Living With Loss

Overview of Living With Loss

Grief is a normal and natural, although sometimes deeply painful, response to loss that is experienced by everyone at sometime in their lives. The death of a loved one is the most common way we think of loss, but many other significant changes in one's life can involve loss and therefore grief. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief is likely to be.

Each individual experiences and expresses grief differently. For example, one person may withdraw and feel helpless, while another might be angry and want to take some action. No matter what the reaction, the grieving person needs the support of others. A helper needs to anticipate the possibility of a wide range of emotions and behaviors, accept the grieving person's reactions, and respond accordingly. Therefore, it is often useful for the person in grief and for the helper to have information about the grieving process.

The Process of Grieving

The process of grieving in response to a significant loss requires time, patience, courage, and support. The grieving person will likely experience many changes throughout the process. Many writers and helpers have described these changes beginning with an experience of shock, followed by a long process of suffering, and finally a process of recovery. These processes are described below.

SHOCK is often the initial reaction to loss. Shock is the person's emotional protection from being too suddenly overwhelmed by the loss. The grieving person may feel stunned, numb, or in disbelief concerning the loss. While in shock the person may not be able to make even simple decisions. Friends and family may need to simply sit, listen, and assist with the person's basic daily needs. Shock may last a matter of minutes, hours, or (in severely traumatic losses) days.

SUFFERING is the long period of grief during which the person gradually comes to terms with the reality of the loss. The suffering process typically involves a wide range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, as well as an overall sense of life seeming chaotic and disorganized. The duration of the suffering process differs with each person, partly depending on the nature of the loss experienced. Some common features of suffering include:

  • Sadness: Sadness is perhaps the most common feeling found in grief. It is often but not necessarily manifested in crying.
  • Anger: Anger can be one of the most confusing feelings for the grieving person. Anger is a frequent response to feeling powerless, frustrated, or even abandoned. Anger is also a common response to feeling threatened; a significant loss can threaten a person's basic beliefs about self and about life in general.
  • Guilt: Guilt and less extreme self-reproach are common reactions to things the griever did or failed to do before the loss. For example, a griever may reproach him/herself for hurtful things said, loving things left unsaid, not having been kind enough when the chance was available, etc. 
  • Anxiety: Anxiety can range from mild insecurity to strong panic attacks; it can also be fleeting or persistent. Often, grievers become anxious about their ability to take care of themselves following a loss.
  • Physical, behavioral and cognitive symptoms: Often, grief is accompanied by periods of fatigue, loss of motivation or desire for things that were once enjoyable, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, confusion, preoccupation, and loss of concentration.

RECOVERY, the goal of grieving, is not the elimination of all the pain or the memories of the loss. Instead, the goal is to reorganize one's life so that the loss is one important part of life rather than the center of one's life. As recovery takes place, the individual is better able to accept the loss, resume a "normal" life, and to reinvest time, attention, energy and emotion into other parts of his/her life. The loss is still felt, but the loss has become part of the griever's more typical feelings and experiences.

Obstacles to Healing

Grief is often a misunderstood and neglected process in life because responding to death is often awkward, uncomfortable, and even frightening for both grievers and helpers. This can make the experience more lonely and distressing than it might be otherwise.

Factors that may hinder the healing process for the griever include:

  • Avoidance or minimization of one’s emotions

  • Use of alcohol or drugs to self-medicate
  • Use of work (over function at work or school) to avoid feelings

Dealing with Your Grief

  • Allow time to experience thoughts and feelings openly to self. 
  • Acknowledge and accept all feelings, both positive and negative. 
  • Use a journal to document the healing process.
  • Confide in a trusted individual; tell the story of the loss. 
  • Express feelings openly. Crying offers a release.
  • Identify any unfinished business and try to come to a resolution. 
  • Bereavement groups provide an opportunity to share grief with others who have experienced similar loss.

Helping Those Who Are Grieving

Helpers often ask questions such as: "What should I do? What should I say? Am I doing the right thing? Did I do the wrong thing?" Here are some suggestions for helping the person in grief.

  • Make contact: Make a phone call, send a card, attend the funeral, bake and deliver cookies. Don't let discomfort, fear, or uncertainty stand in the way of making contact and being a friend.
  • Provide practical help: It's usually not enough to say, "If there's anything I can do, let me know." Decide on a task you can help with and make the offer.
  • Be available and accepting: Accept the words and feelings expressed, avoid being judgmental or taking their feelings personally. Avoid telling them how they should feel or what they should do.
  • Be a good listener: Many in grief need to talk about their loss: the person, related events, and their reactions. Allow grievers to tell their stories and express their feelings. Be patient and accepting of their expressions.
  • Exercise patience: Give bereaved people "permission" to grieve for as long or short a time as needed. Make it clear that there is no sense of "urgency" when you visit or talk. Remember, there are no shortcuts.
  • Encourage self-care: Encourage bereaved people to attend to physical needs, postpone major decisions, allow themselves to grieve and to recover. At the same time, they may need your support in getting back into activities and making decisions.
  • Model good self-care: It's important for you to maintain a realistic and positive perspective, to maintain your own life and responsibilities, and to seek help when you feel overwhelmed or don't know how to handle a situation.

How We Can Help

SHCS provides urgent care, drop-in services, brief individual therapy, group therapy, and referrals for on-going therapy

You can schedule an intake with a counselor at North Hall by calling (530) 752-2349Urgent Care drop-in services are available on the first floor of the Student Health and Wellness Center.