The death of a loved one can be one of life’s most challenging events. Not only is there a new void in your life but all kinds of emotions can rise to the surface during this tender time. Perhaps, in the back of your mind, you know you will need to get through the grief, but it can feel impossible to do so.
“Grief is a very individual thing; everyone navigates their grief differently and uniquely to them,” said Christina Harkness, bereavement coordinator with Samaritan Evergreen Hospice.
And while managing grief does not fall into a neat and predictable set of steps, Harkness recommends a few ways of thinking about grief to make the grief process a bit more manageable.
Allow Yourself to Experience Pain
Grief is a normal, healthy response to loss, and Harkness said it is important to feel the emotions rather than bottle them up.
“You may feel a lot of different emotions, all at once, or one at a time. Feelings like pain, sadness, anger, guilt, confusion, fear -- all will ebb and flow. One minute you may feel guilt for not doing or saying something to your loved one and then anger for being left behind. This is all normal,” said Harkness. “Try to allow yourself to feel these emotions, because experiencing the pain can actually provide some relief.”
Talking with a good friend can help.
“This is the time to draw closer to your support system, like friends or family members who can be a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear,” she said. “It can be helpful to share stories about your loved one, to cry and even laugh together over memories – this is one of the ways we start to learn how to live with the grief and loss.”
If you feel unable to talk about your loss, Harkness suggests writing down your thoughts and feelings in a journal or writing letters to your loved one.
“Whatever way you feel most comfortable in expressing your emotions, turn to that process. It’s important to express the emotions instead of stuffing them inside where they can damage your health and spirit down the road,” Harkness noted.
In Your Own Time
Unfortunately, grieving is a process with no timetable. How long it takes is unique to each person.
“We often encounter well-meaning friends or family who will tell us that it’s time to move on. But only you can know when you feel ready. I urge you to honor your own timeline,” said Harkness.
Grief can last from several weeks to several years depending on the person and situation.
“Some have been grieving the loss of their loved one the whole time their partner was ill, and for others, grief can be brought on suddenly by an unexpected death. There is not a one-sized-fits-all version of grief,” Harkness explained.
Eventually, though, the grief will lessen its grip. You may notice feeling better in small ways at first, such as having more energy or being able to get out of bed easier than before.
“Eventually, you’ll notice wanting to be with people more, or to begin reorganizing your life around living without your loved one, perhaps even sorting through your loved one’s possessions for what to keep and what to give away. These are signs that the grief is less acute, and you are moving forward,” said Harkness.
Moving On, Not Forgetting
Moving forward can feel like a tall task, especially in the beginning when grief is at its strongest. But it is possible to live a full life while still feeling the loss.
“Moving on does not mean forgetting your loved one,” said Harkness.
Rather than seeing grief as an “either/or” emotion – either you have grief, or you don’t – she suggests seeing grief as the natural part of life that it is.
“The goal is for grief to become integrated into our daily lives, for it to become a ‘both/and’ type of emotion,” explained Harkness. “This means that you can live a full life while also feeling the loss of what was. For example, you may be a grandparent now and feel joy and delight in that new role. You can feel that joy while still feeling sad or angry that your spouse didn’t get to experience this phase of life, too.
“When grief is integrated, you aren’t forgetting what you had before or the person you loved, you hold both the newness of life alongside the longing for what used to be,” Harkness said.
When to Seek Additional Help
Throughout the grieving process, it is important to take good care of yourself.
“Grief can be hard work and it is important to support yourself by eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and avoiding reliance on alcohol or drugs. Gentle self-care will help you feel better throughout the grief process,” Harkness said.
Also, you’ll want to pay attention to how long you’re feeling the more intense emotions that come from grief.
“While the sadness of loss may continue for a long time, the initial feelings should only be temporary,” Harkness said.
“If you don’t start to feel better in time, or you feel unable to resume your life, the grief could be turning into depression, which can have more serious side-effects. I would recommend you speak with your primary care provider who can offer you additional support,” said Harkness. “That support may include connecting you with a professional grief counselor or a grief support group.”
Ultimately, dealing with grief involves a long-term perspective.
“Grief is never really finished. We just learn to live with it the best we can, continuing to honor our loved one’s memory while living life as fully as possible,” Harkness said.
Bereavement Coordinator Christina Harkness is with Samaritan Evergreen Hospice, which provides end-of-life care for people living in Benton, Linn, Lincoln, Marion, Polk and Tillamook counties. She can be reached at 541-812-4680.
Learn more about grief support groups at Samaritan.