4 suggestions for coping with grief and the tragic loss of a loved one

by Rachel C. Sykes | Wellness, Self Care

We are supposed to feel bad about bad things

I am just back home after spending a few weeks on a family vacation, so it seemed an ideal time to talk about death.  Only kind of kidding. On my trip, I was introduced to a distant cousin in his 80s and I was struck by how many times he spoke about death and dying. When we spoke of another cousin, he said “Why, sure, she’s on her way out”, which meant that he thought she would soon be passing on herself. When I was feeling a little more reflective, I realized that much of my distant cousin’s daily life was spent dealing with loss and coping with grief. 

At his age, many of his friends and family have already passed away and the ones still living are probably dealing with aging issues themselves. I think he probably felt somewhat better after having the chance to talk about these things, especially with people who knew his friends and family when they were alive. I would like to think that maybe, it helped him feel more connected to life.

Emotions serve a purpose

coping-with-grief-feelings-woman

Feelings serve a purpose
Photo by Brock Wegner on Unsplash

We are bombarded with implicit messages that we are not supposed to “be emotional” (also known as crying).  These messages come from many places – a memory from your childhood, in a movie, in your present relationships.  Sometimes, this message seems to be coming from a place of compassion – recall a movie or television program where a child is being comforted by a loving parent after a loss or hurt and the parent softly whispers “hush…” to encourage the distraught child to stop crying.

I know that there can be situations in which it feels inappropriate to become upset, such as an adult who suffers a major disappointment at work.  However, acknowledging your feelings is an important first step in the grieving process. 

Even if it is socially unacceptable to cry at work, it could nonetheless be emotionally healthy to respond in the moment to a loss.  I admit that I am sometimes guilty of cracking a joke to lighten a dark mood.  However, crying when we are sad or otherwise upset helps us deal with a difficult experience in our lives.  I have observed that people who deal with loss by ignoring it and refusing to feel sad often find themselves dealing with the problem later in life.  Many of these individuals develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as becoming verbally explosive, physically abusive, dependent on drinking or drugs, and ultimately damage their relationships with others.

Are there really five stages of grief?

In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist published the book “On Death and Dying,”, where she introduced her famous “Five Stages of Grief” model conceptualized specifically to address the loss associated with death.  The stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Her work has been highly criticized, in part due to inaccurate assumptions by peers.  Specifically, one critique is that many people do not necessarily follow through all of these stages in the specified order. 

Another alleged weakness is that some individuals appear to go through a stage, such as anger, then later find they are re-experiencing anger and the thoughts and feelings associated with that stage.  Further, some individuals claim that they do not experience all five of these stages at all.  In fairness to Kubler-Ross, she never in fact made such claims and had to go on record to refute these somewhat spurious charges. 

However, one fair critique is that she offered this model without scientific evidence to support her model.  I will say that there are A LOT of psychological concepts that are similarly used that are based on one author’s own anecdotal observations, so this is hardly a shocker to me.  I should also point out that Kubler-Ross’s model was originally designed to apply to an older person who is it the stages of death themselves, not about what survivors experience when they lose a loved one, although that is how most people apply it. Another weakness is that it is a simple stage model and, like other similar models, it lacks dimensionality and flexibility.

Nonetheless, I personally think that it is a pretty useful framework to help people cope with a loss—whether it is the revelation that a person is dying, or if it is about the loss of a loved one.  I would emphasize that it is merely a framework and that each person experiences these kinds of losses in their own way.  Therefore, there is not set progression through a particular stage, nor is there an ideal length of time associated with each stage.  It is also not linear process, so it is not unusual to go through these stages more than once or to skip certain steps altogether.

Four ideas for coping with loss

coping-with-loss-ideas-lightbulb

Photo by Kai Gradert on Unsplash

1) talk about it:

Do you have a friend who is a good listener?  Maybe you know someone who has also experienced a similar loss and might be willing to lend you an ear.

2) Join a group:

Yes, I am talking about group therapy here.  One reason it can be difficult to talk about a death or other loss is that you feel that other people don’t really understand how you feel.  While people are not cookie-cutters, the members of a support group by definition are going through a similar experience, so you may find a sense of comfort there.  However, for those of you cynics who aren’t open to therapy at this time, please be aware that there are many types of organizations that offer support groups.  For example, churches and other religious organizations, senior centers, libraries offer support groups, sometimes for minimal costs. 

3) Write it down:

Okay, maybe you’re not someone who wants to talk about their personal thoughts and feelings. If that works for you, nice!  Perhaps another approach would be to perform a “dump” of your thoughts and feelings in written form.  If you are old school and want to write in a hard-copy book, when you are finished, you can decide to throw it out or even burn it afterwards. 

If you can bear it, however, you may find it helpful to read through some of your writing at a later date before ultimately disposing of the materials.  Alternatively, one could use an app to journal, perhaps using the simple Notes app on your phone, which of course you can delete at your convenience.

4) Counseling:

As a therapist, I have had many clients dealing with loss, whether it is the primary reason they are seeking services or the loss simply arises during the course of our work focused on other issues. I find that it can be valuable to allow the client to acknowledge their suffering, and hopefully, over time, they develop the ability to remember their deceased loved one more comprehensively, to recall their life as well as their death.

I often suggest therapeutic exercises to clients, as I imagine many of my peers do as well, so that clients can work on these issues outside of session.  I like this because it allows more time to focus on the subject (at no extra cost!) and it serves as a good model for helping clients learn to cope with problems outside of therapy.

It’s not only about death

When I hear someone mention the word “grief”, I usually jump immediately to the assumption that someone has passed away.  I think that many of us do the same.  However, it is pretty common to experience a painful sense of loss for many reasons, and all reasons are legitimate.  I often hear friends, family, and clients belittle such a loss, noting that it is not as bad as someone else’s.  While our respective losses can have different intensities, contributing factors and progressions, suppressing this grief and all the feelings that go with it are likely to prolong the suffering.

References

The Five Stages of Grief: An Examination of the Kubler-Ross Model.  Updated Jun 7, 2022.

https://www.psycom.net/stages-of-grief

Stroebe, M., Schut, H., & Boerner, K. (2017). Cautioning Health-Care Professionals: Bereaved Persons Are Misguided Through the Stages of Grief. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 74(4), 455-473.

https://doi.org/10.1177/0030222817691870
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0030222817691870

Tyrrell P, Harberger S, Schoo C, et al. Kubler-Ross Stages of Dying and Subsequent Models of Grief. [Updated 2023 Feb 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507885/

Wikipedia, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, retrieved 10/3/2023.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_K%C3%BCbler-Ross

Thank you for reading:
4 Suggestions for Coping with Grief and the Tragic Loss of a Loved One by Rachel C. Sykes.
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Rachel C. Sykes
Therapist & Business Owner at Rachel C. Sykes, LMHC, LLC <br>

I am a licensed mental health therapist in downtown Boston who helps stressed out professional women who feel undervalued at work and overly-responsible at home regain their confidence and enthusiasm for life without feeling guilty for their successes. I offer in-person, walk and talk, and telehealth sessions and am licensed in Massachusetts.

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