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Understanding the Grieving Process: How to cope with the death of a loved one

Grief is a multifaceted and complex response to loss. It is universal. Our experience of grief, however, is utterly unique. There is no “right” way to grieve, therefore there’s also no “wrong” way to do it either. It usually takes more time and work, though, than people expect or anticipate.

This blog post will explain the 5 stages of grief, why it is so important to grieve and what happens when we refuse to do so. It will provide some strategies and tips that support emotional healing and answers common questions like “How does grief affect the body and the brain?”, or “How do you sleep when grieving?”

“You might recall what it’s like to be with someone who has grieved deeply. The person has no layer of protection, nothing left to defend. The mystery is looking out through that person’s eyes. For the time being, he or she has accepted the reality of loss and has stopped clinging to the past or grasping at the future. In the groundless openness of sorrow, there is a wholeness of presence and a deep natural wisdom.” – Tara Brach, Author of Radical Acceptance

The Complexity of Grief – the Losses we Face when Someone we Love Dies

We don’t have to lose a loved one to experience grief. We can grieve the loss of our youth, our health, status, money, a job, a friendship or a relationship. Some of those life changes hit us harder, impact us more, some less. However, it is usually when someone close to us, someone we love dearly dies that we enter an unchartered emotional territory. When we experience loss like that it can take our breath away and turn our world upside down. 

We may have seen death coming if that person was very old or very ill or we might be taken completely by surprise because it happened suddenly and unexpectedly. Both can be traumatic in their own ways and for different reasons. No matter which one is the case, there is nothing that can really prepare you for the magnitude, the impact of grief when a loved one dies.

When it happens, we are facing more than one loss: We may have lost the love of our lives, a parent or grandparent, an uncle or aunt, a brother or sister, a child, a dear friend or a mentor – with them, we also lose a facet of our own identity, the role we played in their life and how we experienced ourselves through being in their presence and seeing ourselves through their eyes. The latter is very subtle. No one can take the experience or the memory away from us but it has irreversibly changed, has become a thing of the past now. We are also losing hopes and dreams we had for and with the person who died, plans that were made for a future that will now never come. There might be material losses as well, for example, an apartment or house we can no longer afford to live in or a car that is now too expensive or a garden that we loved but has become too much work to maintain alone. It helps to become aware of these secondary losses because they will need grieving too.

What is the Importance of Grieving?

Grief wants to be witnessed, it wants to be felt and experienced. It asks us to create time and space to meet it fully and truly acknowledge the loss we have suffered. By grieving, we honour the love we have for the person who died and the preciousness of life itself. It is a process we have to go through in order to heal from our loss, integrate it into our life and re-orient ourselves in our new reality, reconstruct purpose and meaning in our life without the deceased. That does not mean that we have to cut ties to the loved one we lost or forget them. Intellectually we may understand the loss instantly or soon after it happens but our emotional body may take much, much longer to process it.

In a death phobic culture like ours, it might be our first instinct to push grief away, to run from it, avoid it, distract ourselves from it or stall the process in one way or another. However, if we refuse to face grief it doesn’t just go away. It gets stored deep inside and might find very unhealthy expressions.

What happens when we don’t grieve?

If we don’t grieve we may get stuck on obsessing about the events that led to the death, what happened and why, regrets and memories – to the point where we might not be able to move forward with our lives. 

Suppressed grief might express itself as anger or irritability. We might overreact in the ways we try to cope with our new reality, for example by pulling away from other people to avoid potential pain and loss at all costs or become overly dependent on another person. 

We may – in an attempt to try and avoid feeling our emotions altogether – look for ways to “numb out” and engage in addictive behaviours or pick up addictive substances. Another consequence of refusing to experience our grief may be that we become depressed.

The 5 Stages of Grief

Grieving is a natural and universal process that all human beings share, yet every grief journey is as unique as the person who’s navigating it.

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed the theory, the model of the 5 common stages of grief that we go through when we experience loss: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Grief doesn’t stick to a timeline. It is not linear and neither is our experience of going through these stages. We might not even go through them in that particular order. Sometimes we jump a stage or skip two or even three of them entirely and come back to another one many times over. Maybe we wake up in the morning feeling acceptance and a sense of peace only to revert back to anger in the afternoon. All of that is perfectly normal and natural. We are not doing anything wrong. It is wise to consider the 5 stages of grief more of a framework of common patterns, a tool to help us roughly identify where we are currently at on our unique grief journey.

  • Denial is usually marked by shock, fear, elation, confusion, and avoidance
  • Anger is marked by irritation, anxiety and frustration
  • Bargaining usually involves a type of negotiation that we hope will allow us to avoid grief. We struggle for meaning, may pray to whatever deity or force we believe in and express ourselves by telling one’s story and reaching out to others. Deep feelings of guilt are commonly accompanying this stage of grief.
  • Depression is marked by a flight response, feelings of hostility, helplessness and being overwhelmed. We might also feel hollow, empty and numb or experience suicidal thoughts.
  • Acceptance means that our emotions slowly stabilise and we come to terms with our new reality. It involves having a new plan in place, exploring different options and moving on.

How long does it take to get over the death of a dear family member or friend?

