How to Survive the loss of a love

Have you experienced the loss of a love? It may be the loss of a love through a relationship breakdown (separation or divorce), a death of a loved one, the death of a beloved pet, or it could even be the loss of a love through the knowledge of an extramarital affair.

Loss is loss, no matter what the cause. It is a part of life, of being alive, of being human but it doesn’t make it any easier to journey from the loss to eventual gain, or even growth after the loss of a loved one.

Some people have shared with me that dealing with a loss of a loved one has been the single most painful experience of their lives. One minute life with their beloved was familiar, predictable and well, just cruising along. Then all it took was a phone call, to read a letter, answer a knock at the door, or simply have a conversation with someone that you had not expected to have that day.

In a moment life as you knew it, appeared to change….just like that! You may not have realised it at the time, but life had taken a turn.

If you have recently experienced the loss of a love you might be wondering what you can do to navigate the roller coaster of emotions. Surely you should know what to do right? And yet, the loss seems so confusing and relentless and unfamiliar, that you don’t know whether to get out of bed or stay wrapped up in the blankets and cry into your pillow.

The first step to managing your grief reaction is to develop your understanding of grief.

What is the process of grief?

1. Understand that grief can be a physical and emotional experience. It makes sense to most people that grief is an emotional experience involving distress, deep sorrow and sadness. It is not always understood that grief can be a physical experience as well. Some people may experience chest pain, digestive complaints, nausea, weight loss, poor appetite, headaches to name a few, after a significant loss of a loved one.

The physical experience of grief can be confusing, and may contribute to an overall decline in wellbeing. Therefore, it can be helpful to understand that grief manifests itself in different ways, and this is ok. Grief is a natural response to loss and is expressed in many ways. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief is likely to be, either physically or emotionally.

2. Grief has no set pattern of grief. It used to be thought that grief occurs in stages and in a cyclical fashion ranging from shock, denial, sadness, to anger, depression and eventually arriving at acceptance. Current understanding of grief suggests that grief has no set pattern and that everyone experiences grief differently.

It then becomes important to grieve your way by allowing yourself to experience and express all of your emotions and to allow yourself all the time you need through the process. Some people may grieve for weeks and months, and others describe their grief lasting for years.

3. Grief comes in waves. Most grief reactions are not constant but instead are experienced in waves, that is, it comes and goes. Mostly the ‘waves of grief’ are triggered by memories, occasions, music and even smells.

The first few days after a loss can be particularly intense and exhausting as the waves of grief overwhelm a person’s ability to function. In time, the waves of grief become less frequent and less intense and allow for a greater sense of hope in being able to focus on the future rather than the loss itself.

4. Grief can affect every part of your life. Emotions, a person’s thoughts and behaviour, beliefs about death and dying as well as beliefs about life, physical health, your sense of self and identity and your relationships with others can all be significantly affected by grief. Grief can affect your thinking making it difficult to concentrate and make small decisions. It can also increase levels of forgetfulness and heighten worry and anxiety. You might just not feel like yourself and this can feel stressful, affecting your ability to function in daily life and experience quality sleep at the end of a day.

How to look after yourself after the loss of a loved one

1. Allow yourself time to grieve, grieve in your way, and understand that grief takes time. You may find it helpful to honour your loss by writing in a journal of memories, writing letters, planting a tree, writing a song or poem or whatever feels meaningful to you.

2. Understanding the process of grief can be useful in preparing for times, such as anniversaries, birthdays, reunions or hearing a song, that may trigger memories and sadness.

Remind yourself to take one step a time, allow yourself time to process the wave of grief, and express how you feel to someone you trust using words that are meaningful to you and without being afraid to share your grief emotions. Grief is a natural and normal response to loss.

3. Look after your physical health as grieving can be exhausting! Eat healthily, aim to get small amounts of daily exercise, get out in the fresh air and sunshine (with appropriate sun protection), and sleep when you can. Try to incorporate enjoyable activities into your life (even if you don’t feel like doing them) and aim to give yourself time out from the physical or emotional pain of grief with relaxation or meditation.

Learning mindfulness meditation or mindfulness of daily living activities can be a powerful tool of staying in the present moment as waves of grief come and go. Present moment awareness and other mindfulness techniques can develop more effective ways of relating to difficult thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and experiences that may accompany grief reactions.

Cultivating mindful traits, such as compassion, non-judgement, curiosity and beginner’s mind (i.e. as if for the first time) has also been shown to assist with acceptance of grief reactions. Working with a professional trained in evidence-based mindfulness based therapies is a recommended way of learning to mindfully respond to grief reactions.

4. Avoid making any significant decisions until you consider that you are thinking more clearly and able to function well in your daily life.

5. Try to establish a balance between time spent on your own and time spent with family and friends, as both are important in your time of grief. Gradually ease yourself back into your normal routines, and give yourself permission to take your time getting back to your life (i.e. work, sport, social activities).

6. Reduce or abstain the use of alcohol and any drugs as these substances can impede the process of grief.

7. Consider whether spiritual counsel is necessary for you. Turning towards your spiritual beliefs may provide answers, comfort and reassurance in your time of grief.

8. Let other people help you and provide you with support. Work to overcome any fear of being a burden to others, and reach out for either practical or emotional support, or both. Some examples may be to ask for help with the care of young children, supplying a few meals, dropping by to visit or just simply a shoulder to cry on.

9. Consider joining a support group. I have known some individuals to benefit greatly from the participation in a grief support group, especially if their own personal support networks have been impacted by the loss as well. The support group allows for the open expression of grief experiences, often normalising the process of grief and can provide a sense of hope by learning of others struggles with grief and how they may have overcome them.

Contrarily, others prefer to utilise professional help in a one on one setting if they feel their grief is too much to bear on their own and do not wish to join a support group.

Finally, it is important to point out that grief and depression are quite different, although they can sometimes appear similar with feelings of sadness, poor appetite, sleep disturbances and weight changes. Although these symptoms can be features of both depression and grief, depression is experienced as more persistent with constant feelings of despair and a difficulty feeling pleasure and enjoyment.

Also consistent with depressive symptoms is a focus on negative thinking related to a person believing themselves to be useless and worthless. Other symptoms of depression, and not grief, include a disconnection from others, an intense sense of guilt, an inability to enjoy or find pleasure in things, feelings of hopelessness, thoughts of suicide or a preoccupation with dying and an inability to function at home, work/school.

Generally, your relationship to grief may change, however depression may not. If you notice that depressive symptoms persist, or that your grief begins to get in the way of your ability to function at work, home, in relationships or daily living tasks, then it is important to source the right support for you within your own social networks, or seek professional help.

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