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Effective Ways to Deal with Sadness and Grief Part 2: Surviving the Death of a Loved One

After my mother died, I attended a 6 week hospice grief support group, and a couple of months later attended the whole six weeks again.

Despite the fact that I'd been a bereavement counselor myself and knew a lot about grief, it made a world of difference to feel the support of others going through the experience of loss.

We all need to be "accompanied" through difficult life passages, and my hope is that this article will help to support those of you who are facing the formidable task of recovering from the death of a loved one.

Although we grieve many losses throughout a lifetime, such as losing a job or a home, the death of a loved one is especially difficult. It is probably the most painful of all human experiences. Whether it is a parent, child, friend or a pet, a whole host of feelings is triggered by loss, and the only way to truly heal from the loss is to fully experience those feelings.

Everyone's journey through grief is unique and no two people will grieve in exactly the same way. There are, however, reactions that are common to everyone - and tactics everyone can use to help them through the grief.

A Truly Valuable Lesson: How to Mourn

"Grief" is term for all the responses that we have to loss, and "mourning" is the process through which we heal from loss.

Grief happens automatically -- we are flooded with all sorts of thoughts and feelings when we experience loss, but mourning may not come easily. In general, our society has not taught us how to mourn, and we are only now beginning to learn this important life skill. In this article I'll describe the normal, natural responses to loss, as well as what you can do to cope with these responses and heal.

Everyone's journey through grief is unique and no two people will grieve in exactly the same way.

There are, however, reactions to loss which are common to everyone. Knowledge of these responses can ease the way considerably by letting us know that our feelings and thoughts are normal and expectable.

Since grief can sometimes make us feel as if we are "going crazy," it can really help to know about the complex set of reactions which are a part of the territory. This knowledge can also help us to flow with the feelings of grief rather than trying to suppress them. The only way to get through grief is to go straight into the heart of it!

Following is a list of the characteristics of grief. Loss of a parent, spouse, child, friend or pet will all have a different quality, but the experiences below are common to all types of grief.

Physical Characteristics of Grief

  • Tightness in the throat, heaviness in the chest, bodily aches and pain.

  • Feeling dizzy, short of breath or headachy.

  • Frequent sighing.

  • Loss of appetite and/or increased eating.

  • A chronic feeling of tiredness.

Emotional Characteristics of Grief

  • Feeling emotionally numb.

  • Feeling as though the loss isn't real, that it didn't actually happen.

  • Intense sadness, depression and yearning.

  • Anger and irritation.

  • Crying at unexpected times.

  • Feeling guilty for what was said or not said, or for not having done enough for the person who died.

  • Feeling guilt over times when one is happy.

  • Intense anger at the loved one for leaving them or at God.

  • Sudden changes in mood.

  • Relief: if the person was ill before the death, there may be relief that their suffering is over.

  • Feeling as though life doesn't have any meaning.

  • An upsurge of emotional distress at anniversary dates, birthdays, holidays, etc.

Behavioral Characteristics of Grief

  • Sensing the loved one's presence, hearing their voice or seeing their face, expecting the person to walk in the door at the usual time.

  • Restlessness, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, not finishing things.

  • Difficulty sleeping and dreaming frequently of the loved one.

  • Being intensely preoccupied with the life of the person who died.

  • Assuming mannerisms and traits of the loved one.

  • Decreased desire for socializing.

  • Needing to remember and tell and retell things about the loved one and the experience of their death.

  • Questioning religion, philosophy or spiritual beliefs.

These experiences will occur for weeks, months and even years following a death, depending of the type of relationship we had with the person who died.

Grief comes in waves -- grief reactions can come and go, and the intensity varies considerably. Just when we feel that things are finally a bit easier, something can unexpectedly trigger a whole new flood of feelings.

Mourning is the process of experiencing these feelings and adjusting to life without the person who died. Mourning takes time and energy, and it can be difficult to allow ourselves the space we need to mourn. It is vital, however, to our health and well-being that we do this. It helps to know that powerful, overwhelming feelings will lessen with time.

There are a variety of ways we can be supported and help ourselves through grief and mourning. Listed below are some of the most important ways, followed by a list of resources for further ideas and support.

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How to Help Yourself Through Grief and Mourning

1) Seek and accept support. Support from others is one of the most important ingredients for healing grief. A grief support group can be especially helpful.

2) Accept your feelings. Allow yourself to roll with the tides of grief. Your feelings may be different and more intense than usual. It's normal to feel all sorts of strong emotions and essential to allow yourself to feel them.

3) Express your feelings. Talk about your loss with those who are able to be supportive. Writing in a journal can also be extremely helpful.

4) Learn about grief. Knowledge about grief can be essential to the healing process. It helps us to relax about what is happening and gives us tools for coping.

5) Nurture yourself and keep yourself healthy. Try to keep a regular schedule and maintain the basics of good health -- exercise, good food, rest. You may need more rest than usual. This is the time to pamper yourself -- get a massage, listen to relaxing music, take walks in nature, etc.

6) Pace yourself. Avoid unrealistic expectations of yourself. Grieving takes time and energy.

7) Involve yourself in work or meaningful activity, but also leave time for grieving. It's important to take allow time and space for grieving, but it's also helpful to continue some meaningful activities and connection. The key is to not pressure oneself about accomplishments and goals.

8) Don't be afraid to have fun. Even in the most trying times, the capacity for humor and fun can be present. It is not a betrayal of the loved one to be able to feel some joy.

9) Get professional help if needed. If you find that you are in great distress or in long-term depression, individual or group therapy from a counselor who specializes in grief may be advisable. You can ask your doctor for a referral.

When we are in the midst of grief, it is painful and can seem overwhelming. It can be hard to imagine that we will ever feel good again, but we all have the capacity to heal from loss and create a new life without our loved one.

I encourage you to learn more about grief and read the stories of others who have survived the loss of a loved one. You don't have to go through this journey alone. Others have experienced what you are experiencing and are available to support you now.

Additional Internet Resources -- Especially well-written and informative website How to help yourself with grief -- Extensive book list by topics -- A lovely, informative website -- Support with the death of a child

Also Read Part 1: The Most Effective Ways for You to Deal with Sadness columnist Mary Maddux has worked in the healing arts in both conventional and alternative settings. With an MS in clinical social work, she has worked as a counselor, helping people cope with the stresses of life. While working as a hospice counselor, she was introduced to various alternative healing arts. She eventually developed a healing arts practice and has taught many workshops.

She and husband Richard are producers of two renowned CDs, Sleep Easy: Guided Meditation for Deep Rest, and Pure Relaxation: Guided Meditations for Body, Mind & Spirit. Mary is the "voice" of these CDs while Richard, an accomplished composer of music for meditation with 20 years experience, created the music.

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