Caring for Yourself After the Loss of a Loved One

Learn about the effects of grief, how to cope and who to reach out to for support

Grief is a normal and natural response to death. It can affect our cognitive processes, tax our emotions, change our social lives and can even challenge our spiritual understanding.

“Grief is inextricably tied to love” says Liane Fry, LMFT, bereavement specialist at Scripps Health. “Generally speaking, the closer we are to the person who died, the more distress we experience in bereavement.”

Researchers have studied the grieving process and it seems that human beings naturally fluctuate between focusing on the loss and focusing on adjusting to life and its demands without their loved one.

“No two people grieve in exactly the same way,” says Fry. “Our grief is unique to each loss that we experience.”

Effects of grief

While grief is not a cluster of symptoms, there are manifestations of grief, which can affect people in the following ways:

  • Emotionally
    The bereaved often report feelings of loneliness, yearning for the deceased and sadness. They may experience disturbing feelings of guilt, relief or anger.
  • Cognitively
    It is common to experience some interruptions in concentration and focus. This usually resolves itself within the first couple of months following a loss.
  • Behaviorally
    The bereaved tend to notice some changes in their social relationships and especially initially in their eating and sleeping patterns.
  • Physically
    Often, grief is felt as discomfort in the body. Some people complain of muscle tension that can bring on headaches, stomach aches and disruptions, and even feelings of pain in their heart, as if it is actually breaking. If you experience any of these complaints it is important let your health care provider know.

Care for your overall health

If you seek treatment from health care practitioners, be sure to tell them about your grief. If you are having trouble eating and sleeping, they can help. Be sure to share any physical complaints and any other areas of your grieving experience that has become prolonged or too distressing. By communicating this information, your health care provider can help refer you to reliable sources to support you in your grieving process.

Be sure to contact your health care provider if:

  • Your grief is unbearable and you want help with it
  • You are using excessive amounts of drugs or alcohol
  • You have become more depressed
  • You have prolonged depression that interferes with your daily life

If you have pre-existing clinical depression or an anxiety disorder, grief can be especially difficult — even overwhelming. If grief is still predominant and preventing functionality in at least one major area of your life six months after your loved one passed away, it may be a sign of a more serious illness, such as complicated grief or major depressive disorder. Therapy and medication can be helpful in these circumstances, so be sure to discuss these options with your doctor.

“It’s important to remember that grief cannot and should not be prevented, because it is a normal and healthy response to loss” Fry says. “Instead, it should be respected.”

Seek help from others

Fry recommends that those who are grieving should consider seeking support to help them through this difficult time. Support can come from multiple avenues, including:

  • Friends and family
  • Community organizations
  • Counseling services
  • Spiritual care providers
  • Support groups
  • Web-based bulletin boards and blogs

“If the demands of grief become too burdensome,” says Fry, “please consider asking for help.”

Find bereavement support

For more information or grief support, please call 800-992-9962 to speak with a bereavement specialist.

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