goes better with support from friends, family, or professionals.

Many people think that dealing with grief and loss is something you should be able to handle on our own. This idea gets reinforced by our society, which is focused on productivity, making money, and preparing children for careers via school. There is often pressure to return to work as quickly as possible and considerable embarrassment about exhibiting signs of grief in public, especially at work.

Our society doesn’t value taking time to tend to the wounds that loss creates. That can lead to unresolved grief. Even if you want to take the time to grieve properly, there is not a designated time that it takes to recover from loss. So much depends on the relationship you had with the deceased.

You might have more grief for a pet than they do for a family member, because the pet was so much more part of your life than the relative was. It can be very confusing and there are many reactions that don’t seem to make sense in the long run, but for the time while you’re adjusting to the loss, they are normal.

Some of the factors that influence how you grieve include the nature of our relationship to the deceased or lost person/entity; the circumstances of the loss; our mental health and loss history (whether you have other losses or traumas that we’ve endured that might provide stress or resiliency to the current situation); personality factors; cultural background; support; and other stressors that are going on at the same time. The goal is not to escape the pain of loss, but to allow the emotions and sensations to flow through, unencumbered by complications.

Resolution: Successful coping with grief

Grief is a normal reaction to the loss of a person, thing or situation. When you go through transitions from one state of existence (e.g., married, having a job) to another, (e.g., divorced or unemployed), you can also experience grief. Grief looks like sadness, a desire to isolate, disbelief, disorientation, yearning for the lost entity, confusion, and feeling as though some part of you is missing.

It’s a terrible feeling, often, and one that people sometimes try to avoid by drinking, doing drugs, staying exceptionally busy, or denying it. However, the good news is that it doesn’t last forever. The pain can recede one day and come back not long after, and it can feel like you’re on a roller coaster. Don’t be alarmed if you experience that ebb and flow of sorrow and pain.

There comes a point when the pain gradually dies down, you can think and concentrate again, your memory is once again intact, and you join society again. This happens when you can express your feelings about the grief, release the physical attachment you had to the lost entity, and accept the loss.

This allows you to re-form your relationship to that entity (person, thing or condition) to accommodate the physical absence of it. What that means is that while you recognize and accept that your deceased loved one or ex-husband is no longer in your life, they are still in your heart. You still have an internalized representation of that lost person and you carry that with you. Hopefully, that internalized representation is a positive resource for you that helps you cope with stressors in everyday life after the loss. Sometimes, however, the grief is unresolved.

Angry teenage girl staring at camera in blue shirt, cupping her chin
Unresolved grief can look like sadness, resentment, anger, and refusal to discussed the loss.

Unresolved grief

Unresolved grief often occurs when you can’t accept the change or transition in your life, or when you can’t accept life without that person. There are several ways to resist acceptance. The simplest is straight denial, acting as though the change never happened. I’m sure you know people who lost a family member and years later still have their room set up exactly as it was when the person died or left.

There comes a time when you need to release the physical ties to that person and use the room (both literally and metaphorically) for something else. How much space does the person occupy in your mental room? Do you think about the person or former state of existence all the time? Does it prevent you from forming new relationships with other people or taking risks and trying to do other things with your life?

Lack of acceptance can also look like resentment, blaming, and refusing to talk about the person or thing you lost.

Non-death losses can be tricky to cope with

I’ve known people who lost their jobs and swore that they would never work again, because there would never be another job like that. If your former job was awful, you might believe you could never work for another boss again. It's not unusual to have relationships and experiences that, while awful, you didn’t quite know how to release. You might have been so used to the room that the loss took up in your mind that you don’t know how to replace it.

It complicates grieving if the thing or person you lost is still in existence, or if you had a conflictual, complex relationship with them. For example, if you were laid off but other employees you know still work for the company, it can be hard to grieve that lost. Especially if you hear about how great the company is doing, it’s hard to put closure on the experience of losing that job. Divorce or other breakups can be similar.

Also, in the case of relationship breakups, if the ex-lover or ex-friend is still living in the same community with you, it can be hard to let go. You might feel like moving away just to get away from things that remind you of a lost relationship or loved one. Unless you work through the feelings that accompany that loss, you will still carry that experience in a negative way that can prevent moving on.

If you lost a parent who abused you as a child or your romantic partner who was abusive, you might have difficulty resolving their grief. You are not only grieving your loved one, but also the relationship you wish you’d had with the deceased.

What happens when you mourn?

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – you have heard of these in popular culture so much you think this is what everyone experiences when they lose someone or something important to them. However, Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief were actually developed for people going though long-term terminal illness and sometimes apply to what other mourners experience, but you have come to accept it as a blanket response that everyone goes through, which is not entirely accurate or supported by research.

You might feel concerned that you’re not having the “right” reactions to loss, and feel guilty for not having enough of certain emotions or having too much of other emotions. However, there is a range of reactions to grief. Demonstrating resiliency in the face of it is not necessarily a sign that you didn’t care enough about the loss or that you’re “shallow” or “not doing it right.”

When you lose someone or something you loved or that was significant to us, it can be disorienting and you can have a variety of responses to it. Physically, you might have headaches or other somatic complaints, a lot of crying, poor appetite, aches and pains, difficulty sleeping, and feeling weak or easily fatigued. Emotionally, you can feel sad, angry, confused, worried, anxious, frustration and guilt.

Sometimes people have emotional numbing and some even laugh, over which they might feel quite guilty. I mentioned detachment or wanting to be alone earlier, but people can also fear being alone and become preoccupied with their own death or the death of loved ones as well. People can use their religious or spiritual beliefs to comfort themselves over the loss, but they can also question their faith and search for meaning for the loss and existence itself. All these responses are considered understandable and normal while a person is grieving.

The duration of grief is something that I think is somewhat controversial. Some psychiatrists believe that after six months, if a person is still sad and crying, they are depressed. Other experts say that six months to a year is a normal time for grieving, and after that it’s prolonged.

Again, it really depends on a lot of factors, including your relationship to the deceased. If it has been more than one year, and you're still feeling unmotivated, sad, scared, and having their life disrupted, that is complicated grief. You might feel stuck and need help moving through grief. I can help you navigate this difficult stuck place so that your grief can proceed naturally and you can reconcile the loss.

Some good sources for further exploration of grief are:

Grief Walker” (a documentary about hospice work and grief)

Transforming Traumatic Grief, by Courtney Armstrong, LPC

The Grief Recovery Handbook, 20th Anniversary Edition, by John James and Russell Friedman


You can cope with grief and loss with help

Luckily, whether your grief is resolved or unresolved, you can get support for it. It might be scary to allow people to help you, but it's often worth it if you can reclaim your joy and freedom from its grips. Your resolution of grief can be a community effort, especially in the case of crises like mass shootings or terrorism.

Yet even small-scale, individual tragedies deserve recognition, compassion and support. Support and therapy groups, monuments like the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC and other community efforts can be healing. It is not weak to allow yourself to feel deeply, to acknowledge sadly, and to allow yourself to heal. Trying to heal from grief and loss by yourself can be lonely and difficult, especially if the death or loss was stigmatized. There is no shame in getting support, whether informally with peers who understand, or professionals who have expertise in coping with grief and loss.

Are you having trouble coping with your grief and loss? Please call 661-233-6771.




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