Grief and Loss
Coping with Grief and Loss
Are you struggling with grief or loss in your life? Here’s a brief guide to help you find ways to deal with painful emotions that come with loss.
What is grief anyways?
Grief is a natural response to loss. It is the emotional pain we experience when we lose something or someone that we love. The feelings and physical exhaustion associated with grief can feel overwhelming and all-consuming at times; kind of like a tsunami that crashes in and around you. If you or someone you know has experienced grief, then you're likely familiar with common emotional reactions associated with it, including shock, fear, anger, disbelief, sadness, shame, and guilt.
You might have noticed difficulties completing even the simplest of tasks following loss. Activities that were once part of your routine could seem trivial and exhausting. You might have thoughts and feelings of hopelessness that make it seem impossible to carry forward into the future. If these reactions become overwhelming or occur over a prolonged period of time, then you could benefit from speaking with a mental health professional for additional support and coping strategies.
Step 1 - Recognize, acknowledge, and normalize grief
Do you experience grief only with the death of a loved one?
Grief is not limited to the death of a loved one. It can be experienced with the loss of a relationship, a job, and physical ability. We can also experience grief when we lose a sense of our identity or lose a loved one in contexts outside of death, such as Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Grief forces us to mourn beliefs, expectations, and hopes we once carried. It's also an indicator of how much we have loved and cared for something outside of ourselves.
Here are common situations that can trigger grief:
- Death of a loved one
- Divorce and separation
- Injury or loss of health
- Loss of employment and financial stability
- Death of a pet
- Vicarious grief through a loved one's serious injury or illness
- Loss of a cherished dream or goal
- Loss of sense of safety after trauma
- Moving to another location
If you or a loved one is experiencing grief, please read below on what you can do.
"How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard." - Winnie the Pooh
Step 2 - Assess the ways you experience grief
Grief impacts each of us differently. If you are grieving right now, remember that everyone moves through grief differently at different paces. There is no one way to grieve, nor is there a correct way to grieve. However, there are helpful ways to process and manage grief that are not going to make things worse. First and foremost, therapy provides a safe, non-judgmental space for you to be heard and seen as you live with loss. You may use this space however you like, whether it is for silence, relationship, talking about it, non-judgmental listening, or to learn coping skills. Grief often means the possibility of experiencing a vast array of painful emotions that seem to wash over you either predictably or spontaneously at varying intensities.
Grief crashes inside of you in waves. Waves of emotions arise you when you're experiencing grief. You may have waves of regret that arise in the presence of thoughts about words left unspoken or the messages that were said that you wish you could take back. Your emotions can feel like slow streams of water, rapid and quick waves crashing to shore, or tidal waves that feel as if they will wreck everything in their path. Unfortunately, there is no set time when each of these waves passes because everyone grieves differently.
How do you know when grief is interfering with your life?
Start by asking yourself the four questions below as it relates to your grief:
- Does your grief prevent you from doing things you care about?
- Does your grief impact your physical health in ways that cause you concern or distress (i.e., eating, sleeping, exercise, substance misuse, etc.)?
- Does your grief impact your relationship with yourself, others, or the world that concern you?
- Do you have difficulties being present and enjoying activities you value because of your grief?
Results: If you answered “Yes,” to any of the questions above then you could benefit from speaking with a mental health therapist in a safe, judgment-free environment to talk more about what you need.
Models of Grief
Stages of Grief
Grief was traditionally thought to progress in stages according to the Kübler-Ross Change Curve. However, more recent literature has moved away from the idea that there are concrete and linear phases of grief given its complexity. There is no particular order of what stage to be in to be considered "recovered" from loss.
If it helps to normalize your experiences with grief by learning about common reactions according to research, then the Kübler-Ross Change Curve may provide some insight. It proposes that the five core stages of grief, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance (DABDA) extends to seven overlapping stages of grief:
- Shock. Intense and sometimes paralyzing surprise at the loss.
- Denial. Disbelief and the need to look for evidence to confirm the loss.
- Anger and frustration. A mix between acknowledgment that some things have changed and anger toward this change.
- Depression. Lack of energy and intense sadness.
- Testing. Experimenting with the new situation to discover what it actually means in your life.
- Decision. A rising optimism about learning how to manage the new situation.
