This article was published by Harvard Health Publishing in November 2016.
At a time of loss, it’s important to focus on maintaining your health and getting the support you need.
Losing a family member, a close friend, or even a beloved pet can be devastating. All the small details of daily life—getting out of bed, making meals, going to appointments, taking care of children, handling responsibilities at work—may seem monumentally hard or inconsequential. Yet, even as you grieve, you’ve probably been reminded that life must go on. But working through the emotional pain can be difficult, particularly during the holidays, when you may feel you are supposed to be celebrating.
The normal process of grieving
“There are cultural differences and personal style differences, but grief is a shared part of the human experience,” says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Grief isn’t linear. It usually comes as wave after wave of emotion. With time, most people manage to reach equilibrium. While significant losses are never forgotten, the feelings of grief become less intense and more manageable.
The following experiences are all part of the normal spectrum of grieving and usually last from six to 12 months.
Survivors may long to reunite with the person who died, and may even want to die themselves in order to be with their loved one.
People often experience waves of deep sadness and regret about the loved one. Crying and even sobbing jags are also normal.
Other negative emotions
Anger, remorse, and guilt are all common emotions as well.
It’s common to think of the deceased often and recall vivid memories of times together. Mental images of the deceased—or even the sound of a loved one’s voice—may emerge without warning.
Grief affects people physically as well as mentally. It’s normal for people to have sleep problems, changes in appetite, digestive difficulties, dry mouth, or fatigue after a loss. Occasional bouts of restlessness and agitation are also common.
It takes people a long time to truly accept that someone has died. People may forget at times that a loved one is gone—until some reminder brings back the searing reality.
Grief may lead people to withdraw, disengage, or become irritable toward others.
Although some of the worst disturbances ebb with time, the grieving process also involves sudden surges of emotions. Holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and other significant events can trigger bouts of raw grief months or even years after your initial loss.
Help with coping
If you’re grieving, it may help to do the following:
Take care of yourself
This means eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. It also means asking yourself, “What would help me most today?” and taking care of the need, be it having a good cry, talking to a friend, or going to the movies.
Let people know what helps
Often, people aren’t sure how to act around you when you are grieving. They will be relieved if you tell them how they can help you, whether you want someone to pitch in with the laundry, sit quietly by, or share stories about your loved one. It’s also fine to let people know if you’d like to be left alone.
Accept mixed feelings
It is entirely normal to have mixed emotions about the loss and about your loved one. It helps to express these so that other people understand what you are going through. Chances are, they’ve been there themselves.
Find others who understand
People who have also lost a loved one are likely to be more understanding. Many hospitals, religious organizations, and community groups have support groups for mourners, in which participants offer comfort and share coping strategies. When friends and family can’t help in these ways, support groups often can.
Seek professional help
Grief and depression are hard to tell apart. The symptoms are similar, and so are the therapies. If you are finding yourself overwhelmed by grief, you may want to seek help from a professional. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and spiritual leaders are trained to help people through the grieving process. “We all want to help you to feel better and move through the world more easily,” Dr. Miller says.