Coping with Grief

The loss of a loved one is among life’s most painful experiences. Learning how to cope with grief is essential to returning to everyday life and responsibilities, especially when the death is someone very close to you. Read on for support and resources involving this transition.

Grief: An Overview

There is no specific way to grieve for those we’ve lost; everyone has their own grief process and way of healing. Furthermore, when facing the death of someone close to you, it’s normal not to recognize your grieving process. Family and friends may notice signs, but because everyone handles grief differently, only you can know how you feel and what resources may help you get through this difficult time. Most employers offer time off for employees who have lost someone close to them and can be understanding about feelings of loss that might affect your behavior and demeanor at work. In addition to their support, reach out to friends, family and your healthcare provider to understand the resources available to help you cope.

Three Stages of Grief

There are several ways to classify stages of the grieving process. It is important to remember that no model of the stages of grief applies to everyone, and you likely have your own unique way of coping with the pain of losing someone. Grief is often broken down to three distinct stages:

Stage One: This first stage usually involves shock and denial. It can sometimes feel as if you exist in a parallel universe and that the events which have transpired couldn’t actually have occurred; it’s that first gut reaction to terrible news which sometimes causes people to panic. This may be when your grief is most visible; when family and friends are sure to offer as much as support as possible.

Stage Two: This stage is often characterized by acute grief, where the grief manifests into physical, mental, emotional or behavioral grief. Some people have symptoms that include:

  • Physical illness. Symptoms include headaches, body aches, fatigue, weight change, changes in sleep patterns, etc.

  • Guilt, anger or doubt. This is when the depression and anxiety of losing someone can overcome a survivor. For example, some people constantly worry about how circumstances could have been different; how they themselves might have prevented such a thing from happening.

  • Forgetfulness, an inability to concentrate, confusion and even idealizing the decedent. These mental and psychological symptoms can be used as a way to cope with the guilt of the loss.

  • Crying, pacing, outbursts, wandering and searching. This includes things like holding the belongings of the decedent and sustaining the hope that the decedent may come home. Such behaviors are often the most noticeable.

  • Intellectualizing or philosophizing the loss. Survivors might try to understand the meaning of life and the meaning of the death, such as when people rely on religious concepts of heaven as a destination for the decedent.

Stage Three: This final stage, traditionally thought of as acceptance, is when the grief and the loss come together and the survivor accepts the death. In this phase, people often start to seem better as their physical and emotional symptoms wane. The survivor may start to think of the future and sometimes even have a new zeal for life and a new purpose. This stage puts the survivor in the present moment and focused on the future.

The stages of grief are circular, not linear. You might not go through the stages of grief in order. You may even progress from one stage to another and then go back to a stage you’ve already experienced. For example, people commonly feel that once they’ve been angry, they’ve progressed through the anger stage and they shouldn’t feel angry again. This is not necessarily true. Grief is different for each person, in each situation. Be patient with yourself and loved ones.

Grief vs. Depression

Many people who are going through the grieving process have a hard time knowing if or when their grief has progressed into depression. Symptoms of depression are similar to symptoms of grief, but depression goes further: it affects every part of you and your life, and is very persistent.

Common symptoms of depression are:

  • Constantly feeling “blue” or gloomy and hopeless

  • Feeling “blah” or empty; sadness and anxiety often paired with fatigue; feeling like you move in slow motion

  • Feeling achy with strange pains that aren’t alleviated by pain medication or other treatment

  • Feeling helpless, worthless or guilty

  • A loss of interest in things you used to be passionate or excited about

  • Fluctuation in weight and eating habits, including loss of appetite

  • Fluctuation in sleep patterns; some people sleep significantly more and some sleep less because of their anxiety

  • Dark thoughts, sometimes of death or suicide; a suicide attempt

  • Difficulty making decisions, concentrating or remembering

If you feel that your grief may have progressed to depression, get help immediately. Many people assume they’ll need medication, but that’s not necessarily the case. Your physician can refer you to a psychologist or therapist who can better assess your emotional needs and help you formulate a plan to treat your depression. Some people find that regular therapy sessions are enough while some need a combination of therapy and medication. Only a mental health professional can tell you what is right for you.