A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Easing the Grieving

By Victor Parachin

Ten Tips for Coping with Loss

Amy, was in her 30s and had just given birth to her first child when her mother suddenly died. “All I feel is pain, sadness, and sorrow that my mother is no longer here to be my inspiration and to enjoy being a grandmother to my son.”

Anthony, in his early 60s, always said he had a “wonderful and happy” marriage. Abruptly he found himself widowed when his wife became ill and died a week later. “All of our dreams for retirement and more time together evaporated. Five months later I am still depressed and heartbroken.”

Colleen, in her mid 20s, had just become engaged when her fiancé was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Though his illness was treated aggressively, he died 8 months later. “I’m shocked and numb by what has transpired in these last few months,” Colleen laments to a friend. “How am I going to cope?”

Sooner or later people experience the death of someone they value and love. The ensuing grief can be difficult to understand and bear. Grief recovery occurs and people can emerge from bereavement larger and better or smaller and bitter. The difference depends upon the attitude they exhibit and the steps they take to manage grief. Here are ten tips for easing the grieving. 

1. Face your grief directly and honestly. 

Feel the pain. Avoid fleeing from it. Avoid masking it with a flurry of activity. Avoid numbing it with tranquillisers, alcohol or drugs. Mayo Clinic physician Edward Creagan, MD., says: “If you don’t face your grief, your wounds may never quite go away. Acknowledge the pain and know that it’s part of the healing process. Unresolved grief can surface years later as headaches, relationship issues, intestinal problems, psychiatric difficulties, eating disorders or chemical dependency.” 

2. Tap into the power of prayer. 

As you deal with the painful reality of loss it can feel as though you are completely alone. Remind yourself that you do have an invisible means of support; that God is present in your life. “Our God is full of compassion” declares the Psalmist (Psalm 116:5 NIV). Turn to God in prayer sharing everything you may be feeling: hopelessness, abandonment, injustice, anger. As you pray, keep your heart open allowing God to give you hope and healing. Apply to your situation these words from Psalm 91:15: “He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him.” Remember the word of Jesus: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

3. Avoid major changes. 

Early months of bereavement are not the time to change jobs, make new investments, or relocate. While it may be tempting to leave one’s home filled with memories, all major decisions should be delayed during the first year of grieving. Bereaved women and men need time and distance from the loss before they can feel and think clearly. One woman whose husband died, was pressured by her well-meaning children to sell the house. “One by one they told me it would be better if I moved so that I didn’t have to deal with the memories day after day. I sold the home we enjoyed together for three decades and moved into a small apartment. The end result is enormous loneliness for me. I’m no longer surrounded by my neighbours, many of whom moved into the neighbourhood the same time we did. And, I’m no long surrounded by the warm memories my home held for me. I feel like a stranger in a very strange place. I wish I’d never sold the house and moved.”

4. Expect emotional turmoil. 

Grievers experience a wide range of emotions: sadness, panic, shock, denial, guilt, shame, remorse, anger, anxiety, depression. While these feelings can be intense and uncomfortable, they are to be expected when a loved one dies. Even doing routine tasks can be formidable. When Dr. Creagan speaks and writes about grief, he comes at it from personal experience. “I know how challenging and devastating it (grief) can be, because it’s happened to me.” He had gone on a jog one frigid winter morning and when he returned home his 18 year-old-son broke the news that his mother had died. Even though his mother struggled with breast cancer, “the news struck me like a two-by-four whipsawed across my abdomen,” he recalls. “I felt drained of every ounce of vitality. And it took all the energy I had to keep from slumping to the floor. As the hours evolved into days during my period of grief, it became physically painful to make any decisions. Booking plane tickets. Dealing with funeral directors. The thousands of little details to handle after her death were absolutely exhausting.”

