Dealing with Grief: A Step-By-Step Guide for Emotional Healing After the Unexpected Death of a Loved One
David Muñoz | April 20, 2023 | Wrongful Death
Grief can cause instances of both emotional and physical distress. Emotionally, a loss can cause you to feel sorrow, anxiety, and hopelessness, while the physical effects of grief can include sleep disorders, loss of appetite, and even pain and inflammation.
As you work through the grieving process, keep in mind that the steps differ for everyone. No one can predict what you will feel or how long you will feel it, so you cannot (and should not try to) rush through your grief. At the same time, you need to find ways to process your emotions so you can move forward and not find yourself stuck grieving forever.
The Purpose of Grief
You experience grief when you experience a profound loss.
Examples of life events that can trigger grief include:
- Death of a relative, friend, or pet
- Break-up or divorce
- Loss of a home or property, like a house fire or natural disaster
- Move to a new location
- Diagnosis of a serious or terminal illness
Each of these represents a major change in your life. Grieving gives your brain the time and space to process and accept your new reality while preparing to move forward.
What Are the Stages of Grief?
In 1969, Dr. Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief. These stages do not describe a specific sequence of emotions you will experience, and individuals can experience these stages in an order different from how they are usually described.
More importantly, not everyone spends the same amount of time in each stage. You could experience months of denial but only a few days of anger or “skip” depression entirely.
As such, instead of looking at Dr. Kubler-Ross’s stages as a roadmap for grief, you should see them as a guidebook of stages you may or may not experience. In any case, the five stages of grief are as follows:
Denial occurs as the result of the shock and surprise you feel following a major loss. You might believe that the situation is not real or that someone has made a mistake. Denial is oftentimes your brain’s first step toward understanding the new reality.
The feelings of denial are especially strong after an unexpected death. If you lose a relative battling a prolonged illness, your brain may be prepared. But if you lose a loved one in a car accident, you’ll be taken by surprise and likely experience severe shock.
In denial, your brain disconnects from the reality of your loss. Anger is your mind’s way of snapping back to reality, looking for someone or something to blame, but it is often where you can find meaning in your loss as well.
Your anger could drive you to petition your city council for changes to a dangerous intersection after a fatal pedestrian accident or even push you toward pursuing a wrongful death claim against the person or business responsible for your loved one’s death.
Bargaining is your brain’s way of giving you perspective about the magnitude of the loss. When you imagine what you would give up to have your loved one back, your brain is exploring the other losses you would equate to your loved one’s death.
For example, when you say, “I wish I had died instead of them,” you do not really wish you had died. Your brain is trying to measure how immense the loss of your loved one truly is.
As grief is an overwhelming feeling of sorrow and loss, you may naturally slip into a depression while you grieve, experiencing:
- Suicidal thoughts
Given that this depression does not come from a brain chemical imbalance, you will eventually pull through it after processing your loss.
Acceptance is the ultimate “end goal” of grief. You could still feel sadness and nostalgia after you reach acceptance, but grief will not overwhelm you. Acceptance comes when your brain fully processes the scope and magnitude of your loved one’s death. After processing these feelings, your brain prepares itself to continue moving forward.
Steps for Dealing with Grief
Since grief does not have a specific sequence, dealing with it will also not follow a particular order. Some steps you can take to deal with grief may include any of the following:
Giving Yourself Space
As painful as it might be, you need to experience grief to process your loss. Unprocessed losses can lead to many emotional and psychological problems, such as substance abuse.
Allow yourself to grieve naturally. Never try to rush through the process or suppress your feelings. Follow your instincts; cry, get angry, and oversleep; just remember that grief does not last forever, and by allowing yourself to grieve, you may get through it quicker.
While some people prefer to grieve alone, not everyone can handle grief on their own. Thankfully, you have many sources of support in the grieving process. Family members and friends who have experienced similar losses can provide support. They may also have shared memories of the person who died, which can help you process the loss by recalling positive memories.
Sometimes, people need outsiders to help them process their losses. You can get structured support from therapists and support groups.
Honoring Your Loved One
Find ways to memorialize and honor your loved one. Attend their funeral, make a donation to their favorite cause, or create a memorial in their honor. Doing something constructive can help you through any negative feelings.
Caring for Your Health
Feelings of grief can affect you so deeply that you experience physical symptoms. Loss of appetite, sleep disorders, and anxiety often accompany feelings of loss.
While you might not feel like providing self-care, neglecting your body will only make you feel worse. Make sure you eat well, get enough sleep, and try to exercise. If you feel better physically, you will be better prepared to process your emotions mentally.
Navigating Grief After the Unexpected Death of a Loved One
Grief is a very natural and rational process. As you navigate your grief, look for ways to find meaning in your loss. Many people find that pursuing justice for their loss helps them move forward in the grieving process. You should speak to a lawyer about a possible case for wrongful death if you believe justice will help you through your grief.
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