How to Overcome Grief if Your Loved One Has Cancer
Finding out that a loved one has cancer is devastating. Having a loved one die from cancer can be debilitating. There is no perfect step-by-step manual that will help everyone cope with grief and loss, but there are a number of things you can do to actively work through your grief to help come to a place of normal functioning and acceptance.
If you find yourself obsessively cycling through memories of your loved one, you may have a syndrome known as "complicated grief."
Why do some people seem to move on relatively quickly, whereas others never seem to let go of the devastation? No one knows the exact answer to this question. People are different. They are surrounded by different environments, have had different upbringings, different experiences and so on.
An interesting new finding was made by a research team at UCLA. "Complicated grief" is the term used to identify a syndrome of unrelenting grief or mourning -- people with this form of grief tend to almost obsessively cycle through memories of their loved ones, unable to move past a stage of intense mourning.
Is Your Intense Mourning a Sign of "Complicated Grief"?
The researchers found that people who suffered from complicated grief, as opposed to people whose grief-related feelings of emotional intensity recede over time, have different neural activity. MRI's (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) were performed on all subjects in the study to make this determination. In those with complicated grief, the area that governs the brain's reward system was activated. That area also can induce powerful cravings, such as those involving substance abuse as characterized by addictive behavior.
What this means is that people who have such an easily-activated reward center might actually be craving and feeding off of the happy memories of their loved ones, creating a persistent cycle. It's as though the emotional part of the brain still thinks the person is alive because it hasn't gotten the message from the thinking part of the brain that their loved one is gone.
A similar treatment was devised for children who suffered the unexpected loss of a parent due to disease, such as cancer. It was discovered that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was common among these children. The findings of this study, which are scheduled to be published in the journal Research and Social Work Practice, show that children benefit from PTSD treatment, followed by grief counseling. Researchers found that having the children talk repeatedly about their loss helped fear to diminish, and cognitive restructuring helped the children to modify their negative thoughts (i.e. guilt) about their loss. Lessons on coping skills were also shown to help the children's recovery.
These findings may help to explain why drugs used to treat depression are usually ineffective on those suffering from complicated grief. According to Katherine Shear, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, the best way to treat people with this syndrome is to focus on the details of the death to help the thinking brain communicate better with the emotional brain. Focusing on the reality of the loss can help you to stop the "craving."
Although every person deals with grief differently, different theories have attempted to identify the different stages of grief. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' book "On Death and Dying" discusses perhaps the most well-known model of grief stages:
Denial (This isn't happening to me!)
Anger (Why is this happening to me?)
Bargaining (I promise I'll be a better person if ...)
Depression (I don't care anymore.)
Acceptance (I'm ready for whatever comes.)
Although this model was meant to represent the stages a dying patient goes through when they learn of their terminal illness, these stages can be applied to those suffering from grief or loss of a loved one.
Dr. Roberta Temes' book, "Living with an Empty Chair - a Guide Through Grief," describes a different set of stages for someone dealing with grief and loss:
Numbness (mechanical functioning and social insulation)
Disorganization (intensely painful feelings of loss)
Reorganization (re-entry into a more 'normal' social life)
Meditation, hypnotherapy and journaling can all help you to move through the painful emotions of the grieving process.
Why are these different stages important? Because awareness is important. It's important to be aware of what you're going through and which stage you're at. This will not only help you to recognize that what you're going through is normal, even predictable, it will also help you when it comes to determining what kind of activity, therapy, etc. will be best-suited to help you through the stage you're going through. A therapist who specializes in grief counseling will be able to help you identify where you're at with your grief to help you understand and work through your feelings.
Natural Methods to Overcome Grief
One method a counselor might use to help you overcome your grief is Emotional Release Hypnotherapy. Grief counselor Glen Russell believes that holding on to painful emotions of grief build up and become repressed. Those painful emotions and deep grief live in the subconscious mind. Hypnotherapy helps you to express those emotions by helping you to access your subconscious through a state of deep relaxation. Russell believes that expressing your painful emotions is the best way to overcome your grief and pain.
Russell also advocates Vispassana Meditation. Most cities have a Vispassana Meditation center that are donation-based. Their grief counseling program consists of 10 days of silent meditation, which forces you to unearth your deeply hidden painful emotions so that you can acknowledge them, accept them, and hopefully move on from them eventually
Some people have received help dealing with grief by keeping a journal. Sometimes it's easier to write than to talk. This method can help to put you in touch with your deep feelings and emotions by forcing you to acknowledge them by putting them into words. A number of people have reported feeling better by putting their feelings on paper.
There is no specific timeline to determine when you should be done grieving. In fact, some people will never be done grieving. Yet, while your lost loved one will never be forgotten, hopefully the intense emotional pain will subside over time, and your memories of their suffering will be replaced by more positive memories from the past.
If you are having trouble moving past piercing, painful emotions or you have unresolved issues (i.e. guilt) that keep you from moving forward -- or if your everyday functioning has been disrupted for a lengthy period of time -- please seek counseling from a therapist who can help you work through your grief. And remember, there is no time limit for overcoming grief. Everyone moves through it at their own pace. If, however, you do not feel any forward movement then you owe it yourself to find some way or someone to help you through it.
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Cancersurvivors.org. What are the Stages of Grief? September 2008.
Russell, Glen. Ezine Articles. Grief Counseling - the Top 5 Ways to Eliminate Grief. September, 2008.
PsychLinks Online. Treating Post-Traumatic Stress First Helps Children Overcome Grief. April 9, 2008.
Stein, Rob. Washington Post. Unrelenting Grief May be Sign of Distinct Syndrome. August 4, 2008.