5. Be patient with yourself. 

Most people report beginning to have more good days than bad days sometime in the 2nd year. Many say it takes up to four years to adjust to a significant loss. One woman recalls: “I would say it took me a full two years to merely stabilise. By stabilise, I mean to just be conscious of things other than his death for most of the day. After two years, my days were not dominated by thought of my husband’s death. A shaky balance was restored. I could look back and see how far I’d come. After three years, I’d begun to make new friends, and for the first time I felt I could really interact, not just observe. I was able to give something of myself in a relationship and not just worry about protecting myself from additional harm. I had spiritual and emotional energy to spare. This was a milestone.”

6. Know that people grieve alone, but heal in community. 

Don’t go it alone. Reach out for support, friendship and encouragement. A good friend, a faith leader, a family member, a trusted colleague - any of these can help you along the healing journey. Community - a sense of being understood by and connected to another - facilitates the healing process. Writer Brook Noel shares a story of healing friendship following loss: “When I lost my brother, my friend Sara was my anchor. I never asked her to come over that evening but as soon as she heard, she came (even though I told her there was nothing she could do). She simply sat next to me. then she went upstairs and packed my bag for the upcoming week. She hugged me when I needed it and sat in the other room when I needed to be alone. To this day, her warm presence brings tears to my eyes. It was an extension of love and caring like few I have known.” Grief becomes more manageable when the burden is shared with a friend. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

7. Get the support you need. Sometimes family members and friends just don’t quite understand. If you’re feeling misunderstood and isolated, seek out a grief support group. There you will encounter people who “have been there” ahead of you and know exactly how you feel. They will be compassionate, supportive, encouraging and understanding. In his book, Grievers Ask, Harold Ivan Smith writes: “A support group is a healthy, safe place for you who are grieving to bring yourselves, your stories, your anger, and your bewilderment, and to know that it’s just likely that others will have been there and recognise in your story parts of their story. And it is possible that something in your story will encourage another griever in the group.”

8. Take care of your physical self. Depression and stress resulting from grief can be eased when the body exercises. Kristin Vickers-Douglas, PhD., a psychologist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. says “increasing physical activity is a positive and active strategy to help manage depression and anxiety.” Various research indicates that it takes 30 minutes of exercise a day for at least three to five days a week to significantly improve depression. But shorter amounts can improve mood as well. “Small bouts of exercise may be a great way to get started if it’s initially too hard to do more,” Dr. Vickers-Douglas says.

9. Live with hope. 

Believe that grief relief will come your way. Hold on to the hope that you will regain balance in life. When Kathleen Jacques was widowed and left the single parent of two pre-school aged children, she recalls: “When my husband died…I felt as if my soul had died. I hid in my house. I withdrew in every sense of the world….My grief left me with the barest of energy. It was all I could accomplish just to get out of bed, choose clothes and sleepwalk through minimal tasks…I would go into the shower and run the water so my children couldn’t hear the sound of my crying. It was bleak. It was awful.” In spite of such searing pain, Jacques says: “Yet somehow I got here, to the point where an ordinary sunrise can fill me with deep pleasure and appreciation.” Today she tells other grievers: “Somehow, the pain eases and the sunrises reach your soul again, and life returns.”

10. Seek professional help. 

The majority of those who experience a loss to death adapt and adjust. However, some people experience complicated grief which leaves them unable to forge ahead. If it’s been 8 months or more and your emotions remain intense and debilitating, preventing you from managing normal routines and tasks, consider seeking out additional help from your health care provider or a therapist. Here are some signs you may benefit from professional aid:

• Your focus is almost entirely on your loved one’s death and little else.

• You have persistent longing for the deceased person.

• You have thoughts of guilt, regret, self-blame.

• You believe you did something wrong or could have prevented the death.

• You have depression which seldom lifts and continues day after day.

• You wish you had died along with your loved one.

• You can’t find a sense of purpose or direction in your life.

Some people experiencing complicated grieving entertain thoughts of suicide. If this applies to you, reach out to someone immediately. Call a trusted friend, or call emergency services, or an emergency helpline.

No matter how intense your pain may be right now, continue to live with hope knowing that the hurting will pass. Healing will take place and though you many not find yourself as you once were, you will experience a new ‘normal’ and reclaim the joy of living.

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