GRIEF AND LOSS
When coping with the death of a loved one, it is normal to experience a range of intense and overwhelming emotions. Although grieving generally occurs in emotional stages, research has shown that the stages differ for each person and that there is no “right way” to grieve. People mourn in different ways, depending on their personality, tendency to process emotions, the circumstances of the loss, and support from others. Still, there are common emotional, behavioral, and physical reactions that people are likely to experience after a death. It is important to know that these emotional responses are a normal and natural reaction to the loss of someone who was loved. Grief reactions may include:
- Shock and numbness. The initial reaction to the loss of a loved one is usually a sense of shock or disbelief. Feelings of numbness, confusion, and an inability to think or make decisions are common when you learn that someone close has died.
- Sadness and longing. Feelings of sadness, anguish and a yearning to be with the person who has died are a common reaction. Grief may occur in “waves” of emotion. Memories, music, shared places or activities or seeing someone who resembles the loved one in some way may trigger strong feelings. It is also normal to become emotional at unexpected or inconvenient moments (e.g. walking to class, watching a movie, waiting in line at a store, etc.).
- Physical changes. Sleep problems, appetite changes, diminished energy, and loss of interest in daily activities are likely to occur after the loss of a loved one. Concentration difficulties, such as feeling forgetful or absent-minded, or feeling as if you are “in a fog” are also common.
- Fear and anxiety. Feeling agitated, restless, or panicky are likely after learning about the death of a loved one. It is also common to worry about how you will cope with life without the one who has died or to fear the loss of other important people.
- Guilt. Feelings of guilt, as well as an exaggerated sense of responsibility often occur during grief. People who are grieving may regret arguments or negative feelings before the person died or wish they had visited or told the person how much they were loved. When an individual dies from a terminal illness, loved ones may feel guilty for experiencing a sense of relief that the suffering is over. You may feel guilty for continuing to live when the loved one had to die, for feeling happiness over the course of your day, or for briefly forgetting what has happened.
- Feelings of loneliness and isolation. Losing a loved one often creates a deep feeling of loneliness. You may feel a tremendous void or sense of emptiness, even when around others. It may also seem wrong or unfair that others are going on with life or seem to be worrying about trivial concerns. Feelings of loneliness may intensify at times when you are longing for the support of your loved one, or in anticipation of important life events such as graduation or birthdays.
- Anger. Feeling angry at other people, including those who are coping differently, is common during the grieving process. You may feel cheated by death or feel angry at the person for having died. Questioning God or your faith may occur during the struggle to come to terms with the loss.
How do I cope with this loss?
- If someone you love has died, it is important to be patient with yourself and to give yourself time for healing. You may feel very different than you used to, and some days will be more difficult than others.
- During this time, it is important to focus on caring for yourself in the most fundamental ways, including eating, getting rest, and engaging in some exercise.
- You may wish to consider speaking to your professors and/or your academic dean, as it may be important to lighten your workload during this time or even go home to spend time with family.
- Be open to help and support from others, particularly those who seem able to listen to your feelings without needing to find a solution.
- Try to avoid making major decisions during this time as you are likely to be feeling a lot and unable to think clearly.
- Expect that your healing and relief from pain may ebb and flow and will not be a linear process. Grief may feel more intense around the anniversary of your loved one’s passing or around significant times of the year like important holidays or transitions in your life. The “firsts” (eg. the first Thanksgiving, birthday, Father’s Day without them) may be hard periods of adjustment.
Is there a “wrong” way to grieve?
- For some, it may be tempting to avoid difficult feelings and to isolate themselves. This is also a normal response to loss. It may be difficult at times to speak about the death or to accept help from others. It may also feel very lonely to have experienced significant loss at a young age when others around you may not have yet had to do so. Giving yourself alone time while also balancing time with friends who are willing to listen to how you are feeling is important.
- It may be tempting to distract yourself from difficult feelings or numb them with alcohol or other drugs, but coping in these ways will only prolong the sharpness of your grief.
Will these feelings ever go away?
- Because the person you lost was very important to you, the grieving process is never fully “over.” Our culture tends to move on quickly and it may feel that you are expected to as well. Expecting that your grief is ongoing and ever-evolving helps to normalize your experience. Due to this, subsequent losses or life changes may stir up feelings again in a way that may feel unexpected.
- Over time, the intensity of grief and distress will diminish as you gradually begin to integrate the loss and adjust to life as it has changed. Your loved one will never be forgotten, but the grieving process helps you to continue on with life while carrying your loved one with you in your heart. Many people find that rituals, either alone or with others (i.e. writing, art, doing activities that honor the person who has died, spiritual practice) help serve as a periodic reminder of the ways in which loved ones have influenced our lives and to carry them with us into future chapters.
If you have lost someone who is close to you, speaking with a counselor can help in getting through a very difficult time. Individual and group appointments are available. Please call 610-519-4050 or stop by the University Counseling Center in Room 206 Health Services Building.
HOW TO GET HELP
Free, confidential counseling is available at the University Counseling Center, 206 Health Services Building, 610-519-4050.