HOW TO COPE WITH GRIEF AND LOSS
By Jo McCarthy
There are so many intimate subjects that we find easy to discuss, but talking about how to cope with death, grief and loss can leave us grasping for words.
We Google ‘The Five Stages of Grief’ and we quickly realise that we all process the loss of a loved one differently; there is simply no right or wrong way to cope when someone you love dies.
In this article, we want to acknowledge and celebrate the variety in THE LONDON MOTHER community as we navigate one of the most difficult periods in our lives as tackle the grieving process.
We have put together some practical ways that can help you deal with the initial shock of loss and death, as well as some ideas for how to protect your mental health as you cope long term.
There are also suggestions for those of you who are supporting your friends and families during the tough times.
This list of ideas is not exhaustive – we would love to know what has helped you though these painful experiences.
When you first lose someone
The initial shock of losing someone, even if their death was as a result of a long illness, is something that no one can fully prepare for.
Some people react by retracting, needing personal space. Some people will need to tell others the news straight away.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get the balance right at first. If you need to ask for some silence, ask for it. If you would like people around you, let them know.
You might wish that you could wear a sign – like a black arm band or mourning clothes – to tell people around you what has happened.
So much has changed in your life but you look exactly the same! If you would like others to know of your loss, ask friends to help you share the news.
You will quickly realise that we each need to ‘own’ our grief. It might feel like a competition –who is the saddest? Is it the spouse? The parents? The children? The siblings?
The fact is, everyone is affected.
Remember that whilst mobile phones, emails, Instagram and other ways to keep in touch can be extremely useful, they also mean you are always contactable.
When you are in a state of shock, don’t feel the need to respond to the flood of messages or offers of care that might come in. You might even have to turn your phone off for a period of time.
Ask for help – besides arranging a funeral or executing the details of a will, which can usually wait a few days - there might be other quite practical things to arrange quite quickly such as cancelling appointments or rearranging social events.
People want to help, so give them tasks to work through.
Depending on the circumstances around the death of your loved one, you might berate yourself for not doing more or for letting them down in some way.
This feeling might never leave you, but in the first moments the shock of it all might be overwhelming.
Be prepared for the physical reactions you might experience
Common effects of bereavement include:
You might experience a brain fog that is hard to shift. This is a very common reaction to grief.
Perhaps you were a highly-functioning person before who is now reduced to feeling disorganised, disoriented, distracted and forgetful, staring out of the window or unable to concentrate.
Making daily to-do lists can sometimes help. Break tasks down so they don’t seem so overwhelming and allow yourself extra time to accomplish tasks.
You might be snappy, angry and irritable. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Most people are able to recognise that this is grief talking.
If you find this is escalating into violent or abusive behaviour, please do seek help from your Doctor.
If you lose your appetite, accept that people around you will try to make you eat! If you can nibble throughout the day and keep a balanced diet, it will help you in the long run.
If someone has asked what you’d like to eat, don’t be afraid to ask for your favourite meals!
More serious reactions to losing a loved one can include agoraphobia, introversion, nightmares, flashbacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
It’s important to get help for these issues – please see the useful links at the end of the article.
If your loved one died in an accident, you might be afraid of driving or using a train or fear for your overall safety.
Try to ask for help; can someone drive you on long journeys or sit with you as you run your errands?
This might not be a long-term solution but it might take the edge off the anxiety.
You might have a reflex action to text or call the person who has died. Don’t berate yourself for being silly; it will be hard to acknowledge that the habits and routines we’ve developed with someone are now broken.
Don’t be too quick to delete their number or emails. Listen to their voice messages if that comforts you.
Grief can hit you at times when you least expect. Patricia, aged 82, said, “I was standing in the supermarket six months after my husband died when I finally acknowledged that he had gone”.
Allow yourself to cry, if that’s how your body is reacting. We can make the most astonishing noises when we are sad – let it all out.
Look after your body
Loving someone has changed your life, so losing them will change it too and your body will react to these changes. You might feel literally heart-broken, like you can't breathe properly and your chest is tight.
Unless this becomes a health concern, these are normal signs of intense emotional pain and anxiety.
Avoid unhealthy habits – it might be tempting to rely on drugs or alcohol to escape from the realities of your situation.
Instead, talk to a health professional about any lingering health issues or changes in your mental health and ask for advice on harmless ways to reduce your anxiety. Accessing help from charities such as the Samaritans can also be useful.
If you can, try to get outside of the home. A walk can give you the headspace to think about your loss or to be distracted by things going on around you.
If you’re in London, make use of the beautiful parks and if you can get away for longer, go somewhere where you can really enjoy the fresh air.
Grief can leave you feeling utterly exhausted. Your sleep patterns might change. You might have nightmares or wake up during the night or be distraught that your loved one is not at home with you.
If you were woken in the night by the news of someone dying, you might find yourself waking up at this time of the night, replaying the events.
Try to establish good sleep patterns, have some wind-down time before bed and remember that over time, you may find it gets a little easier. Don’t give up.
Be gentle with yourself and with others who are trying to help you
Take each part of each day at a time. Did you have a morning ritual with your loved one? Did you often meet for lunch? Did you usually speak in the evening?
Work out which times of the day might be especially hard for you and be prepared that you find them difficult for a time.
If things aren’t adding up, subtract! Can you simplify your schedule? Clear some commitments?
Can you reduce your work hours or if you are at school, can your teachers give you work to do at home for a time? Don’t feel guilty about needing less on your plate.
