8 Things to Know About Dealing with Loss
Whether it is the death of a parent, a divorce, or losing a job, you have probably had at least one loss by the time you found this article. You’re not alone. The Recovery Village (2020) reported:
- 2.5 million people in the United States die every year. The average person leaves behind five people that mourn them, which means there are at least 12.5 million people grieving a death loss every year.
- 1.5 million children in the U.S. will lose one or both parents by the age of 15.
- The mental, emotional, and physical issues associated with grieving cost the U.S. workforce $75 million per year.
- Although many signs of grief will get better over time, up to 20% of grieving people will experience an exaggerated grieving period. This is called complicated grief.
These statistics show the period after loss—commonly known as grief—affects us all. Many people who have experienced grief will tell you how overwhelming, heavy, and confusing the process of mourning a loss can be. They might also tell you there are a few things they wished they knew before the mourning started.
Here are eight things to know about dealing with loss.
- Loss isn’t just about physical death. Be honest. When you hear about grief and loss, is the death of a loved one the first thing that comes to mind? You’re not alone. A quick Google search on the terms grief and loss mostly turns up articles and posts on dealing with the death of a loved one. However, mental health experts at the University of Texas in Austin reported loss entails any situation where you lose a person, place, or thing that is important to your world (University of Texas at Austin, 2020). In addition to death, loss can also look like:
- A global pandemic, such as COVID-19.
- An important relationship ending.
- Getting fired from your job.
- Friends turning on you.
- Failing out of school.
- A serious illness that leaves you or a loved one less able to function.
- Having to give up on a long-held dream.
- Having to change the course of your life.
- Being incarcerated.
- Leaving home, whether because you’re leaving for college, buying a new home, or because you have no choice.
- Changing jobs.
- Financial or food insecurity.
As you can see, a sense of loss can come with any major change or turning point in your life, even if the outcome is positive. Mental health experts and organizations that specialize in grief and loss such as the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization divide loss into two categories (NHPCO, 2020):
- Anticipatory loss covers those losses you expected on some level, such as losing a job where you’re not doing well, a relationship that’s been ending for some time, or losing a loved one due to a prolonged chronic illness.
- Sudden loss refers to the losses you didn’t fully expect, such as a loved one dying in a car accident or being told your parents are getting divorced when you thought everything was fine.
So where does this leave the survivor of the loss? Well, for one thing…
2. Your normal changes. Whether you lost a loved one, a job, or a relationship, what you lost was part of your life, if not your daily routine. There may have been a time when you couldn’t imagine what your life would look like if what you lost was no longer there. The dog that passed away after 15 years of being your buddy no longer waits for you when you come home. You woke up 90 minutes early to get to that toxic job for three years.
And now it’s gone. No more waking up to your faithful dog. No more walking on eggshells to avoid your angry boss. Your new normal feels, well, abnormal.
And that’s normal too.
It may sound completely insane, but Grief in Common—an online community for people who are experiencing grief and loss—stated many grievers on their forums reported that grief and loss change them in many big and small ways. According to Grief in Common, some ways that people change due to grief and loss include:
- You automatically revert to old routines before the loss happens, only to be reminded of the loss.
- You might start to feel empty or flooded with memories.
- You might notice that you’re more forgetful or not able to focus.
- You might start feeling like an outcast, or like nobody understands you.
- Your appetite or sleep patterns might change.
- The way you see the world around you might change.
- You might feel less energetic or patient.
These shifts are all part of you adjusting to your new normal, as well as the grieving process. While your experiences with grief and loss may be a little different than others’, there are a few reasons why these shifts are happening, such as…
3. Loss changes your brain and body. Anas (2018) reported the symptoms—such as mood swings, numbness, and general brain fog—many people feel after a loss happens due to changes in the brain during the grief response (Anas, 2018). During the grief response, the interaction between the amygdala and the frontal lobe, which is responsible for our emotional response to grief and stress, takes center stage (Anas, 2018). Many people feel more symptoms of depression and anxiety during the grieving process because loss impacts the brain’s serotonin and dopamine levels (Anas, 2018).
That starts to explain what happens in the brain during the grieving process. But what about the rest of the body?
It turns out you can potentially die of grief, or at least a grief-related illness. Researchers at the University of St. George’s London (2014) found people are twice as likely to die of a heart attack or stroke within the first thirty days of losing a loved one than at almost any other time in their lives (University of St. George’s London, 2014). The grieving process also brings a lot of stress into your life, which can make you less likely to engage in self-care or tend to your medical needs (University of St. George’s London, 2014).
