Coping with loss or the death of a loved one

what is grief and how can one cope with it

White Swan Foundation

When we hear about a person's demise, our natural reaction is to feel sad or unhappy. People grieve over different kinds of symbolic losses such as divorce, unrequited love, break-up in a relationship or discovering that a loved one has mental illness etc. Grief throws up a complex set of emotions that us help adapt to the loss. Coping with grief is a difficult but necessary process. There are however no definite methods of how one should grieve or for how long.

Feelings that can be experienced during grief

  • Sorrow, sadness or unhappiness
  • Shock: Seen when the death or loss is sudden or unnatural. 
  • Guilt: When the surviving friend or relative feels that they could have done something to prevent the situation. 
  • Loneliness: This is experienced by people who have lost someone close or intimate. It also happens in cases where the person was dependent on the deceased and has few relationships to fall back on.
  • Anger or frustration: Some survivors may experience anger towards the deceased for having betrayed them or may feel frustrated at being suddenly abandoned. 

Coping with grief

Grief is a painful but is a necessary process to restore the person to health. Cultural or customary practices and ceremonies give people an opportunity to mourn, and get closure. Every person is unique and differs in the way they experience and cope with grief. A person experiencing grief needs to cope with three different aspects:

  • The deceased not being around anymore. The person may yearn for the company of the deceased as part of grieving
  • The mixed feelings experienced by the survivor. Every individual differ in the way they experience the feelings of grief
  • The circumstances in which the death occurred, i.e. whether it was natural or unnatural

Sometimes we  end up either denying or glossing over their feelings and even talk about the events in a matter-of-fact manner. While moving on with one’s life is vital, it is equally important to give oneself the time and space to grieve. When grief is not expressed, it can lead to a physical or emotional distress. For instance:

  • When feelings of anger and ambivalence are not acknowledged and expressed, it may lead to a chronic state of mourning where the survivor intensely longs for the deceased or has problems accepting the death. The same anger when turned inward can cause depression.  
  • People who are already vulnerable may be overwhelmed by grief, which may also lead to developing a mental illness, most commonly depression.
  • Some people may try to cope with grief and loss by using substances to deal with their difficulties.
  • Witnessing the death of someone can bring about a sudden awareness of one's own mortality, that can cause health-related anxiety. When the feelings of anxiety are intense and persistent, it is advisable to seek help to process the grief reaction.

It is important for people to experience the natural process of grief rather than to suppress or deny it. Grief counseling helps facilitate the grieving process. It involves identifying the emotions experienced, helping the person express these emotions, and moving on in an adaptive and healthy manner.

Some ways to cope with the death of a loved one

  • Reliving good memories of the person using photo-albums and videos: This can help recall memories of the person; it also helps in gradually exposing oneself to the feelings and emotions associated with the person.
  • Sorting through personal objects and memorabilia and deciding what one wants to keep and what one would like to let go off. 
  • Staying connected with people, and talking to someone you trust about the loss and grief experienced.
  • Keeping a journal of one’s reflections during the grieving process may help.
  • One may not feel like resuming daily living activities immediately, but it’s important to gradually get back to one’s routine.
  • Following the cultural rituals can give a sense of solace, and have a positive impact on one’s mental health.
  • One could also look at the spiritual meaning of such a loss. Sometimes, through spirituality a person is able to make sense of the event or loss.

This article has been written based on inputs from Dr Veena A S, assistant professor, department of clinical psychology, NIMHANS

White Swan Foundation