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Coping with the death of a loved one

Grief is universal, yet each loss is unique


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April 19, 2017

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At some point, every one of us will experience the loss of a loved one. For some, it will come after an illness and not be a surprise. For others, it will happen suddenly and unexpectedly. Grief is universal, yet each loss is unique.

When a significant loved one dies, it is normal to feel grief. Grief is a natural intense emotional response caused by loss. Things will never be the same. Carri Sullivan, a grief counselor with HealthPartners Hospice, shares some ways to continue to grow while keeping a lasting connection with your loved one.

Take time to grieve

There is no set timeframe for grieving. You might hope that it will just go away. Or you might try to avoid the pain by not thinking about it. You might think it won’t bring a loved one back, so what’s the point? Even though it can be difficult to talk about loss, it can also be helpful in making sense of our emotional experiences that innately arise.

Grief doesn’t just go away. Suppressed grief can resurface causing distress and delayed grieving. This can be surprising to people who thought they already “dealt with it.” When unprocessed, grief can come out “sideways” with behaviors such as aggression and isolation resulting in strained relationships.

Common experiences

No two people experience grief in the same way. Some common experiences include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Intense sadness or tears
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Spiritual distress

Look and ask for support

Like any mental health struggles, we don’t need to suffer alone. There are people who care, who will listen and who “get it.” Find people who can walk the grief journey with you. Talk regularly about your grief and your memories with someone you trust. Being vulnerable allows for opportunity to receive love and support that we may not have otherwise known.

Don’t try to get over it

The goal is not to fix it or get over it. The goal is to learn to be in it, with the sadness, memories and love – and to adapt to this new sense of normal – which will never be the same without your loved one in it. Plan for special days such as holidays or anniversaries. Feelings can be particularly intense at these times. Give yourself permission to do things differently. Whatever you decide to do this year doesn’t mean you are committed to doing it that way forever.

Take care of yourself

Healthy grieving is an active process. Treat yourself with the same care you would extend to a friend.

  • Be careful to maintain healthy eating and sleeping patterns
  • Exercise moderately and regularly
  • Take warm, leisurely baths
  • See a counselor
  • Get a massage
  • Take a yoga class
  • Spend time in nature
  • Do something to help someone else

Grief is not linear it’s not a “to do” list that is clean, organized – and that we can check off the boxes once they are done. Grief typically comes in waves – which is a common metaphor used to describe grief. These “grief waves” of heightened emotion and triggers come and go and have high and low peaks.

Sometimes we have to hold on for dear life, trying to keep our heads above water and not be swept away as these waves crash over us. Waves come and go with the tide, yet there is always movement – current – that never goes away. We have to learn how to keep our footing so that the waves that will continue to come don’t keep knocking us over.

Instead, we learn what flotation devices are helpful – often what keeps us afloat is our support system of family, friends, neighbors, faith community, and/or professionals.

Grief can be scary and feel overwhelming. Yet, it is a part of everyone’s life. It is good and necessary to mourn. Give yourself time and space, practice self-care and look for and accept support from others.

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