10 Ways to Cope with Grief and Loss

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The pain of grief and loss is an inevitable and natural part of being human. While the death of a loved one is one of the hardest losses many of us face, there are other significant losses in life too. We may grieve the loss of pets, jobs, relationships, homes, identities, or meaningful chapters in our lives.

Some people are remarkably resilient, able to cope with grief and loss and eventually adjust to a changed life. Others, however, find themselves unable to adapt.

Dealing with grief and loss is an important and fundamental life skill, one that our culture does little to teach. Thankfully, neuroscientists and mental health experts have conducted a considerable amount of research on grief and loss.

Here’s how grief impacts our brains, minds, and bodies, as well as ways to make coping with grief a little less painful.

Research suggests that our brains encode a bond with those we love, and when we lose a significant person, our brain has a period of readjustment where it works to rewire itself. Click To Tweet

ABOUT GRIEF

In simple terms, grief is the response we have to a significant loss. Understanding how grief works is key to moving through it.

Grief is an individual experience. While there are some commonalities in the experience of grief, the grieving process is highly personalized. There are many varying factors that go into the duration and intensity of an individual’s grieving process, according to research.

The type of loss, the number of losses one has had, personality, age, health, genetic makeup, depth of attachment, spiritual or religious beliefs, and coping style are just some of the influences that determine how an individual may grieve.

While one individual may have obvious, discernable expressions of grief, another may not have any. Both are valid. There’s no correct way to mourn a loss.

EMOTIONAL SYMPTOMS OF GRIEF

The emotional experience of grief is often described as coming in waves. They can be visceral and often happen spontaneously. Over time they become less frequent, although a holiday, birthday, or reminder can trigger emotion even years after a significant loss.

Emotions can run the full spectrum from anguish and tears to joy and laughter. It’s common to feel conflicting emotions. Sometimes, you might feel emotionless, like running on autopilot.

It is perfectly normal to experience any of the following emotions after a significant loss:

PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS OF GRIEF

Loss is an extreme stressor, and our bodies take a hit. After a significant loss, our brain triggers the release of stress hormones like those involved in the fight-flight-or-freeze response, which may impact overall health.

Research indicates that grief is associated with greater stress, disrupted sleep, weakened immune function, and a higher risk of heart health issues.

Additionally, common physical symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach/nausea
  • Weak muscles or joint pain
  • Restlessness
  • Tension in the chest or throat
  • Changes in appetite
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much

BRAIN AND BEHAVIORAL CHANGES IN GRIEF

Grief may cause changes in your brain and behavior. Known as “grief brain,” grief can affect activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex and limbic system. This can make it difficult to focus and complete tasks. Grief can reinforce brain wiring that keeps the brain in a permanent stress response.

Common symptoms may include:

  • Brain fog
  • Trouble thinking or making decisions
  • Feeling a loss of hope or direction
  • Trouble focusing on anything other than the loss
  • Having trouble keeping up with everyday responsibilities
  • Low mood, anxious feelings, or symptoms of PTSD

10 WAYS TO COPE WITH GRIEF AND LOSS

Understanding that you are in a grief process beyond your control is an important concept to grasp when coping with loss. But there are many things in your control that can help you better navigate major losses.

  1. Seek out caring supporters.

Studies suggest that social support is critical for the bereaved, especially emotional support. Find people in your life—trusted friends, family members, a therapist, or grief support group—that you can reach out to.

Look for caring people who don’t try to “fix” your pain, but who will listen and be with you. It can be helpful to talk about your loss. In addition, spending time with your pets can be beneficial.

  1. Make time for reflection and self-care.

It’s necessary to leave pockets of down time in your schedule to rest and reflect when you’re grieving. This provides space to fully experience your feelings of grief.

Some people may find this difficult. It’s not uncommon for grieving individuals to avoid grief in busyness or addictive behaviors or substances.

Meditate, journal, or drink tea while you stare out the window. If you have a creative pursuit that you practice, such as knitting, painting, or playing music, engaging it can help you express your grief creatively. Be with your inner life and any uncomfortable feelings that arise. Don’t run from your grief.

  1. Delay big or consequential decisions.

If possible, hold off on big life decision—such as moving, leaving a job, divorcing, remarrying, making big investments, or having a baby—until you’ve had time to integrate your loss. You likely have grief brain and are not thinking clearly or able to make your best decisions.

  1. Ensure restful sleep.

Sleeplessness is common in the immediate aftermath of loss. Yet, your brain and body need sleep more than ever.

Research suggests that our brains encode a bond with those we love, and when we lose a significant person, our brain has a period of readjustment where it works to rewire itself. It needs restorative sleep for this process!

Practice good sleep hygiene. Take supplements such as melatonin, vitamin B6, GABA, 5-HTP, magnesium and theanine to support restful sleep.

  1. Find healthy distractions.

It’s healthy to take a break from the pain of grief. Distract yourself with productive or enjoyable activities but be careful not to overdo it.

Examples of good distractions may be:

  • Watching a movie
  • Making brain-healthy snacks
  • Working
  • Cleaning out a cupboard
  • Helping another person
  1. Move your body.

Getting out in nature for a walk can be wonderfully restorative and calming. It can boost your cognition and help balance your mood as well.

If it sounds like too much, ask a friend to walk with you or simply walk around the block. Other exercise like dance or sports activities can help to relieve pent-up energy in the body and allow you to work through anger or frustration.

  1. Create meaning and new rituals.

Most mental health experts agree that creating rituals that acknowledge a loved one who’s gone is an important part of integrating the loss.

It could be as simple as giving to your loved one’s favorite charity. Or perhaps you light a special candle in their honor on their birthday or an important holiday or cook one of their favorite recipes.

Some people create altars or plant a tree in remembrance. Find a ritual that works for you.

  1. Understand that grieving is a period of new learning.

As grief expert Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor explains, part of coping with grief is realizing it is a period of new learning for you and your brain—particularly after the loss of a loved one.

When a loved one dies, many daily habits will need to change. For example, if you habitually called the individual you lost the moment something happened, you realize you can’t call them.

Know that all the new learning you are doing is part of the grieving process. It will help you to be gentler with yourself as you adjust to the loss.

  1. Seek professional support.

If you’re experiencing persistent cognitive issues or having trouble functioning due to grief six months to a year after your loss, or if you’re having suicidal thoughts, it’s important to see a qualified mental health professional.

It’s possible you may have an underlying brain health issue, mental health condition, or complicated grief, also known as prolonged grief disorder. Getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment can help you navigate loss.

  1. Don’t expect grief to fit into stages or timetables.

In the 1960s, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief and loss: denial anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, which set up an expectation that one might move through grief in a linear way and then be done with it.

Researchers have since debunked this notion because it fails to represent the many complex emotions and processes that characterize grief and grieving. You may experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in your grief process, but not necessarily in stages.

Remember that grief has no timetable. Over time, the waves of acute grief do settle down, becoming less frequent, and our relationship to the feelings of loss change. We become more adept at comforting ourselves in moments when they arise.

Integrating a loss takes an unspecified amount of time, but grief never fully goes away. That said, we are resilient and can find happiness again even after a devastating loss.

Grief and loss, grief brain, complicated grief and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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