Finding Your Way After Losing Someone You Love
Published By Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP
March 7, 2022
Uncontrollable crying. Burning anger. Total exhaustion. Loss of interest in the world. Grief can include all of this and more.
It’s not just the final event of death that sparks this complex emotion. Grief can begin the moment a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, becomes disabled, or suffers a life-changing injury. Losing someone to Alzheimer’s, for example, can be a gradual slipping away over years. Each small loss in a loved one’s ability or coherence can spark a fresh wave of grief.
It’s important to remember that grief is a process. Like all processes, they can be messy. The ups and downs are unpredictable, and some days will be worse than others.
Still, it’s helpful to know the phases of grief, as they serve as a comfort and a guide.
The Stages of Grief
Author of the 1969 international bestseller On Death and Dying, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross first identified the original five-stage grief model. As a voluminous researcher of the near-death stage of life, she identified a pattern – a progression of emotions that was common in those facing a terminal diagnosis.
Now, these stages have been recognized as applicable to the surviving loved ones, as the grief experienced when you lose a loved one takes you down a similar emotional path.
Originally a five-stage model of grief, Kubler-Ross added two additional stages – shock and grief – in her book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.
Seven Stages of Grief
Of course, these stages are only a guide. Not only does everyone have a unique experience of grief, the stages do not always occur in a linear manner. You can skip forward, slide back a few, or experience more than one at once. There is also no set time period for you to grieve.
How to Navigate through the Loss of a Loved One
The moment grief starts, you are on a journey. It’s not one you wanted or asked for, but perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that many have navigated these waters before you.
As rough as it may be, there are ways to ease your travels and help you better cope with the loss of a loved one:
At First, It’s About Just Getting Through the Day
“I’m going to get out of bed every morning… breathe in and out all day long, Then, after a while, I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out… and, then, after a while, I won’t have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while.” – Tom Hanks (Sam Baldwin), Sleepless in Seattle, in response to the question of what he was going to do after losing his wife
In the beginning it is about survival. You are in a state of shock, denial, and may even feel numb… but there are things to be done.
First comes a wave of arrangements for the funeral, celebration of life, or cremation. Then there are the immediate practicalities of finances and material matters. During that first week or so – or even few months or more – it’s about getting through the day (and night).
Focus on doing what is required each minute, as you encounter each one. This is not the time to take on a new job, extra duties, or other commitments. You need to take care of yourself at the freshest stage of grief. That means continuing to eat, drink and sleep… and if you need help with any of these things, you should get it. Other people will be full of suggestions, you can take a note (or not) for later. Right now, just concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
Look for Support (Professional, if Needed)
“My name is Sophie and I joined the grief group because…well, because I sort of did a crazy thing. I drove my Honda through our garage door. I was coming home from work one night and – even though my husband has been dead for three months – I honestly thought I would run inside and tell him to turn on the radio because they were playing an old recording of Flip Wilson which he loves. Loved. Ethan had been trying to find a copy of that skit for years, and here it was on the radio. If I hurried, we could tape it. Then I had the sudden realization that my husband was gone, dead, and the next thing I knew the car was lurching through the door. The wood creaked and cracked as I lurched through the splintered door… My shrink, Dr. Rupert, pointed out later that I could have hurt myself or someone else and insisted I join this group. “ – Main character in Good Grief by Lolly Winston
When grief strikes, friends and family will likely offer support in various forms. From listening ears and companionship to home repairs and meal preparation, accepting this help is critical to your journey through grief. As humans, we were designed to be social; lean on those around you for extra support right now.
When you are ready, though, there is no substitute for professional help. You have options, including grief support groups and one-on-one counseling with a therapist.
Trained psychotherapists have strategies to offer and coping mechanisms to teach that will help you deal with a major loss – they can be a lifeline when you are sinking in grief.
Also, at some point, others may grow weary of talking about your grief. They may want you to be done with your grieving already. But grief defies schedules. A professional therapist or counselor, on the other hand, will be there as an ever-present outlet. They can help you navigate through grief, offering an objective eye and dedicated, focused attention. They can point out what you cannot see, ensuring you stay on the course for healing and avoid avoidable storms.
Allow Yourself Small Things
You may feel guilty doing things you love. Don’t. Any minute you can carve out from grief is a blessing.
If you can immerse yourself in a movie for a few hours or take a day to read a book all the way through, that is helping you heal. Whether it is fishing, a beach trip, or just a walk around your neighborhood, allow yourself an escape from the heaviness of grief whenever possible (within reasonable, healthy limits, of course).
You can also reward yourself for making it through each day. Do something you enjoy, because, truly, you deserve it.