Schulman (2018) noted many people notice increased aches, pains, and ailments after a loss (Schulman, 2018). Physiologically speaking, these physical issues happen for a couple of reasons. First, the brain recognizes physical pain and emotional pain as essentially the same thing (Schulman, 2018). Second, the chronic stress brought on by grief and loss influences many aspects of how the body functions, such as:
- Causing changes to hormonal levels and endocrine functioning.
- Increases inflammation in the body.
- Throwing off the body’s sleep cycle.
- Hurts the immune system.
4. The way you see yourself changes. Your brain and body go through both massive and subtle changes during the grieving process. This creates a ripple effect in how you deal with the world, as well as your self-concept. Your self-concept—or the way you see yourself—is a bit of a shapeshifter, thanks to normal life milestones and obstacles. Does that sound weird?
Think about how you saw yourself when you were 5-years-old. Break out the old scrapbooks if you have them. What did you want to be? Who did you think you were?
Now ponder the person you are today. Are there more similarities or differences? What types of things taught you about yourself?
Montpetit, Bergerman, and Bisconti (2010) reported the stress and anxiety brought on by grief shapes your self-concept (Montpetit et al, 2010). Researchers call the “growth spurts” brought on by major life events transitional periods. These transitional periods act as a mirror, showing you things you may not have known about yourself, such as:
- Who you are without the person, place, or thing you lost.
- How you deal with ongoing stress.
- Whether your coping skills are effective or ineffective.
- Where you need to draw stronger boundaries.
- Where you can relax a little.
- How you see the world around you.
- How you deal with others.
- What you want and need from others.
- What you want and need from yourself.
During transitional periods of grief and loss, this mirror is more like a department store mirror during swimsuit season or a magnifying beauty mirror. Everything reflected back at you is much more intense after a loss. Montpetit et al (2010) have found this is due to the way more stressful transitional periods challenge our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and beliefs (Montpetit et al, 2010).
No matter how uncomfortable or weird it feels, just know that it is perfectly normal to go through a loss and find that you’ve changed.
But it’s not just the way you see yourself that changes.
5. The way you see what you lost changes. Let’s go back to when you were 5-years-old. Think about your favorite toy. How did you feel about this toy back then? What was so special about it? What would you do if someone handed you that toy now?
As much as we cherished these favorite toys when we were in kindergarten, just growing up usually turns these wonderful parts of many of our lives into sweet memories. Or you may have grown into a collector of old toys. The point is, time and maturity change the way we see the things we love.
So what does this mean after you’ve gone through a major loss?
How you view the loss and the person, place, or thing is lost depends on a number of things, such as:
- The relationship between you and what you lost.
- How sudden or expected the loss is.
- How you felt about the person, place, or thing you lost.
- Any unhealed trauma from this relationship and from prior situations in your life.
- Any unresolved tension or issues between you and the person, place, or thing that you lost.
- How you choose to process the loss.
For example, it is just as normal for you to see your last relationship ending as the best thing that could have happened to you or a devastating event. Likewise, it is just as normal for you to see the parent you lost as a saint who could do no wrong as it is for you to see this parent as deeply troubled.
6. You might feel a lot of guilt and anger after a loss. Most people’s thoughts and feelings are like a rubber band ball after a loss, if you think about it. The loss represents the core of the rubber band ball. Meanwhile, the rubber bands are every tangled thought and emotion surrounding the loss.
Try this meditation:
- Imagine your loss as the core of the rubber band ball.
- Imagine every thought and feeling you have surrounding the loss as a rubber band.
- Once you are done, visualize the ball. How big is it? How many thoughts and feelings brought up other thoughts and feelings?
If you are wondering what this has to do with guilt and anger, consider each of the rubber bands you put on the core. How many times did you find yourself:
- Wondering what you could have done differently?
- Wishing you had said or done something differently?
- Wishing you appreciated what you lost more when you had it?
- Thinking about how much better your life was before the loss?
- Thinking about how what you lost made your life worse?
- Being upset about your life after the loss?
- Being upset about who you were before the loss?
- Feeling cheated by the loss?
- Feeling as though you tolerated way too much abuse or negativity before the loss?
- Feeling like all of the effort you put into the situation was not worth it after all?
The thoughts and feelings on the previous list are all signs you are feeling angry and/or guilty after a major loss. All of these thoughts and feelings are a normal part of the grieving process. Stroebe et al (2014) reported self-blame and guilt are common during the first few months after a major loss (Stroebe et al, 2014). Meanwhile, Sahu et al (2014) found many people who suffer with depression also have signs of “overt or suppressed anger” (Sahu et al, 2014).
7. Grieving rarely comes out in a straightforward way. Wouldn’t it be great if grief wore a neon sign? Every time you get forgetful or impatient, the sign would flash. Or maybe you would get a trigger warning before you hear a song, watch a show, see a picture, or smell a food that reminds you of your loss. You could work around the more intense, painful parts of grief and life would be great.
