How to deal with grief
On October 7, 2015, before the sun had risen, I was awoken by a phone call during which I learned one of my dearest friends had died. Jacob had been a schoolmate in Singapore. I’d been drawn to his gargantuan personality, impeccable baking skills and love for his pals. At 25, his heart had suddenly stopped beating.
While friends in Singapore planned for the wake and how best to support his family, I haplessly apologised for not being able to afford a flight back. I felt numb but somehow still functional. I’d dealt with loss in my family before, but Jacob’s death was unique: he was the first out of my chosen family of friends to die. All of us shared the sense of immense loss, but I felt alone in my struggle with it, because I was on the other side of the world from the rest of the group.
The fact is, while grief itself might be universal, living with loss tends to isolate more than it unites and can make you unsure about how to process your feelings. Thankfully, bereavement professionals offer insights on how to deal with grief and ultimately, come to terms with loss.
Identify your grief response
While reactions to death will differ from person to person, learning how to deal with grief begins with understanding the nature of your own situation.
“Grief is your internal response to loss,” says Dr Alan Wolfelt, director of a centre for loss and life transition. After someone dies, he explains, grief presents itself as a constellation of feelings that can range from sadness to shock to disorientation to anger. Most often, it is expressed in predictable ways, be they physical (loss of appetite, insomnia or difficulty concentrating) or emotional (yearning, regret or even relief). “There are different dimensions of response to loss unique to the individual and impacted by the circumstances of the death and the relationship to the person who has died,” says Wolfelt.
Identifying your particular reaction to losing a loved one will help you decide what tools you need to navigate it. But whatever that may be, Wolfelt stresses you should not feel badly for having intense reactions. A grief counsellor can help you begin to pay attention to the areas that need a bit more work.
“Emotions need motion,” Wolfelt says. “Mourning puts your emotions into motion, and they will usually soften over time.”
Reconcile with the loss
When learning how to deal with grief, it’s common to look forward to a time when the pain will completely disappear, but at least one expert in the field suggests a different goal.
“A lot of people feel like they’re not doing grief ‘right’ because they’re not attaining this so-called ‘closure,’ and we need to reframe these expectations,” says Andrea Warnick, a registered psychotherapist and grief counsellor. “I’m not trying to help anyone ‘get over’ or ‘move on’ from anyone who has died.”
Instead, she helps people living with loss stay connected with the deceased. Comfort with talking about the dead and remembering them is a sign that the loss has been integrated into your life and is less likely to create barriers to intimacy or psychosomatic distress moving forward. Warnick suggests allowing yourself to miss the deceased and even embrace reminders of the person. Sometimes, she says, it’s helpful for the bereaved to address any unfinished business with the dead by writing a letter to them.
Warnick also prepares her clients for “grief bursts,” sudden rushes of emotion triggered by scents, foods or places associated with the deceased. Sometimes, Warnick says, “They come out of the blue, with no obvious triggers.” She emphasises that these surges are completely natural and nothing to worry about. “We’re not trying to mitigate those feelings. If you’re in the car and the person’s favourite song comes on, pull over and allow yourself to weep.” Breathing and mindfulness techniques, she adds, can also help in these moments.
These floods come further apart as time passes, they may never disappear. “If you talk to an 80-year-old woman whose child died 60 years ago, she’s still going to be grieving,” Warnick says. “‘Time heals all’ is inaccurate.”