Don’t Expect Big Things
Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect big things after losing someone you love. Lose the timeframe and the expectations and just let yourself be. You have a big job right now: Getting through the acute stages of grief.
You will always miss your loved one. That’s the non-acute stage of grief, where you hold your loved one in your heart and never forget them, but their memory becomes less searingly painful than it is now. When you make your way to this point in your journey, it will be easier to start making new plans and goals.
Right now, it’s time to take it easy. Those around you should understand that even going out to dinner can be ambitious now. (And, if they don’t, send them a link to this article).
Consider Treatment for Depression
Depression is a normal stage of grief. It can be overwhelming and bothersome when it is a major interference with your life. It’s really not that hard to get stuck in depression when you are grieving. If you haven’t sought out a qualified professional before, now is the time to do so. Counseling and medication and ancillary treatments can do wonders.
For those for whom medication does not help, there is a FDA-cleared, clinically proven treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. It’s a noninvasive alternative to medication that uses electrical stimulation to get the brain back to normal functioning. A typical course of TMS treatment is 20 sessions over four weeks, with periodic maintenance sessions. Normal daily activity can be resumed directly afterward.
Nearly 75 percent of clients experience relief with TMS, and 50 percent achieve remission. Anxiety symptoms tend to decrease as well.
Stay Strong by Allowing Moments of Weakness
You may be asking how you stay strong after losing someone. The answer is to allow yourself to grieve fully. Feel the sadness and the anger and the despair, and then allow those feelings to pass when they pass.
It takes more courage to let yourself feel than it does to deny those feelings. Be honest with others – your children, your co-workers, your therapist – about how you are doing. People admire people who are real. It resonates with what is actually happening in their own lives. Even if they haven’t experienced the same intensity of grief you have, they can certainly empathize. Everyone has had a brush – if not a full-on hit – with trauma.
You can also take full advantage of your relationship with your therapist, it’s a safe place to let out your deepest feelings.
Find Your Purpose
Losing someone you love is like having an earthquake shake away not just your home but your hometown as well. After the first tidal wave of grief subsides, your goal is to rebuild your life on a new foundation (and in a new place, if need be).
As you gain your footing, knowing you and your immediate household are okay, you can start incorporating the needs of others into your life again. This is where true healing beings.
Ask yourself: Who needs you? What can you do to be a help to others?
Maybe a young parent in your neighborhood needs help with childcare – whether it’s occasional or a daily. What about your family, your children, your parents, sisters, brothers, or even extended family such as your cousins and aunts and uncles? Do any of them need help? Even spending an hour of time with a lonely person makes a world of difference.
Life is about people. Put them first, and you’ll find yourself getting stronger and feeling better every day.
Re-Establish a Sense of Identity
When you lost a loved one, you lost a part of your identity. It’s a worldly part, a role you play here – be it a wife, husband, partner, daughter, son, mother, or father.
You still are those things, they are still within you. The focus is what shifts.
Realize that you still have more roles to play. Identify and invest in them. Spend more time with other members of your family. Devote yourself to your church and get together with friends more.
You can also help yourself heal by taking on new identities. Perhaps you can volunteer in your community, join a gym, go back to school, start a new hobby (or pick back up on an old one).
Remember also that what you focus on grows bigger. Dwelling excessively on the past can keep you stuck in your grief. You will never forget your loved one – they will always be a part of your identity and the story of your life. Now, though, it’s time to focus on what is here for you to do and be, and, when you put your focus there, that part of your life will grow.
Change Your Environment
A Yale University study found that individuals suffering grief didn’t all fit the five-to-seven stage mold. The missing ingredient, they found, was their environment.
“If patients were surrounded by positive experiences, by people who were supportive and loving, and by opportunities to focus on the needs of others, they experienced things differently than if they were isolated or surrounded by negative experiences.”– econdolence.com
A New Life Awaits
You may not see it right away, but there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. You do have options that can get you safely to the shores of acceptance. Getting help and support can make it such a better journey than you would have on your own. Don’t hesitate to reach out to qualified professionals, as they have guided many through this journey before.
- Additional stages of grief. eCondolence.com. (n.d.). Retrieved March 12, 2022, from econdolence.com
- Arch, J. (n.d.). The internet movie script database (imsdb). The Internet Movie Script Database. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from Imsdb.com
- Kübler-Ross, E. (1997, June 9). On death and dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Goodreads. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from Goodreads.com
- Kübler-Ross, E. (n.d.). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, David A. Kessler: 9781476775555 – Christianbook.com. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from Christianbook.com
- Winston, L. (n.d.). Good grief by Lolly Winston. Goodreads. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/251519.Good_Grief