People around you might make comments that make you cringe. “He would have hated being stuck in the hospital, it’s better that he went quickly” or “it’s been ages now since he died, you must be getting it over it?”.
Don’t overthink these types of comments if you feel that people are misjudging you. Sometimes the nerves people feel in difficult situations mean they can be a little thoughtless.
Be reasonable with people who are trying to support you - they might not always do the right thing.
They might invite themselves round for tea when you want peace and quiet. They might not think to call you when all you want is to talk to someone.
They might ask too many questions, or not enough. Try to be patient with them. They are learning as they go, as you are as well.
Try not to expect people to rally around you for too long – the fact is, their lives do have to go on even if they wished they could do more.
Friendships and family relationships might feel strained, especially if the person who died was the glue that held you together. Don’t expect too much from others if they don’t know you that well.
You might bond when someone first dies and then the relationship weakens as time goes on. Respect that this is normal.
Try to find some space for silence. This might be as simple as taking a long shower or bath when the kids are in bed, or getting up a little earlier when everyone else is asleep.
Use this time to reflect on positive things in the past and what you can look forward to in the future.
Try not to think too far ahead
It might be tempting to make drastic changes when we lose someone close to us, but it’s usually wiser to let some time pass before making any big changes.
You might gain clarity over certain things – some people decide to start a family after losing a parent or fulfil a lifelong dream of the person they have lost.
Whatever it might be, don’t rush.
Our friends and family might invite us to go on holiday with them in the future or ask us to move closer to them.
Don’t feel that you have to commit to anything right now; thank them for being so thoughtful and let them know that in a few weeks or months' time you’ll be able to make a decision.
It can feel overwhelming if we have to face social engagements like weddings or parties on our own if we are used to being with someone.
Try not to worry about these kinds of events until nearer the time; you might end up looking forward to them or you might decide to cancel. There is no right or wrong.
Losing an income can be a serious concern in a family and can make the future seem a little bleak. There might be some financial worries or debts that people around you won’t know about.
Confiding in a trusted friend or relative can alleviate some of this stress and they can help you take practical steps to deal with the issues.
What you can do to help your friend who is grieving
Do not make the loss about you. If you truly want to help someone, set your own feelings aside. Telling your friend how much you are suffering might not be helping them.
It is very important to only offer to do something that you can actually deliver. Can you offer to clean your friends' home? Run some errands? Pick the kids up from school? Go food shopping?
Don’t offer to cook if you know you don’t have time for it. Don’t offer to babysit if you work long hours. Don't offer to take the kids to school if it doesn’t fit in with your schedule.
Find something helpful that you can actually do, without interfering.
Try to be thoughtful. When my father died in January, my friends astounded me with their kind support.
My best friends treated me to a haircut before his funeral; we received hand baked cookies from friends in Edinburgh and a special gin from friends who couldn’t travel from London to see us.
My best friend hopped on a train and was with me within hours, even though she had to rearrange her busy home and work life.
Other friends travelled early in the morning to attend the funeral, even though we insisted they didn’t. Let your friends show their love for you at a time when they just want to take away a fraction of your pain.
Your first reaction might be to send flowers, but bear in mind that your friend might not have many vases or even space to put the vases!
They’ll also have to throw away a mass of dead flowers. You could instead gift your friend a beautiful plant, some toiletries or print out photos of the person who has died.
If you are able to cook for your friend, try to make sure it’s healthy food that can be frozen if necessary.
Take note of dates and events that might be special to your friend.
Are there any cultural or religious dates that they may have observed with the person who died? If you aren’t sure, you could ask your friend; they will no doubt appreciate the sensitivity.
Write a letter. A text or email is one way to tell your friend that you’re thinking of them but there is something deeply personal and precious about a hand-written letter.
Remember – this is not about your grief. It is about telling the person who is sad that you want to help them. Do not worry about your handwriting or even what is on the front of the card.
Make sure you include a return address and that your signature is really clear.
How to support your friend who has suffered a miscarriage
Recognise that the length of time a child lived does not determine the size or significance of the loss. Miscarriages and any infant loss are deeply personal and intense.
If you know that your friend has had a miscarriage, bear in mind the physical challenges that she will be facing. She may have spent time in hospital, or there may be other trauma involved.
Look after your friend by doing practical things for her and her family. Can you cook for them? Can you look after the kids whilst she rests at home? Does she need some company?
Can you cheer her up in some way, whilst not minimising her loss?
Choose your words carefully. Saying, “You are still young! There is plenty of time for another baby!” or “at least you were able to get pregnant!” are extremely unhelpful comments.
Be considerate towards your friend’s partner. Men and women can react so differently to loss; be patient and acknowledge the loss of the baby in the wider family.
Try to remember the due date, if that is something your friend shared with you, and be extra sensitive around this time.
It might be hard for your friend who has lost a baby to talk about other pregnancies, how difficult your kids are or how you are trying for your next baby.
How to support a colleague who is grieving
You might see your colleague more than their friends or family. You might see their grief journey throughout the day or week.
Be patient, reasonable and practical. Can you carry their workload for a while?
Can you sensitively make others aware of their loss, especially if they seem to be missing deadlines or aren’t as sharp as normal?
Take the initiative to make your colleague lunch or to give them a lift to and from work.
Don’t pressure them to join in with social events which might make them uncomfortable, but don’t hide these events from them either.
Let them decide what they can manage.