As we come face to face with grief, there is no telling how we will react. Even if we’ve experienced grief several times, each encounter is as varied as each suffering individual. The only true constant with grief is its unpredictability. Several factors can affect the complex nature of grief, and there’s no telling which element will rear its head from one moment to the next. Yet, it is possible to manage grief with courage, patience, and support. While grief never truly disappears, there are ways to minimize it, allowing you to lead a vibrant and fulfilling life.
When is Grief the Worst
It’s often assumed that grief is at it’s worst in the immediate aftermath of a death—the apex within the first few weeks. While it’s true that the initial shock of a loss can feel like being hit by a thunderbolt, that’s usually only one of many salvos a grief-stricken person will experience throughout their encounter with grief. The grief process is non-linear. It comes in waves, always ebbing and flowing. One day, a person dealing with grief may find comfort and solace, while the following day, they may be gripped with overwhelming sadness. There is no concrete, set-in-stone answer for when grief is the worst.
Dealing with Grief Through the Years
When we lose a loved one, the initial reaction is disbelief. The brain simply can’t cope with the idea of that person no longer being present. As a safety valve, the brain typically responds by denying the reality of the situation. It’s a defense mechanism designed to quiet the overwhelming stimulation going on in the brain. Often when a grief-stricken person has difficulty concentrating or managing a simple task, it’s because of “grief brain”—the brain’s uphill struggle to keep up with all the synapses firing at once. In the early stages, people suffering a loss are often numb to what’s happening. They may be going through the motions, only half-aware of the people and circumstances surrounding them. With so many logistics to manage, such as a memorial service, legal paperwork, and closing estates, there may be little time to face grief. It becomes something that’s left on the back burner. Once the excitement begins to quiet and supporters fade back into their lives, the looming presence of grief begins to take center stage.
The first year, in some ways, can be the hardest. Most people are in survival mode as they try to adjust to their new lives. In some cases, the experience of losing a loved one requires a dramatic shift in the lifestyle of the bereaved. For instance, losing a spouse or romantic partner can leave grief-stricken individuals feeling like their own life has ended. Everything from daily routines, shared interests, financial dealings, and bedtime routines are significantly and irrevocably altered. The reality of the bereaved’s new life slowly begins to come into agonizing focus in year one.
For many, the loss of a loved one may initially feel unreal. It’s like a loved one is on an extended vacation or business trip. As the numbness wears off in the first year, the pain of the loss may begin to start taking its toll on many. The grief process has been going on for over a year now with no end in sight. Feelings of shame, guilt, or anger may arise over their grief. They may ask themselves, “Why am I still grieving? Shouldn’t I start feeling better by now?” The dread of isolation and sadness may reignite the full fury of grief’s flame once again.
Grief in its third year may take on a few forms. As people work through shock and disbelief and then through shame and guilt, many find themselves in a transitional stage by the third year. The pain of loss is still there; however, they may begin to rebuild their lives actively. Starting anew is a challenging feat. When faced with the growing pains of reinventing oneself, a new well of emotions may spring up all over again.
Dealing with Grief on Special Occasions
Wherever the bereaved are in their grief process, special occasions are inevitable. They can reignite old wounds connected to their loss. While we can’t stop time, we can choose how we face these momentous occasions.
When a departed loved one’s birthday arrives, it may be looked at with dread and uncomfortability. You may wonder, “How can I face their birthday without excruciating pain?” However, it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. You can still honor them on their birthday by celebrating the beautiful life they led. It can be an opportunity to do something they would have been excited to do, such as a hike to a favorite view or a meal at a favorite restaurant.
Christmas is a sacred time for connecting with family. Just like with their birthday, you can still find a way to celebrate the life of your departed loved one. Set a place at the dinner table in their honor or make a point to ask everyone to share a favorite story of the departed. Painful as it may be to experience their absence, you keep their spirit alive by reliving memories.
Dealing with the Stages of Grief
While shunning grief may seem sensible, it's not. Like water seeking its level, grief finds a way to express itself whether you like it or not. It cannot be denied without causing you further pain. Here are a few ways you can minimize your grief.
The best way to deal with grief is to face it head-on. We allow ourselves to process grief by acknowledging and honoring our feelings. The burden of agony begins to lift, and we can find a path to joy and happiness again.
By slowing down your pace and looking after yourself, the body and mind can recuperate, reducing stress and anxiety. It all starts with baby steps. Try to find some exercise, such as going for a walk. Take time out to get proper rest and nourishment. And above all, be kind to yourself—grief can be challenging.
The “grin and bear it” approach is not a healthy way to work through the grief process. Enlist friends and family to help by communicating with them about your grief. The love and support of family and friends can help you shoulder the burden you carry. As the weight of grief begins to lift, so will your outlook on life. You deserve to be happy. While grief may not fully disappear, your ability to live a rich and meaningful life can flourish again.
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