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Grieving the death of a person close to you often involves intensely painful feelings. Waves of grief may come and go with varying intensity over months or years. It may feel that the pain will never end. Most people find that, over the course of a year or more, the intensity of grief may lessen. As hard as it may seem, people have found ways to adjust to life without the person they love and have lost. Working through the process of grief can be long and difficult, but there are things you can do to help yourself heal.
Strategies for coping with loss
Just as each person's experience of grief is unique, coping strategies work differently for each person. It may help to think about how you've coped with difficult situations in the past and apply similar strategies. Here are some tips for coping with a loss:
Allow yourself to experience the pain of loss. As much as it hurts, it is natural and normal to grieve. Sometimes people think they should "get over it" and may actually feel guilty for the way they feel. Give yourself permission to grieve. Allow yourself to fully feel all of the feelings of grief, including anger, guilt, or frustration. Don't judge yourself for having feelings that seem inappropriate. Talk about your feelings and let yourself react as you need to, even if it means crying or screaming. Some people find it helpful to set aside a private time every day to think about their loved one and experience the feelings that arise. This approach can be especially helpful for those who have difficulty showing their feelings in front of others.
Talk about your loss. Talking about your loss and sadness with others may help you release your feelings and pain. Let people know how important it is for you to be able to share your feelings with them. Reassure family and friends that you don't expect them to have answersâyou just need them to listen.
Express yourself. Perhaps you can experiment with other ways of expressing yourself through a creative activity you enjoy, such as music or art. You may also want to try writing in a journal or a diary to record your thoughts, feelings, and memories, and keep mementos, such as pictures and letters. Looking back through your journal allows you to see how your grief changes over time.
Find something active to do. Find a physical activity to help you cope with your feelings, such as walking or riding a bicycle. Vigorous exercise and activities like hitting a punching bag or going to the batting cage or driving range may help release frustration or anger.
Give yourself a break from grieving. Taking some time to enjoy the company of friends or pleasurable activities is also important. Going to dinner with friends or relaxing in a bath can provide a distraction and a break from grieving. Keep seeing supportive family and friends who you enjoyed spending time with before your loss. Remember that it is good for you to enjoy yourself and that it is okay to laugh and feel happy.
Maintain a routine. Maintaining a basic routine of daily activities helps you structure your time and keeps you connected to familiar people and places. Also, some people find starting new activities or hobbies to be helpful. If possible, avoid making major decisions, such as changing jobs or moving within the first year of bereavement. This will help maintain a sense of normalcy and security and lessens additional stress.
Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for the things you did or said to your loved one that you regret, in addition to the things you didn't get to say or do. Letting go of regrets and the pain that comes with them will allow you to focus on the good memories.
Be patient. Allow your grief to unfold at a pace that is natural for you. Don't judge or criticize yourself for not coping as well or for not healing as quickly as you think you should. Each person needs to grieve in ways that feel right.
Take care of yourself. Grieving is emotionally and physically exhausting, and it is important that you take care of yourself. Treat yourself well. Try to get enough sleep at night and eat a healthy diet.
Join a support group for bereaved individuals. Support groups offer you the chance to talk with others who share your feelings and experiences. Group members can offer encouragement, comfort, guidance, practical suggestions, and help reassure you that your experiences are normal. You may want to join a general bereavement support group or a group that is more specific to your situation, such as a group for bereaved spouses or for those who have lost a loved one to cancer.
When additional help might be needed
Most of the support that people receive after a loss comes from family and friends. Some people, though, feel they need more help coping with their grief. Grief counseling helps people work through the process of grief. This can happen in a one-on-one setting with a counselor or through a group facilitated by a counselor.
Grief therapy is for people who are having more serious or complicated grief reactions, known as complicated grief. A person with complicated grief is often not able to work through or resolve their grief without help. Complicated grief reactions usually fall into one of four types:
- Exaggerated grief, in which grief reactions are extreme and overwhelming and may worsen over time
- Chronic grief, in which feelings of intense grief continue indefinitely and do not improve over time
- Masked grief, in which a person may not appear to react to his or her loss, but instead has other reactions, such as an illness or aggressive behavior
- Delayed grief, in which grief reactions do not occur at the time of the loss, but may be triggered months or years later by another loss or other distressing event
The goals of grief therapy are to help a person understand why he or she is having a difficult time coping with the loss and identify conflicts that are preventing the person from resolving the grief. A mental health professional, such as a psychologist or clinical social worker, provides grief therapy in an individual or group setting.
Because each person grieves differently, no specific grief reactions automatically show that you need grief therapy. However, there are some signs that may show you need additional help coping with your grief. These signs include ongoing difficulty eating or sleeping well, not being able to work or complete regular daily activities six months after your loss, not being able to take care of yourself, feelings of worthlessness (when people feel undeserving of being alive), or thoughts of suicide.
To locate a grief counselor, therapist, or support group, check with members of your health care team, a local hospital or cancer treatment center, or a community hospice service. Get more ideas on how to find a counselor. You can also consider checking with your health insurance company or an employee assistance program at work.
National Cancer Institute: Loss, Grief, and Bereavement
LIVESTRONG: Grief and Loss
CancerCare: Grief and Bereavement