Good Grief: Healing from the Pain of Loss
We have all faced loss: the death of a friend, relative or pet; the end of a relationship; the loss of a job, dream, or limb. These losses provoke grief, an emotion that is part of a normal, healthy healing process. Restraining grief can be harmful; addressing it heals.
Many people misunderstand grief. They think crying or showing emotional pain is a sign of weakness. They try to deny grief, but feeling the pain helps the person to cope with the loss and return to normal ways of living.
Responses to grief involve all aspects of one’s life: emotional, physical, social, spiritual, and mental. Everyone experiences grief differently and to varying degrees. Common responses to grief include:
- Disbelief: Seeing and feeling the loss can be painful, so you may try to protect yourself by denying it. You may feel numb, going into a kind of emotional shock.
- Anger: You may be angry at yourself for not preventing the loss or even angry at the person who died for deserting you. You may blame someone else for not protecting you or your loved ones. You may feel hurt or frustrated with the situation, because you cannot change it.
- Guilt: You may blame yourself because you feel you may not have done the right thing. Unresolved conflicts or feelings you never expressed can make you feel guilty.
- Sadness: Deep sorrow and a sense of loss may cause uncontrollable tears.
- Anxiety: You may feel anxious or panicked. You may feel unable to face the future or to deal with new or frightening situations. You may even think that you’re going crazy.
- Depression: You may feel isolated, helpless, and hopeless. You may pull away from your friends and family and feel as if no one can help you.
- Relief: If you’ve been expecting the loss for some time, you may feel relieved when it finally happens.
- Dreams: Dreaming about the loss may either comfort or upset you, or even both. Dreams may signal an emotional conflict you should try to resolve.
- Physical symptoms: You may have trouble sleeping or breathing. Your eating patterns or appetite may change. You may sigh a lot, lack energy, or be restless. You may develop a cold or minor infection, or suffer a more serious illness.
The tasks of mourning
Knowing what to expect after loss can make it easier to cope or to help someone else. Grief and the "tasks of mourning" are normal stages we move through while grieving.
Don’t try to rush through or avoid any part of grieving. Mourning is a complicated process. It takes a lot of time to adjust to the changes that result from loss.
- Accepting that loss is real is often difficult. Sometimes you can’t grasp that it won’t be restored. You may pretend the loss is not important. You may even believe you can gain back the lost person or thing. However, day by day, week by week, month by month, the absence confronts you, and the loss becomes more and more real. Accepting the full reality of the loss takes time.
- Feeling the pain follows accepting the loss. Trying to avoid pain is natural, but only prolongs the process. You may try to cut off your feelings, to keep yourself too busy to feel or think, or to dwell only on pleasant memories. The pain will eventually appear in another form, such as depression or illness. Feeling the pain may be the hardest part of grieving, so receiving help and support from others is essential. Remember, pain is a necessary part of healing.
- Releasing the pain through crying helps relieve the sorrow and pain of loss. Laughter works too: it can release tension caused by fear and anger. Releasing pain or anger — either alone or with a friend or counselor — can also help. Whatever you’re feeling, express it. Don’t hold it in.
- Adjusting to the environment can take a long time. Loss changes your social and/or physical situation. You may feel helpless, pull away from others, not face or do what is needed, or not build coping skills. A period of accepting help and care from others can help you adjust to a new situation and give you time to gather your internal resources. You can develop the skills and goals needed to meet new challenges.
- Releasing the attachment means letting go of the emotional energy attached to what was lost. At first, you may feel disloyal. You may think this lessens the meaning of the past. To grow through grief, you can pay attention to these feelings and know they are normal; over time, as you practice letting them go, they will naturally pass. It may help to talk with a friend or counselor about the difficulties of saying a final goodbye. It is also important, and healthy, to treasure memories and feelings that help to maintain a connection to your loved one.
- Forming new attachments may help heal the wound of loss. You may build new links to people, activities, or commitments. Don’t rush: if you don’t deal with your grief first, you may stunt the healing. It’s not unusual to fear new attachments because of the risk of feeling loss again. It’s not uncommon to have doubts about being able to find meaning in new activities or relationships. But new attachments — either strengthening old ties or starting new ones — help restore and maintain your emotional and physical health.
- Moving through grief: When you’ve experienced these steps, is grieving over? Not necessarily, but you can think about your loss without feeling the same strong pain. The loss still is part of your experience but you can live more fully in the present. Your fond memories of what was lost, as well as your growth as an individual that comes from the grieving process, can help enrich your life.
Other hints for coping with loss
- Take time to write or draw your thoughts and feelings in a journal. This can help relieve pressures and provide a sense of healing.
- Talk out your thoughts and emotions regularly with a trusted friend, support person/group, or professional counselor.
- Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat nutritious meals, and get some exercise every day.
- If faith is a part of your life, express it in ways that are meaningful to you.
- Create a ritual, a memorial, as a special way to honor your loved one and remember the special relationship you had.
Almost everyone needs help dealing with grief. Support groups and friends who are good listeners can help in all the stages of grief. In addition, counselors can provide a different outlook and help you to express your feelings. Inexpensive or free help is available at many mental health centers, churches, synagogues, hospitals, clinics, and employee assistance programs. In Madison, UHS’s Counseling and Consultation Services offers both individual and group counseling for UW–Madison students.
Helping someone else grieve
If someone close to you is grieving, you can help.
- Listen without judging or trying to change them. Let them know they’re not alone. Accept. Encourage them to talk about their feelings.
- Show empathy. Try to understand what they are feeling. It’s OK to say that you care and that you are uncertain about how to help and what to say.
- Stay connected. Grieving takes a long time, and support is needed throughout the process.
- If appropriate, share information about grief and the tasks of mourning.
Also see: When Someone You Love Has Died