Anyone who has ever experienced loss will tell you grief is not quite that predictable. The reality is a little more complicated. For example:
- Your ex has been your ex for about a year now. The break up was messy, but for the best. You might be happily going about your day one minute, then KABOOM!! You come across an old picture. A song comes on the radio. A coworker says something infuriating. It could be any little thing and you feel like the loss is happening all over again.
- It’s been six months since your friend’s funeral. You have gotten used to not being able to text him or banter over hot wings. You got back into your routine at least three months ago, but something feels… off. You forget the little details. You’re less organized. Things that weren’t a big deal before getting under your skin.
- You graduated from college about three months ago and got your first “real” job. Getting used to waking up at 5 AM was a bit rough, but you’ve got a good caffeine-and-self-care routine going. Your coworkers are nice and you even hit karaoke night with them. Still, you miss college life. Of course, finally getting your degree was great, but the old you was way more fun and less stressed.
So why doesn’t everyone grieve in the same way? According to the National Institute for Health’s National Cancer Institute, how someone grieves—and even what they consider to be a loss—depends on a few factors, such as (NIH, 2020):
- Their personality.
- Their relationship to the person, place, or thing they lost.
- Their coping skills and mental health before the loss.
- The amount of support the grieving person has.
- The person’s social and financial circumstances, especially if they were directly affected by the loss.
- The grieving person’s cultural and religious background.
Although there is no neon trigger warning for grief, you can learn more about your own process and the factors that influence how you feel and act. Once you understand this, you can start to have a little patience and empathy for yourself.
8. You really can get through this. Whether it is a divorce, global pandemic, or the death of a loved one, everyone will experience some form of loss in their lives. This may seem depressing, but there is some good news. The fact that so many people have lived to talk about loss means it is entirely possible to thrive after grief.
So how can you work through grief and come out of it intact, if not better than before?
Many people are familiar with the Five Stages of Grief–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—but are probably not as familiar with what the grieving person needs to do to work through their grief. The answer may be found in J. William Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning (What’s Your Grief, 2020). Worden identified the completion of these four tasks as an important piece of any grieving person’s healing journey (What’s Your Grief, 2020):
- Accept the reality of the loss. This task involves paying your respects to the loss in whatever way you can. Once you have honored the loss in that way, the next part of this task is to accept the role that you lost played in your life. The last part of this task is to accept how the loss happened.
- Work through the pain of grief. The keys to mastering this task are: accepting yourself, allowing yourself to feel your feelings, respecting yourself and others, reaching out to others when you need to, patience, and self-care. Working through the pain of grief may also mean finding an online forum for grieving people, a support group, and/or a qualified therapist.
- Adjust to your environment without what you lost. This task requires a ton of patience and self-acceptance. Loss causes a major ripple effect throughout many areas of your life. Part of the ripple effect is putting you into a position where you need to redefine yourself, learn new skills, and create a new routine for yourself… which may trigger painful memories of the loss.
- To find an enduring connection to what you lost while moving forward with your life. The reality of this task is kinder than it sounds. The final task on Worden’s list is to hold space for your memories and feelings, while still creating new memories. Creating new memories is as simple as continuing to live your life and learn more about your likes, dislikes, boundaries, and what makes you tick.
This sounds great, but what are some practical steps you can take to work through your grief? Here are some simple suggestions:
- Keep a daily journal.
- Talk to a qualified therapist.
- Write, paint, draw, dance, sing, run, etc. it out.
- Write letters to your loss.
- Plant a tree to honor the loss.
- Make a donation on the anniversary of the loss.
The pain of loss is real. No matter how you choose to work through your grief, just know that it is possible to get through the pain of loss wiser, stronger, and more centered. It will take time, acceptance, and patience, but it can be done. Please don’t be afraid to reach out to an online community, other Psych2go-ers, a friend, or a qualified professional if it becomes too much. Remember, there is help out there!
Spicevicious is a mental health professional by day, tarot reader by night. You can check out her blog at https://thespiceisright.wordpress.com/tag/spicevicious/ for predictions, tarot and spell info, and off-beat observations of the human condition. As always, any information provided here is for entertainment purposes only. If you need mental health counseling or treatment, please contact your insurance company, local college’s student counseling clinic, county crisis line, or keep up with Psych2Go for more information.
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- Montpetit, M. A., Bergeman, C. S., & Bisconti, T. L. (2010). The self-concept and conjugal loss: evidence for structural change. Death studies, 34(7), 606–624. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2010.495522 Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010378/
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- Sahu, A., Gupta, P., & Chatterjee, B. (2014). Depression is More Than Just Sadness: A Case of Excessive Anger and Its Management in Depression. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 36(1), 77–79. https://doi.org/10.4103/0253-7176.127259 Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3959025/
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