- Integration. Acceptance of the new reality, reflection on what you learned, and stepping out in the world as a renewed person.
Grief as a Rollercoaster
If the different stages of grief do not resonate with the complexity of your experience, then you're not alone. You may liken your grief more to riding a rollercoaster.
There will be many unexpected ups and downs, highs and lows, twists and turns on a rollercoaster of grief. When you first step on the rollercoaster you might experience intense fear, self-doubt, and uncertainty about what's to come; your ride may seem never-ending. The difficult part of the rollercoaster is that you may never know when the next low comes or when the ride will end. Those who have grieved may say that the ride never truly ends; it simply gets easier to ride with time. It's likely that the lows will eventually become more predictable or more manageable with time and compassion. All we can do is experience it and hold hands with the ones we love as we ride through it no matter when the next turn comes.
Step 3 - Understand the types of grief and common symptoms
Types of Grief
Complex bereavement, or complicated grief, has similar emotions and experiences to normal grief. Complex bereavement is characterized by intense feelings of sorrow, indefinite longing for the deceased, preoccupation with the circumstances of the death, and more symptoms that occur over a prolonged period of time at least six months after the loss. Research suggests that approximately 10 to 12 percent of individuals experience grief that persists indefinitely.
Anticipatory grief takes places before the loss; you experience the same symptoms as grief in anticipation of the loss. As you might expect, it is more likely to occur when caring for a terminally ill person or losing a loved one to a degenerative disease (i.e., dementia, Alzheimer's disease, ALS). People whose loved one died after a period of anticipation report that they have felt as if they'd already mourned their loss.
Disenfranchised grief occurs when you experience loss and you believe that you cannot openly mourn it because your loss is devalued or stigmatized in your culture or society. For example, the loss of a pet or a short-term dating partner could be dismissed by people in your support network. You could experience shame, self-blame, or guilt for feeling the way that you do because of internalized beliefs, such as "I shouldn't feel this way," or "I should be over it by now."
Common Symptoms of Grief
Physical sensations of grief
- Tiredness, exhaustion, or fatigue
- Illness or nausea
- Lowered immunity
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Physical aches and pains
- Difficulties sleeping or insomnia
Emotional sensations of grief
- Shock and disbelief. Sometimes shock and disbelief can transform into denial or a strong resistance to accepting what has happened. You might have trouble believing this loss is real or feel yourself emotionally push away from the reality of what has happened (i.e. experiential avoidance). This is a common reaction as it is a way our body and mind protect us from fully processing what has happened. It may be unsafe to feel our emotions in their complete totality before we have adequate support or coping mechanisms for dealing with them.
- Guilt. You may notice yourself sorting through what you think you should or could have done better. This type of rumination could prompt a sense of guilt or deep regret. Logically, you understand that there was little you could have done, but you have difficulty letting go of the unjustified guilt that stems from the belief that you had more control in the outcome than you actually did.
- Sadness. A deep sense of sadness or anguish might arise when you think about your loss. Sadness can be associated with other experiences, such as heartache, longing, emptiness, despair, and sorrow. You might have urges to curl up and cry for long periods of time. Sadness is a normal human response to loss, however, consistently acting on the urges associated with sadness (i.e., isolation, staying in bed, missing work or social functions) will further perpetuate feelings of loneliness and disconnection. If you or someone you know is exhibiting this behaviour, then continue to reach out, engage, and connect in whatever way you can.
- Fear. Intense fear of the unknown or extreme discomfort with uncertainty can develop after loss. Your world may have been shattered and you might have not known life without the deceased person before, so knowing how to navigate the world without them feels daunting and scary. Anxiety and panic attacks are common reactions to excessive worrying or inability to control worry about the future. Speaking to a mental health professional can help you get the tools you need to regain a sense of safety and control.
- Anger. Anger is a natural human response to something that feels unjust or when an important goal of ours is blocked. You might notice anger directed towards something, someone, or yourself after loss. While anger is a valid emotion, it can also be destructive and serve to make things worse for you if acted upon in harmful ways. Working with a psychotherapist can help you process your anger in healthy ways, as it often relates to fear or misdirected blame or self-blame that can have detrimental effects on existing relationships and goals. Anger can feel like an empowering and 'safe' emotion compared to sadness and despair because there are strong urges to act and do. Using this motivation to your advantage by finding things to do that are helpful and not harmful to you or others is part of dealing with your anger.
