Grief is a healthy, normal, and intensely personal reaction to loss, but it may not feel normal to you. In fact, your response to loss may be so piercing, prolonged, or seemingly irrational that you may wonder if you’re losing your mind. So what are the hallmarks of healthy grieving, and how can you know if you need professional help to cope?
Triggers for Grief
Most people associate grief with the death of a loved one. Certainly, that is a significant loss that can trigger intense grief, but there are many other life events for which grieving is an appropriate response, including:
No two people experience grief in the same way or within the same timeframe. Just as there are a variety of events that can trigger grief, there are also several different emotional, psychological, and physical reactions that may characterize the grieving process. Among the feelings and changes common to grieving are:
A Personal Perspective
“We will never be the same as we were before this loss, but are ever so much better for having had something so great to lose.” ~Leigh Standley
My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died at the age of 58 when I was a junior in college. She underwent exploratory surgery, but the cancer had already spread to other organs and the primary tumor could not be removed. The doctors believed that the best chance for extending her survival time was an intensive course of chemotherapy, which might shrink the malignant mass but would not, in their opinion, stop its relentless invasion.
Because she survived months longer than her doctors had predicted, our family was given the gift of time: to develop a plan for caring for her at home, to share our hopes and fears and consider our own mortality, to talk with her about end-of-life decisions as well as her wishes for us, to invite family members and close friends to say their goodbyes, and to try to imagine life without her. That was a true gift, certainly, and when she died, the flurry of activity that ensued – contacting and comforting relatives and friends, writing an obituary, making arrangements with the funeral director and our parish priest, and a thousand other details – kept us all distracted, grounded, and outwardly strong initially. But I was not prepared for the finality of death. Although the focus of her wake and funeral was on celebrating her life rather than mourning her passing, when the last hymn was sung and the casket was closed and lowered to the ground, it shook me to the core.
In the weeks following mom’s passing, I came to realize that I had put my grief on hold to provide support to my dad and my siblings and to try to be a comfort to family and friends. In the process, I had discovered a strength and a resilience in myself that I had not known existed. But I also realized that I needed to confront and embrace my feelings and my personal pain to accept and heal from this loss. And I needed to seek the support that I had thus far been providing to others. It was time to do what the experts call grief work. When my father died years later, I was better prepared for those hard conversations and more adept at navigating the roller coaster of grief.
Good Grief: Strategies for Healing
The goal of healthy grieving is not to forget what or who we have lost, but to acknowledge the importance of the loss in the context of our lives – and to adjust to and accept a new reality shaped by that loss. It is no easy task, there are no quick fixes, and contrary to that time-worn adage, time alone will not heal. Rather, healthy grieving is an active, conscious process that is vital for our well-being and for the recovery of our emotional equilibrium.
The following are some discoveries I made during my own grief process. Perhaps these insights will help you if you have suffered a significant loss.
Grief is not bound by time. There is no typical or normal timetable for the pain of loss to subside. Rather, grief is an ongoing process that ebbs and flows. Even years after the death of my mother and father, certain reminders, such as a holiday or anniversary or favorite song, will cause tears to well and my grief to resurface and intensify. We don’t “get over” grief – we just gradually adjust to living a “new normal.”
Suppressing the pain will not make it disappear. Holding grief at bay only prolongs the healing process. It’s important to embrace your grief, acknowledge it, and accept its full expression, without judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry, to feel relieved or guilty or abandoned. Likewise, it’s perfectly fine to allow laughter and joy into your life amidst your sorrow.
Seek support. Your friends, family, and loved ones will be eager to help, but may not know what to say or do. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you need, whether it’s sitting quietly with you to keep you company, helping to prepare a meal, or just listening.
Balance is key. As with most things in life, good grief requires striking a balance: between time alone to process the changes in your life and time spent sharing with those who care about you, and between meeting the demands of your daily life and taking the time needed to work on your grief.
Practice self-care. Exercise regularly, make healthy food choices, and try to maintain regular sleep patterns. Your ability to cope will be greatly enhanced and your stress level will be reduced.
Find creative and satisfying ways to express your feelings. Writing has always been my outlet for coming to terms with my feelings, so it was my go-to medium for expressing my sense of loss when my mother and father died. Others may reap the same benefits from painting, gardening, scrapbooking, dancing, or another creative pursuit.
If you’ve lost a loved one, honor their memory. Make a personal or financial contribution to a cause that was near and dear to your loved one’s heart. Carry a keepsake that reminds you of them, or create a photo album of memorable times spent in their company. Take a moment to mark milestones, such as birthdays or the anniversary of their death, to simply remember.
Grief and Depression
For some people, the pain of loss remains so intense and crippling that it becomes the focal point of their lives, undermining their relationships, disrupting their ability to manage the demands of daily life, damaging their health, and spiraling into a perpetual state of self-loathing, mourning, or depression. They may feel hopeless, find little reason to live, see or hear things that aren’t present, distrust others, isolate themselves from social interactions, or be totally preoccupied with death.
If any of these feelings and thoughts describe your current state, don’t delay. Seek help from your physician or a trusted spiritual advisor, mental health professional, or bereavement counselor as soon as possible. Grief support services following the death of a loved one or other traumatic life event are usually available from your local hospice, mental health agency, faith-based organization, hospital, or even online. Here in the Capital Region, Community Hospice offers a host of age-appropriate support groups, as well as individual and group bereavement counseling. These services are free and available to all, whether or not the person whose death you are grieving was a hospice patient.
If you’ve suffered a significant personal loss, be sure to seek out the resources you need to cope, and remember to be patient and gentle with yourself. Healthy grieving takes time, energy, and commitment, but the personal insights and healing that follow grief can be life changing.