Death is a permanent loss, so the grief is permanent, too – it takes on different shapes and forms, though. There are different flavours and layers to it. Grief changes over time. Therefore, it is not about “getting over the loss” but about integrating it, learning how to live with it and accepting the impact it is having on you as a person and on your life. It is only natural to be changed by grief. There is no need to label it as positive or negative – it just is the way it is.

Don’t try to rush the grieving process. It can’t be done and there is no need to try. You wouldn’t rush a flower or a tree to grow because it’s futile. However, if you are a gardener you would try to provide the best environment and most nourishing conditions for your plants to move through the different stages of their growth. Be as patient with and kind as well as compassionate towards yourself as you can. Your grieving process might look very different and be on a very different timeline from that of another person that has been affected by the same death as you.

Some people describe experiencing grief in waves – it’s not always equally strong. The first weeks after a loss are usually the most intense. There might be really bad days and better days. Over months and years, grief may come and go to different degrees. Anniversaries, Christmas, New Year’s, or birthdays can be occasions where we feel bouts of grief. The same goes for visiting certain places for the first (few) time(s). Allow yourself to express your reactions and feelings. Remember that grief – even though it may feel that way in the beginning – is not a permanent state that you will be stuck in. It is a process.

Coping with grief and loss: Strategies and tips on how to deal with the loss of a loved one and support emotional healing

The grieving process is not an easy journey. It’s painful and may feel like the most challenging thing we have ever done. There are however strategies and tips we can explore and follow that may support our emotional healing. Let’s remember: Everybody processes the loss of a loved one differently. What has worked for a friend might not work for us.

  • It might seem like a no-brainer but is actually often underrated and overlooked: Allow ourselves to grieve and prioritise making time/creating a space to do so. Even if we are not religious at all, we might benefit from taking a look at Jewish customs, traditions and rituals around grieving as Judaism has a very structured approach when it comes to the loss of a loved one.
  • It is essential that we identify our physical, emotional, spiritual and mental needs and tend to them or ask for help if we struggle to do so on our own. We need to make sure to cover the most basic needs like eating and drinking enough, personal hygiene and moving our bodies.
  • Face it. It’s important to feel our emotions – to not avoid, but move towards them. This can mean visiting the graveside or another place of significance, writing a letter or talking about the deceased.
  • Finding meaning in our grief and ways to express it: Practices and concepts we may want to explore include but are not limited to creating/playing music, making art, journaling, volunteering or travelling. They are meant to provide opportunities to self-reflect, reconnect with ourselves and find a new sense of purpose.
  • Seeking support or starting therapy can provide us with new insights and perspectives. It can also bring us comfort that we may not be able to access by ourselves. Talking to someone stops destructive thoughts and difficult emotions from building up.

How does grief affect the body and physical health?

Grief has quite a severe impact on our physical body. These are some of the most common symptoms:

  • Tightness in our chest or throat
  • Experiencing difficulty breathing
  • Lack of energy & motivation; feeling extremely tired, weak and generally fragile
  • A hollow feeling in our stomach alongside with a loss or increase of appetite as well as digestive problems related to that
  • Non-specific aches and pains all over our body
  • Difficulty finding sleep or insomnia
  • Sensitivity to noise
  • Feelings of anxiety, restlessness or agitation
  • Feelings of confusion and disorientation – we may experience brain fog and become more forgetful
  • Finding it hard to concentrate and being less productive/efficient than what we are used to

Furthermore, studies have found that grief significantly increases the risk of having a heart attack and stroke as well as blood clots. It negatively impacts the immune system and can lead to us becoming more vulnerable to infections as well as experiencing inflammation inside our body.

How does Grief affect the brain?

If we don’t deal with our grief, we can become locked-into a permanent stress response. Losing someone we love is one of the most stressful experiences we can go through. It may feel as if someone has pulled a rug from under our feet and can trigger an identity crisis. The brain perceives all that as an existential threat and responds with “fight or flight”. It floods our body with hormones that can lead to above mentioned physical symptoms. If we don’t learn to regulate that response by finding healthy coping strategies that work for us we might become chronically stressed.

How do you sleep when grieving?

When someone who played a significant role in our life dies and we are grieving that loss, we have to slowly re-learn how to live and cope without them. That includes finding different ways to approach our health and physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. We have to find new ways of taking care of ourselves.

Many people who are grieving have difficulty finding sleep or struggle with insomnia. If we get less than 7 hours of sleep per night over prolonged periods of time, this can increase anxiety, obesity, and increase the likelihood of diabetes and heart conditions. The following strategies can help with finding sleep:

  • Re-organising the bedroom – especially if it was shared with the deceased
  • Journaling
  • Exercising/moving our body
  • Avoiding naps during the day and abstaining from alcohol or sleeping pills
  • Spending time off our phones or other screens during the 90 minutes prior to our bedtime
  • Creating soothing bedtime rituals for ourselves 

How a prepaid funeral plan can help with grief

A practical thing that can take away at least some of the stress immediately after someone has died is a prepaid funeral plan. When we are dealing with intense grief and don’t have to figure out how to pay for the funeral, wondering what kind of final send off our loved one would have wanted and organising it all, that’s a huge weight off our shoulders. Safe Hands Funeral Plans also has a Bereavement Support Team that will talk to the family when the time comes. 
If you have any questions regarding prepaid funeral plans, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.