Coping with the loss of a loved one is one of the most challenging experiences in life. You may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions including anger, disbelief, guilt and deep sadness. At times, these feelings can affect your sleep, work, health and disrupt your routines of life. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is a wide variation in how one person responds to the loss of a loved one and low long one person takes to overcome grief. However, there are some ways that can help us to cope with the pain of our loss, and over time, that will enable us to come to terms with the loss of our loved one, find renewed meaning in life and reinvest in life again.
What is grief?
It is defined as an intense sorrow, following the loss of a loved one. The more significant the person is to you, the greater the loss. It is a natural response. Remember, you need not feel ashamed to grieve and mourn for someone you lose.
How we cope with our loss and how our grief takes us depends on many factors including your personality, your life experience, your lifestyle, your faith and how significant was your loved one. There is no ‘timetable’ for the grieving process. It may take weeks to months or even years for different people. Recognise that you are unique and you do not need to ‘hurry’ yourself to ‘get over’ your loss in order to move on. Allow yourself time to work with your loss while the healing process takes place. This way you can embrace this transition period with strength and find a renewed meaning in life.
How to cope with grief?
- Acknowledge your pain.
- Accept that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions.
- Understand that your grieving process will be unique to you.
- Seek out face-to-face support from people who care about you.
- Support yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically.
- Recognize the difference between grief and depression.
Myths and facts about grief
Myth: The pain will go away faster if you ignore it.
Fact: Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.
Myth: It’s important to “be strong” in the face of loss.
Fact: Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss. Crying doesn’t mean you are weak. You don’t need to “protect” your family or friends by putting on a brave front. Showing your true feelings can help them and you.
Myth: If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the loss.
Fact: Crying is a normal response to sadness, but it’s not the only one. Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others. They may simply have other ways of showing it.
Myth: Grief should last about a year.
Fact: There is no specific time frame for grieving. How long it takes differs from person to person.
Myth: Moving on with your life means forgetting about your loss.
Fact: Moving on means you’ve accepted your loss—but that’s not the same as forgetting. You can move on with your life and keep the memory of someone or something you lost as an important part of you. In fact, as we move through life, these memories can become more and more integral to defining the people we are.
Grief can be a roller coaster
Symptoms of grief
In the early stages of grief, you can feel anything from feeling you are going crazy or you are having a bad dream. And that is natural. Many people experience the emotions described below which can be very intense at times. They do not occur in any particular order.
- ‘Shock’ and disbelief– following the loss of a loved one, it is hard to accept that death has occurred. You may even deny that your loved one is dead. At times, you think that your loved one may just walk through the door or come to have a meal with you as if it was another ‘regular’ day.
- Sadness– this is most often associated with grief. The feeling of yearning, despair, loneliness and distress which can be overwhelming at times. You may feel emotionally unstable and lost. You may cry when you think of your loved one or even something that triggers the memory of your loved one.
- Guilt– you may regret for doing or not doing certain things. It could be things you wanted to say. Often, people feel that they hadn’t said things like ‘I love you’, ‘ forgive me’ before the loved one passed away and that makes them feel guilty. You may feel guilty about medical decisions you made that could have ‘contributed’ to the death of your loved one.
- Anger– you may be angry with yourself as you cope with your loss. Sometimes you feel the healthcare team is responsible of your loved one’s death even if you know it’s not true. Resentment and bitterness can develop and you may even find yourself questioning your faith and religious beliefs.
- Fear– when your loved one is not around anymore, you may be anxious about the future. You know you will not have the presence and support of this person and worry about facing the uncertainties ahead alone. Feelings of insecurity and loneliness can cause you to feel frightened.
Grief can also affect us physically. You can experience a loss of appetite, poor sleep, tiredness, lower energy or even agitation.
Seek support for your grief
When you lose your loved one, you may want to withdraw from people, even those who care about you. However, by doing so, you isolate yourself and that can worsen your coping difficulties. Having face-to-face support is essential for you to grieve well. Expressing your feelings and thoughts will help you ease part of the emotional burden inside. Below are suggestions to seek practical help.
- Talk to your family and friends– sharing your feelings and memories are important for you during this period. There is no shame in opening up your heart to people who truly care for you. Talk to them and cry out those feelings of sadness and pain. They do play a significant role to journey with you in your grief.
- Depend and lean on your faith– many derive a sense of comfort and assurance when they turn to their religious beliefs. You can meditate and pray, trusting in what your faith teaches you. This may be a time for you to explore your own spirituality if you don’t hold on to any faith.
- Join a support group– there are many different support groups available and you can find out more on what is suitable for you from the healthcare team or the social worker. A support group consists of people who face a similarproblem and they meet together to share about their experiences and coping. Knowing that others experience the same situations as you may help to alleviate your emotional suffering.
