By Dr. Nina Radcliff
The depth of emotions in the heartache, pain, loneliness, devastation and despair can besiege us in the shattering times of the loss of a loved one. The emotional and physical impact can be overwhelming at times – for every part of our wellbeing – as we navigate through the journey that admittedly, will forever change our lives.
Loss not only robs us of our loved one but can also give us a sense of being robbed of everything that was normal in our lives. The deep sorrow of grief experienced in a loss is intense and underscores why many seeking to connect echo, “there are no words.”
Dealing with death, particularly the loss of someone close to you, is one of the most stressful and painful experiences we can go through. Your loss may have been sudden or after many seasons of a bedside vigil… but whatever the circumstances, it will take time to regain your strength!! There may be times when you find it difficult to believe; you feel a sense of devastation; numbness or your body, mind and soul may feel exhausted in a need for a break and some rest. In this difficulty it is important to understand your emotions, take care of yourself, open up and seek support from family, friends and professionals.
While it is important to understand everyone grieves differently – and it does take time — there are healthy steps we can take in order to regain our strength in the process of our healing.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know About Grief
What is grief? The normal process of reacting to a loss. We generally experience grief or grieve when a loved one dies, but it can also occur from illness, job loss, or divorce or ending of a relationship. The reaction can impact your entire wellbeing:
- Mentally—Dazed, difficulty concentrating, confusion, short-term memory loss, preoccupation with the loss
- Physically—Dizziness, feeling of being numb, nauseous, sleep disturbances, nightmares, changes in appetite, headaches, fatigue, increased sickness
- Socially—Isolation and detachment, changes in activities, beliefs, values
- Emotionally—Sadness, guilt, anger, anxiety, fear, feeling nothing (may take a few weeks before feeling other emotions), reacting strangely, forgetfulness
- Spiritually—Dependence in new ways, reconsidering aspects of our spiritual journey, struggles in what you believe in
- Occupational – You may want to plow through but at the same time, you tire more quickly or forget some of the details (be patient with yourself)
- Environmentally – struggling with keeping home tasks in order, becoming lost in moments of pictures, memories, and your surrounding shared experiences at home, in the garden, driving down the street, the sound of a song
What are the 5 stages of grief and loss described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
This model was proposed in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. It was initially used to describe the stages we undergo when dying, but Kubler-Ross later extended it to include any form of personal loss. And while everyone experiences grief uniquely, and there have been several challenges to her model, these stages provide perhaps the most popular framework to help with our understanding and begin a conversation on dying and grief. Some additional caveats: not everyone expresses each stage; we spend different amounts of time through each step; and they do not necessarily occur in the said order.
- Denial and isolation. Feeling like “this can’t be happening,” or numbness, is often an initial reaction and defense mechanism to help us deal, survive, and cope with the immediate shock of the loss. Some descriptions I read is that it is a “temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.”
- Anger. As our defense mechanisms wear off, we may experience pain, frustration, and helplessness that manifests as anger. We can feel angry towards the person who died for leaving us, the treating doctors for not being able to save or cure them, family, friends, and even God. And, too, in our society, anger is often shunned and we strive to suppress it, or we feel guilty about it. However, it is important to allow ourselves to experience anger because it is an important stage of healing.
- Bargaining. In some instances, this may begin before the loss of a loved one. Bargaining is often with a higher power and filled with “what if I….” in exchange for either healing a dying person, bringing the loved one back from death, or easing our grief.
- Depression. Intense feelings of sadness and emptiness set in when we begin to understand the loss. It is a natural response and a necessary step to healing. In fact, Kubler-Ross states that we should “Make a place for your guest. Invite your depression to pull up a chair with you in front of the fire, and sit with it, without looking for a way to escape. Allow the sadness and emptiness to cleanse you and help you explore your loss in its entirety.”
- Acceptance. We are accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone. Many mistake this as being “cured,” “ok,” or “alright” with the loss. Instead, we have learned to live in a world where our loved one is missing. One interpretation I read is that this stage can bring us closer to our loved one as we make sense of how life was and process how we want life now to be.
How do we heal?
This has been described as “grief work” and how we manage the process can depend on our personality, age, beliefs, support network, and type of loss. There is no one way or normal amount of time. Experts have described several steps:
- Accept your feelings and know that grieving is a process…it takes time
- Living in the moment—We know we cannot change the past, and that tomorrow is uncertain. Most negative thoughts that we experience or harbor are in regards to the past and future. By fully engaging ourselves in the moment—not allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized—we are being mindful. We are living life.
- Redirecting emotions—from the loved one who has passed and turn it towards others. This also is an opportunity to reconnect. During times of grief we often disconnect and isolate ourselves. Pick up the phone, send a text or email to reach out to others and even express that you were grieving.
- Rest and rejuvenation—grief affects all facets of our wellbeing and is exhausting. We must take care of ourselves by eating well, being physically active and getting good quality and quantity of sleep.
- Special times of the year—birthdays, holidays, Father’s or Mother’s Day can evoke memories and sadness. Acknowledge it and make new traditions that honor those no longer with us.
- Support group—speaking with others who are grieving or have grieved can help you understand and validate emotions
- Professional help—if you feel you are not coping with your grief (losing sleep, trouble keeping up your normal routine, thoughts that life is not worth living, or harming yourself) or experiencing “prolonged grief disorder” (PGF)—symptoms lasting longer than 6 months—it is a good time to visit with your doctor. They may recommend a mental health professional who can help you explore your thoughts and emotions. In studies, the prevalence of PGF ranges from 10-20 percent.
And, too, it may be tempting to soften the pain with drugs, alcohol, food, or work. These are temporary escapes that won’t make you heal faster or feel better in the long run. But they can lead to depression, anxiety, emotional breakdown, illness and addiction.
My heart is with each of you that has – or is – experiencing loss. And while it is true, words fall short…I hope and pray you will take care of yourself; speak out and express yourself; remembering it takes time. To this, welcome the support of your family and friends – and seek professional help, when needed in your sorrow.
And too, while it may be difficult to believe that the heartache will lift and the sadness you are experiencing will subside, know that the strength and courage within you (and of those you love) will spring forth new life in monumental measures (with a new sense of awareness) – as you carry treasured memories tucked in your heart and soul forward, for generations to come.
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.