Losing someone close to you can be draining physically as well as emotionally and perhaps the most painful transition you’ll face in your life. Your world has just been turned upside down. You’ve lost a loved one — someone so close to your heart, so much a part of the inner fabric of your life, that you feel you can’t go on. Grief can affect both the mind and the body in dramatic ways.
At first, grief may permeate everything. You may find it hard to eat or sleep. You may experience restlessness, memory impairment or difficulty concentrating. Symptoms similar to those the deceased had described may crop up in your own body — a frightening experience if he or she died from an illness.
Brain imaging studies show that when a person is grieving, areas of the brain involved in rational thought and emotional control are less active than usual, while the part of the brain that processes fear and other emotions is in overdrive. Other studies show that emotional pain activates the same brain circuits as physical pain, so your pain is very real, even if you’ve suffered no physical injury.
Yet, one thing is clear: For all the pain and sorrow the death of a loved one evokes, people are remarkably resilient. Life does go on, if in a different way than before. It may be of some comfort to know that there is help available on this journey. Those who have walked the same path, as well as therapists and counselors who have helped guide people in times of loss, can be a source of consolation and healing.
This article contains practical ideas for coping with grief from Harvard Medical School. As you’ll see, no single pathway leads out of grief or ensures closure. Accepting that there is no “right” way to grieve can be a powerful first step. Doing so gives you permission to grieve at your own pace and in your own way.
The following strategies may help ease your pain around holidays and other difficult times.
- Be with people. Even though you may not feel like it, social contact in person or virtually is usually comforting. Choose people you feel comfortable with. Share what is on your mind. Remind them that they don’t need to “fix” your pain, but that it would be helpful for them to listen.
- Start a new tradition or build on an old one. Remember the deceased on special occasions by placing a lighted candle on the table, leaving an empty chair, cooking one of their favorite recipes or saying a few words of remembrance. If the person who died always played a special role in festivities, ask another family member to carry on the tradition.
- Ask for advice. Talk to others who have lost people close to them to find out how they have managed holidays.
- Change the celebration. Opt for a simpler celebration. Go out to dinner instead of planning an elaborate meal at home. Schedule a trip or an outing with family members or friends.
- Express your needs. Let others know that you may not participate in all the festivities this year or that you need to let go of overwhelming or unsatisfying traditions. Feel free to tell people you’re just not up to it right now or to change plans at the last minute. Don’t feel pressured to do more than you want to do. Cry if you need to. Leave an event when you wish to.
- Plan to mark the day. Walk through a nature preserve. Visit the cemetery or the place where ashes were scattered. Enjoy an activity the deceased would also have loved, tell a joke she would have appreciated or perform a service for others in his honor. Think of a ritual to help you connect. Light a candle and say a prayer. Make a toast to your loved one. Carry a memento from your loved one. Meditate. Tell someone you’re close to how you feel and why. Ask people to share their memories of the deceased with you.
- Help someone else. Volunteer to help others through a charitable or religious organization. Make a donation to a favorite cause in memory of the person who died.
- Turn to family and friends. If you are fortunate, family and friends can provide a strong source of support. Often, a death prompts people to think about what’s important in life. It can break down barriers built up years ago and motivate people to help one another. The compassionate gestures of friends and family cannot be underestimated in times of grief and bereavement. Whether these gestures are small or large, the kindness of loved ones can sustain and console you in a difficult time.
Alan D. Wolfelt, a grief counselor and author of “Healing Your Grieving Heart,” suggests identifying three people who can support you through the grief experience. Think about who is the most helpful and the least judgmental in your circle. Ask them whether they can help by listening to you when you need to talk and spending time with you when you need support. Of course, there are times and situations when such encouragement is not readily available. In these circumstances, a counselor or bereavement group can provide needed support.
It may help to know that most people are resilient. Over time, healing occurs. While most people recover from their grief by drawing on their own inner resources and the support of friends and family, others may find that this is not sufficient. In such cases, you may find it helpful to turn to a mental health professional.
Finally, if time hasn’t eased your grief, see your doctor. After a loss, any upsetting physical symptoms may be magnified and can make you feel terribly alone and insecure. A visit to your doctor can identify ailments that could put you further under the weather or may just restore peace of mind.
Judd Matsunaga is the founding attorney of Elder Law Services of California, a law firm that specializes in Medi-Cal Planning, Estate Planning and Probate. He can be contacted at (310) 348-2995 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Pacific Citizen or constitute legal or tax advice and should not be treated as such.