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UC Davis Health System

Coping with loss comes in many forms

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Take good care of yourself in times of grief. Allow yourself time to be sad, to reach out to others and to talk about what is on your mind. Guidelines for when to seek professional help are useful for those who wonder whether it is time to get a helping hand.

By Ladson Hinton, M.D.

The loss of a loved one is among the most severe traumas we experience. The death of a spouse, parent, family member or close friend can leave us feeling lost and devastated. And few are spared facing such a crisis at some point during their lives.

Dr. Hinton is a psychiatrist with specific expertise in the cultural aspects of geriatric mental health, particularly Alzheimer’s Disease and late-life depression.

Grief affects people differently. Personal history, cultural orientation, the nature of the relationship with the deceased, and the circumstances surrounding the death may affect how we experience the grieving process.

People should not feel like the intensity of their reaction or the length of their period of grief must somehow measure up to that of others. The pace and rhythm of the grieving process varies from person to person.

However, knowing what is characteristic of a “normal” grief response can be reassuring. Guidelines for when to seek professional help are useful for those who wonder whether it is time to get a helping hand. Learning from others about what helped them through difficult periods can also be invaluable.

A series of stages

People should not feel like the intensity of their reaction or the length of their period of grief must somehow measure up to that of others. The pace and rhythm of the grieving process varies from person to person.

Many people go through predictable stages when confronted with the loss of an intimate relationship. Most immediately feel numb, with a sense of disbelief that the traumatic events are occurring. When the shock wears off, sadness, loneliness and depression often take its place.

This painful period can be accompanied by sleep difficulties, changes in eating patterns, and emotional upheaval. Many experience physical symptoms, such as heart palpitations, dizziness or tightness in the throat. Psychological disturbances are also common, such as enhanced anxiety or briefly seeing or hearing the voice of the deceased person.

This period gradually gives way to healing. There is a renewed interest in work, home and a social life. A sense of personal reorganization enables one to create a new life without the presence of the lost loved one.

Help for the transition

Many people are helped during this difficult transition by the following:

  • Think of moving through the grief process rather than “getting over” your loved one or “returning to normal.” Losing someone will undeniably change you; it can make you stronger, more sensitive to others in need, and more attuned to what is really important in life.
  • Play out in your mind any unfinished business you had in your relationship. Try to come to a resolution to enable you to say good-by to your loved one.
  • Focus on the positive things you were able to do for your loved one rather than on what you should have or could have done.
  • Make a real effort to stay healthy by eating well, resting during the day and exercising several times each week. Beware of overusing alcohol or tranquilizers.
  • Accept offers of help from friends and family, and let others know what you need. Meals, rides, and other practical assistance are so important during a time of crisis. They also offer important ways for you to stay connected, and make others feel that they can help in a tangible way.
  • Spirituality and religion play an important part in the healing process for many.

When to consider seeking help

When should someone seek help from a doctor or other professional? It is always important to consult with your physician about new or worsening physical symptoms. And anyone who feels the need for extra help in coping with grief should not hesitate to make an appointment.

When should someone seek help from a doctor or other professional? It is always important to consult with your physician about new or worsening physical symptoms. And anyone who feels the need for extra help in coping with grief should not hesitate to make an appointment.

Talk with your primary care doctor or another clinician who knows you well if symptoms such as sleep problems, low energy, lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities, loss of appetite and depressed mood last longer than a few months. You may want to talk to your doctor sooner if the symptoms are severe, incapacitating, or accompanied by inattention to important health issues, increased use of alcohol or drugs (beyond what is prescribed by a physician), or by thoughts of self-harm.

In such cases, individual therapy or participating in a support group can be enormously helpful in moving through the grieving process. Talking about the relationship and how the loss has affected your life can bring closure to painful feelings and reveal inner sources of strength. For some, medication is necessary during this transition period.

Take good care of yourself in times of grief. Allow yourself time to be sad, to reach out to others and to talk about what is on your mind. At some point, grant yourself the next step, perhaps the most difficult: to put mourning aside and move on to life ahead.