The loss of a loved one is one of the most challenging experiences that a person can have. Grief can be devastating, but it is also a fact of life. There is simply no way to avoid it. So, if grief cannot be avoided, what can we do? We can develop tools to help us successfully navigate the grieving process and feel less alone. It is important, though, to remember that no tools are a one-size-fits-all solution. Grief is highly personal, and different people navigate this process differently.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that grief and healing are not linear processes. There is also no timeline for how long it takes a person to grieve and heal. Many people experience a zigzag line with their grief. One day, they may feel like they took a huge step forward with healing, and the next, they may spend next to a large box of Kleenex, feeling alone. A sense of loneliness is not specific to grief, but this loneliness can be one of the more devastating impacts of grief. This nonlinear aspect is okay, and it is perfectly normal.
Having said that, research in the field of grief and loss, initially pioneered by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, suggested that there are five stages of grief; each stage has its own unique emotions and challenges. Some later experts in this field have indicated that there are actually seven stages that people progress through. Other experts point to guilt, survivor’s guilt, as another important emotion that swirls around the grieving process. The original five stages are:
Denial happens when people cannot admit that the loss has occurred and that their life has changed. Denial can also frequently be associated with a sense of numbness.
Anger can be directed at a wide range of people during this stage. For example, a spouse may be angry at their partner who died. There may also be anger directed at doctors who did not save their loved ones.
Bargaining happens when a person tries to make deals or negotiate for their loved ones to return. For example, if I could have my husband for just one more week, I promise that I would never ask for anything else again. One of the most common questions that come up during this stage is What If? People may replay scenarios from the hospital and wonder if they had done things differently if there would have been a different outcome.
Often people in this stage of the grief process feel overwhelming sadness.
The acceptance stage does not mean the sadness is over. It merely means the person realizes what has happened and has begun to take steps to move forward.
It is important to remember that grief is not linear. People may move backwards and forwards throughout these stages of grief. This is normal, and it is entirely okay. It is also important to recognize that some people may experience emotional symptoms as they grieve. It’s also possible for individuals to develop physical manifestations, such as dizziness and heart palpitations. Even though grief is highly unique and specific, some experts suggest that it may be beneficial to re-frame your grief and remember that others have also experienced devastating losses and have come out the other side.
As noted above, grief can be a debilitating and lonely process with significant emotional and physical experiences on the person who has survived. Fortunately, there are tools and steps that can help a person more successfully navigate grief. Not all of these steps will work for every person, and you do not need to do every step. Try some of the steps below and see which ones seem to work best for you.
Often, people are so overwhelmed with their grief that they forget to engage in simple self-care processes. Frequently, sleep is one of the things that is interrupted by grief. People may struggle with insomnia, and many may experience nightmares or troubled sleep when they do sleep. Also, because nighttime is not filled with tasks, people feel overwhelmed about big thoughts related to their loss, leading to a spiraling of emotions.
Unfortunately, all of the above can set up a dangerous cycle of sleep deprivation. Prolonged sleep deprivation can cause real physical and emotional consequences for people. Some of the long-term consequences associated with a lack of sleep include raising the risk of developing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Given the risks associated with a lack of sleep, it is important to set up healthy sleep schedules. If you still find yourself struggling to sleep, bring this issue up with your health care provider. There are medications, as well as natural remedies, that may help with your sleep.
Often, people feel that their appetite is negatively impacted by grief. Their appetite may decline dramatically, and sometimes, people also report feeling nauseous. The latter can make eating very challenging. It is also essential to focus on healthy eating, even if your appetite is impacted by the loss you experienced. Without eating a healthy diet, you may find yourself experiencing a downward trend in your own health.
Take time to have frequent small meals during the day, and if necessary, add in a multi-vitamin. If you are struggling to cook for yourself, reach out to friends and family members, or people in your faith community, who may be able to help provide meals.
Also, take the time to exercise. Exercise is vital for your physical and mental health, and it also gives you a reason to get out of your house. A short walk can be a great break during your day! Research and experience support this conclusion too. More than ⅔ of older adults report that getting outside and exercising is their most effective tool in combating loneliness.
