By: Laurie Estes, Ph.D.
DEALING WITH THE LOSS OF A LOVED ONE
If you haven’t already, at some point in your life you will deal with the death of a loved one. Whether the loved one’s death is sudden or follows a long illness, the shock and pain can be very difficult. Most people who experience a loss move through a fairly predictable series of reactions. These reactions are often referred to as the “Stages of Grief”. Some folks don’t experience all of the stages, and people often go back and forth between the stages. The stages include:
Shock: The first response to loss is generally shock. The shock is best described as a numbness that envelops you. This is your mind’s way of cushioning the blow. People often describe this stage as feeling like the world is going on around them, but they’re not part of it. People sometimes say that they can’t feel much at all during this stage. I’ve heard people express guilt that they can’t cry or feel that much about the death. Again, the reaction of numbness is completely normal – it’s just your system’s response to the loss.
Denial: Along with, or after the shock wears off a bit, you may move into the denial stage of grief. This reaction involves a strong sense of disbelief that the death has occurred. People often report feeling like their loved one is going to walk through the door at any second, or that maybe it’s all just a bad dream.
Anger: Anger following the death of a loved one is a normal reaction. The direction of your anger will depend upon the circumstances of the loss. For example, if your loved one died of cancer, you may feel angry at the disease. It’s also common to feel angry at God, the doctors, and even at the person who died. The person who died has left you, and it can often feel like a betrayal or abandonment.
Guilt: Guilt is a very common reaction to death. Sometimes we feel guilty because of something that was (or wasn’t) said, because we feel we should have done something different to “save” the loved one, or because of unresolved issues with the loved one. Guilt is especially troublesome in the case of suicide. Surviving friends and family generally feel guilty because of the “what if”, “if only”, or “I should have known” concerns. In reality of course, suicide is a personal decision, and others can’t control the choices or behavior of another person.
Depression: After the shock, denial, and anger have worn off, depression may set in. This is usually experienced as a sense of sadness, loneliness, tearfulness, feeling apart from the world, and a lack of interest in activities you normally enjoy. If the depression becomes debilitating, or suicidal thinking develops, immediate assistance is needed.
Tears: Crying is a typical reaction following a loss. It is common for folks to find themselves crying at unexpected times following the loss of a loved one. People often tell me that their day was fine, then something (maybe a song, something someone says) triggers a wave of tears. This is to be expected. People will understand.
Acceptance and Growth: Eventually, most people move into a place of acceptance. Although they may still be sad and feel a huge void, they begin to accept that this is just the way it is and that life must go on. For some, a connection to spirituality helps. For others, staying connected to other loved ones really helps. Some people move on by honoring their loved one through volunteer work (e.g. cancer charities, crime survivor organizations, etc.).
Following the loss of a loved one, good self-care is critical.
• Talking about your loss to friends and family is very helpful.
• A proper diet, exercise and sleep will also help you move through your loss.
• Engaging in joyful, healthy activities is important – even when you don’t feel like it.
• Keeping busy can be very helpful.
• Give yourself time to feel sad.
• Journal about all the wonderful memories you have of your loved one.
• If you find that you can’t function well, that your symptoms aren’t getting better after a few weeks, or you have any thoughts of self-harm or suicide, it’s critical to reach out for professional assistance.
We understand that loss is very difficult. We are here to help. As always, our services are free and confidential. We can easily be contacted at (949) 872-7895.