This is a tough month for our family. My husband, Dave, is serving a 3-week assignment at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, which means having to navigate daily life without his constant love, reassurance and support.
Missing Dave prompts me to reflect on what it would be like to say goodbye not just for a few weeks, but for good.
Losing a long-term life partner to divorce or death plunges us into the agonizing and very human experience known as grief. If you are working your way through grief, you may be asking yourself:
How long will this terrible pain last?
Is it normal to feel this lost and confused?
Will I ever be myself again – or is this the new normal?
Questions like these are common to virtually everyone who faces the loss of a loved one. Taking a closer look at grief can provide some helpful perspective.
Our evolving understanding of grief
Much of what we believe about grief and its effects began with the Swiss psychotherapist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who in the late 1960s described grief as a 5-stage process starting with denial and moving through anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance.
At the time, these stages were believed to be universal – a journey that all mourning spouses and loved ones must pass through. Since then, many studies have shown that grief is actually a broad spectrum of symptoms and experiences that can unfold in almost any order. These may include:
Feelings of anger, anxiety, blame, confusion, denial, depression, fear, guilt, irritability, loneliness, numbness, relief, sadness, shock, or yearning.
Thoughts ranging from confusion, difficulty concentrating, disbelief and hallucinations to preoccupation with the loved one you’ve lost.
Physical sensations such as dizziness, fast heartbeat, fatigue, headaches, hyperventilating, nausea or upset stomach, shortness of breath, tightness or heaviness in the throat or chest, or weight loss or gain.
Behaviors such as crying spells, excessive activity, irritability or aggression, loss of energy, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, restlessness and trouble sleeping.
The wide range of grief symptoms reflects the fact that no two people go through this experience in exactly the same way. While grief can be described as a journey, it’s anything but orderly and predictable. In fact, it’s as individual as we are.
It takes as long as it takes
Modern studies of grief confirm that it follows is own unique timeline. While the worst symptoms may begin to subside after 6 to 9 months, many people report deep feelings of grief lasting a year or two. There is no set course for recovery, and research shows that for some people, feelings of grief never fully go away.
If you’re mourning the loss of a loved one, I encourage you to look at the comforting side of these findings. There is no magical “finish line” you must reach within a certain timeframe. Grief is not a project; we can’t speed its progress or determine its course. We can only agree to treat ourselves with kindness and care, celebrating the progress we make and accepting the temporary setbacks that are part of the experience.
Loving yourself as you grieve
Here are suggestions for thoughtful, loving self-nurturance when mourning the loss of your loved one.
Feel your loss. Allow yourself to cry, to feel angry or numb or confused. These emotions are painful, but they are also natural and normal.
Care for your body. Give yourself the attention and love you need and deserve right now. Get plenty of sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, and seek out regular exercise.
Express your feelings in a natural way. Talk about how you’re feeling with others you trust. If you are naturally reluctant to share your inner thoughts, embracing a creative activity is a good alternative. This could include art, music, or writing in a journal.
Establish a simple routine. This will take time and patience, but creating a daily rhythm will help you feel better. It doesn’t have to be the same as the routine you’ve followed in the past. It can simply mean getting up at the same time each day and completing a few straightforward steps that bring comfort and structure.
Avoid drinking alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant that can affect your mood. It’s tempting to ease your feelings this way, but alcohol’s effects may make you feel even sadder – and can interfere with healthy sleep.
Delay big decisions. It takes time to adjust to a loss and get back to a normal state of mind. Making a major decision while you’re grieving can add more stress at an already difficult time. Try to wait a year before making a big change, like moving or changing jobs.
Allow happiness. Realize that, even though you’re grieving, it’s not disloyal or wrong to embrace moments of joy. Give yourself a break now and then by doing something you love. It’s healthy and good for you to smile, laugh and sing.
Ask for help when you need it. You don’t have to struggle alone. Seek out friends, family, clergy or a therapist if you feel overwhelmed by your symptoms. While you may not experience depression as a result of your grief, it is possible – and expert help can be very valuable in relieving the symptoms you face.
As a therapist working with adults of all ages in Oak Park, I am here for you and your loved ones. Grieving is a powerful experience, and having the support and perspective of a professional therapist can be a great source of comfort. Reach out to me anytime to schedule a private appointment for yourself or someone you care about.