- Seek a counsellor or therapist– if you find your grief very intense and you do not seem to be able to help yourself, speak to a trained counsellor or therapist. They can guide you through the difficulties in your grieving process.
Grief Self- management
These are some ways you can help yourself both emotionally and physically. It is important that you need to care for yourself:
- Face your feelings– acknowledge the pain and sadness you feel. By avoiding these, you will build up negative feelings that lead to depression and isolation.
- Express your feelings and thoughts– talk to people who care about you or people in the same support group. You can also journal and pen down everything that is on your mind.
- Solitude– being alone can allow to enjoy memories of your loved one and bring a quiet sense of fulfilment and joy.
- Keep routines– keeping routines like regular exercise, meals and rest are good for you. Your regular vocational work or duties can serve as good ‘distractions’ that allow you to make yourself useful even as you grieve. Try not to make major decisions especially in the early stages of loss because during time, your decision making process can be affected by your emotional pain.
- Accept help– learn to accept acts of kindness from others who care about you.
- Creativity helps– you can explore doing something new as in expressing your feelings in art, or music. You may want to create a special album of pictures or journals of your loved one. You may consider volunteering your time to help others in need.
- Time helps– your pain will heal over time and that helps you to find a renewed meaning for living. One does not ‘get over it’ but as one works through grief over unhurried time, he/she will be ready to move on with life and re-invest their life.
- Beware of grief ‘triggers’– anniversaries, birthdays and milestone days can ‘hit’ you hard as the absence of your loved one is magnified. Prepare yourself emotionally and speak to your family and friends about how you are feeling.
The sadness of losing someone you love never goes away completely, but it shouldn’t remain the centre of your life. If the pain of the loss is so constant and severe that it keeps you from resuming your life, you may be suffering from a condition known as complicated grief. Complicated grief is like being stuck in an intense state of mourning. You may have trouble accepting the death long after it has occurred or be so preoccupied with the person who died that it disrupts your daily routine and undermines your other relationships.
Symptoms of complicated grief include:
- Intense longing and yearning for your deceased loved one
- Intrusive thoughts or images of your loved one
- Denial of the death or sense of disbelief
- Imagining that your loved one is alive
- Searching for your deceased loved one in familiar places
- Avoiding things that remind you of your loved one
- Extreme anger or bitterness over your loss
- Feeling that life is empty or meaningless
The difference between grief and depression
Distinguishing between grief and clinical depression isn’t always easy as they share many symptoms, but there are ways to tell the difference. Remember, grief can be a roller coaster. It involves a wide variety of emotions and a mix of good and bad days. Even when you’re in the middle of the grieving process, you will still have moments of pleasure or happiness. With depression, on the other hand, the feelings of emptiness and despair are constant.
Other symptoms that suggest depression, not just grief, include:
- Intense, pervasive sense of guilt
- Thoughts of suicide or a preoccupation with dying
- Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Slow speech and body movements
- Inability to function at home, work, and/or school
- Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there
When to seek professional help for grief
If you recognize any of the above symptoms of complicated grief or clinical depression, talk to your family doctor. Left untreated, complicated grief and depression can lead to significant emotional damage, life-threatening health problems, and even suicide. But treatment can help you get better.
Contact a grief counselor or professional therapist if you:
Feel like life isn’t worth living
Wish you had died with your loved one
Blame yourself for the loss or for failing to prevent it
Feel numb and disconnected from others for more than a few weeks
Are having difficulty trusting others since your loss
Are unable to perform your normal daily activities
- Samaritans of Singapore (S.O.S) 24-hour helpline: 1800 221 4444
- Mental Health Helpline: 6389 2222
- Care Corner Counselling Hotline (Mandarin): 1800 3535800
- AMP Hotline (Malay/Muslim): 6416 3960/ 64163961
- SINDA Family Service Centre (Indians): 1800 295 3333
If you have suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately. Speak to a trusted family member or friend, your family doctor or you can call SOS (Samaritans of Singapore tel: +651800-2214444). Remember, you do not need to suffer alone and help is available.
Reinvesting in life after you lose your loved one
As you journey the grief process, you will eventually reach a point when you feel ready to engage in life again. You will experience a new or different perspective of life and desire to live purposefully again. Some people find a new job, a new hobby or new relationships. Many find their faith growing stronger and become spiritually more mature.
You may keep albums and journals of your loved ones to share with family and friends. Visits to the grave or columbarium enable you honour the memory of your loved one. Now and then, you may have pangs of guilt and sadness when you discover new pleasure and joys without your loved one as you may feel that you have ‘forgotten’ him/her. However, you can honour these memories in your heart by remembering to revisit them in your heart and look at the special albums and journals you have created. A mother who lost her teenage daughter wrote: ‘The memory does not go away when you start to heal, and living a full life does not deny the emptiness left by loss’.