Start with small and achievable goals. Set a reminder on your phone each day to get outside and exercise. Even a brief 20-minute walk can be extremely beneficial.
Often, it is easy to get lost inside of one’s own grief. The process of grieving begins to take up every minute of your day. One might begin to forget that there is a life outside of their home and their grief. To address this, it can help find a hobby where you can focus some of your thoughts and energy.
Find a hobby that speaks to your personality and interests. Once Covid-19 has come to an end, it may help join a group with people who share the same hobby. This will provide you with much-needed companionship.
Finding someone to talk through your grief can be an important tool in the healing process. Often, people turn to their family members for this step in the healing process. However, this can be complicated because family members are going through the same loss and healing process. Sometimes, it helps to turn to people who are not emotionally invested in the process.
This may mean finding a qualified therapist in your area. If you do not have a therapist immediately available to you, you can also look into remote or telehealth solutions to bring therapy to you. Also, ask people you know who they have used to help with this healing process. Personal recommendations for therapists can be invaluable.
In addition, private grief therapists can be costly, and every insurance policy does not always cover these sessions. The good news is that there are other options.
Many churches offer grief groups where you can share your healing process with others experiencing the same thing. It can be extremely beneficial to understand that you are not alone with what you are experiencing. Others are living and learning through the same process. You may also pick up helpful hints from others about what has helped them.
Another useful resource may be your local hospital that may also offer bereavement groups. Not all groups are the same, and you can try several groups before finding one that is the best fit for you.
Often, grief paralyzes us in the moment. And, in this paralysis, we forget to carry on with our practical daily activities. But it is crucial that we do these things.
After your spouse passes away, don’t forget to keep paying all of your essential bills, such as credit card bills, your mortgage, and utilities. Credit scores remain important.
Also, in terms of practical details, don’t forget to reach out to your bank and credit card companies and report your spouse’s death. Be sure to make necessary name changes as well. It is also important to reach out to your life insurance company and social security to update them on this life change. These organizations will often want to see copies of your spouse’s death certificate, so make sure to order these.
On the one hand, these practical details can seem overwhelming at the moment. As a result, if you do feel overwhelmed, do not hesitate to reach out to loved ones or professionals to assist you with the process. On the other hand, many people report that doing these daily activities helps them process their grief and begin to move forward.
Often a spouse’s death can change a person’s financial circumstances either positively or negatively. This is a reality that does need to be dealt with. Most professionals recommend taking a pause and not making big decisions when you are deep in grief. Many people recommend delaying these big decisions for at least one year. For big decisions, such as deciding to sell a family home, make sure to reach out to professionals in these areas for their advice.
In the days and weeks immediately following a spouse’s death, it may seem impossible to look to the future. You may not even be able to imagine a future that does not have your spouse in it. As time goes on, you may find yourself looking toward the future, and this frequently, at least in the beginning, is accompanied by feelings of guilt. It is important not to feel guilty. Your partner would have wanted you to find happiness.
In addition, this happiness will look different for different people. For some people, happiness may involve a long, planned dream trip. Others see happiness as opening their heart up to find love again. Take your time to think about these things and then pursue your dreams. Having plans is a good and healthy thing, and you should embrace this.
A significant amount of the advice and recommendations offered above is predicated upon time. Grieving and healing both take time. But, not everyone has the gift of time. Some grieving spouses are still working, and others may be active caregivers to other family members. These dueling responsibilities can definitely impact the healing process, adding even more stress.
Even in these complex situations, the grieving partner should still look to carve out time each day for themselves for essential self-care, such as having healthy meals and engaging in daily exercise. It is also important to know that the grieving process cannot be indefinitely delayed, even if you are crunched for time and torn in different directions.
Grief and its manifestations will come out, no matter how busy you are with other areas of your life. For these time-crunched individuals, reaching out and involving professionals, such as a grief and loss counselor, may be even more critical. Prioritize talking with somebody.
Grief and loss are among the most painful things that a person can ever experience, but grief and loss are also an inevitable part of the human experience. It cannot be avoided — sadly. Therefore, it is important to develop tools to help people navigate the various stages of grief the best that they can.