Step 4 - Learn what helps you cope with your grief
1. Find ways to connect to others.
Grief is painful, so it's quite natural to want to retreat inside of yourself and isolate. Curling up and escaping the world around you probably sounds peaceful, and yet responding to your grief in this way consistently will likely lead to further suffering. Slowing down and taking moments to yourself is important when it is done in addition to other forms of healing. Isolation means further disconnection and missed opportunities to form new memories and connections. If you find yourself withdrawing, then ask yourself why. Is it because of a lack of interest or energy to engage? Is it beliefs about being a burden to others? Is it uncertainty about what or how much to share with others? Gaining clarity on the reasons for your changes in behaviour is step one for improving things.
While being in the presence of others will often not help feeling alone in the grieving process, remaining connected to friends and family anyways can serve as a buffer to the effects of loneliness. People who have experienced loss have benefitted from joining a local grief support group, finding salvage in faith or a spiritual connection, learning a new hobby or skill, and/or working with a grief counsellor or psychotherapist.
2. Allow feelings to come and go naturally.
It's natural for us to push away unpleasant feelings that cause discomfort. You might notice yourself expending your energy to suppress, avoid, or numb your grief.
Unfortunately, the more you resist experiencing your grief, the more it pushes back or comes out in unexpected ways through a decline in health or changes in behaviour (i.e., difficulty concentrating, irritability, sleep difficulties, substance misuse, etc.). Rather than getting caught up in the futile fight against avoidance, try to allocate periods of time where you allow yourself space to grieve and feel whatever is going on inside. Containment is a skill learned in the context of being intentional with your processing and experiencing; it would be unhelpful and harmful to us if we felt our feelings all of the time to their fullest extent; we would have a difficult time getting anything done. Finding ways and contexts to allow your feelings in a soothing, safe, non-judgmental space is one good thing you can do for yourself. This could look like attending a community yoga class, creating art, having a bath, setting a pleasant ambiance in your home, immersing yourself in nature, writing, self-massage, or talking about your memories and experiences with trusted others. Drop the struggle and anchor yourself to what's most important to you by placing a hand over your heart, deepening your inhale, and slowly extending your exhale as the pain comes and goes on its own.
3. Express your emotions in a creative way.
The creative ways for expressing your emotions is limitless. Creativity inspires flexibility, which in turn inspires acceptance. If this appeals to you, try exploring for yourself using:
- A reflection journal
- Scrapbook for new and old memories
- Volunteer for a cause associated with your loss
- Engage with your spirituality or religion
- Create art
- Creative writing
- Learn a new hobby or skill
4. Don't let others' grief determine your own.
It can be tempting to compare your grief to others, which can exacerbate judgments and expectations about where you should be. You might judge that your grief is too long, too short, or just plain wrong. Confusion and inner conflict can develop when receiving mixed messages and advice on how you should handle your grief. This can happen when people in your life are trying to offer help. Unfortunately, some of these attempts to help you can come across as invalidating, dismissive, or elicit guilt or shame. If you find yourself feeling worse rather than better after attempts to get support, then acknowledge it is likely more about a misalignment in communication than it is about your experience being wrong.
Grief is unique with no order or timeline. Learn to give yourself permission to accept your journey.
5. Get connected to a grief counsellor or psychotherapist.
Grief can be an isolating experience, but you don't have to face it alone. Working with a psychotherapist offers a safe, non-judgmental space for you to experience and heal from your grief. It means working with a mental health professional who is trained to actively listen to you and help you come to insights that allow you to carry forward.
Step 5 - Find a psychotherapist to help you with grief and loss
If you're seeking support to talk about, process, or manage your grief, then speaking with a licensed mental health professional is a good place to start.
Once you're connected with one of our therapists, you'll start with an initial session. During the first session, your therapist will listen to your concerns and collaborate with you to clarify your best hopes for therapy. Your psychotherapist will take a brief psychosocial history to get to know what's most important to you and how you want things to change. You'll work collaboratively with your psychotherapist to form a treatment plan that's best suited for your needs over the first 1-3 sessions. Throughout the entire process you have the opportunity to ask questions and provide your feedback as you continue to progress.
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