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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Albin PsyS. LMFT

Coping with Loss and Grief

Updated: May 27, 2023

Losses may arise through death or divorce, from a job ending, or developing or enduring health problems. #loss #grief Feelings arising from a loss or trauma are among the most painful experiences that we encounter. They are undoubtedly the most difficult to recover from. The feelings of sadness, anger, and guilt are always associated with any loss or trauma. Recovery from a loss proceeds through four stages,

  1. denial,

  2. the feeling stage (sadness, anger, and guilt),

  3. recalling positive memories

  4. acceptance.

Processing through the stages of grief does not go sequentially, rather you pop in and out of the denial, feelings, and memory stages at least until you pass 6 months when the denial stage ends.

The denial stage gives you time to incorporate a loss or a trauma before you sail headlong into the feeling stage where you experience intense sadness anger and guilt.

The third stage Is the memory stage. The memory stage makes the most sense when the loss is death because the memories are positive memories which are confusing if the loss is divorce. If it's a trauma, the memories are intrusive flashbacks.

Ideally, these painful feelings and memories can be acknowledged, processed, and verbalized which over time will result in a decrease in frequency and a lessening in intensity. There are three ways to process feelings and memories,

  1. verbalize them to someone you trust;

  2. simply acknowledge and express them perhaps through crying journaling or

  3. express them creatively through art, music, dance, or poetry.

Stuffing or swallowing feelings results in stomach and digestive problems, and lack of appetite, in addition to depression. Think of your stomach as a balloon, every time you think about it or talk about your feelings and memories, you are letting air out of the balloon. If you are stuffing feelings, they will leak into your dreams.

It takes anywhere from 2-4 years to process a loss. If it is the loss of a spouse, for every five years married, it can take one year to process your feelings and memories. To manage the effects of the feelings and memories of grief, trauma, or loss, you want to alternatively increase your coping skills especially after you have processed feelings or memories to rebalance yourself. Use whatever pace works for you. Join a group of people going through the same thing.

Old trauma or losses will resurface when you are faced with a new loss. They are all categorized in our brain in the same place so they all come tumbling out. Go ahead and process them too. Unprocessed losses turn into a depression that is just under the surface.

Coping with stress is all about turning off our adrenaline, which is our body's only way of helping us. This is true when we are in a stressful situation and when we are thinking about a stressful situation. When our adrenaline is running, we are irritable, unsettled, and anxious. Adrenaline speeds up our heart rate and our breathing and it shuts down our digestion and immune system. The stress cycle ends with us feeling depleted or depressed. We are more apt to get sick when our stress cycle is running because our immune system is off.

Anytime our stress level is higher than our coping techniques, we feel irritable and anxious and then depleted and depressed.

There are 4 categories of coping skills:

  1. exercise or physical activity

  2. hobbies or interests

  3. friends and support

  4. relaxation

If you are under normal stress, (stress is the amount of change you are experiencing), you want to use each category 3x a week for 20 min. each. That's about 2 coping skills every day for average stress.

If your stress level is higher than normal, you want to increase your coping skills to match your stress level. If you feel irritable, then your adrenaline is still running and you want to add more coping skills. What is higher than normal stress? Any problem that needs solving, a job change, promotion, or divorce. The death of a loved one is the highest stress level that exists.

Each of the 4 categories of coping skills work differently to turn your adrenaline off. Understanding how they work will help you decide which category to use.

  1. Exercise and physical activity (including cleaning) use up the extra energy. (Adrenaline = Energy) Exercise and physical activity will use up energy as long as you are not thinking about what triggered the stressful situation. If you continue to think about it, your body will trigger more adrenaline because it's the only way our body has to help us. If it's a problem that needs to be solved, don't think about it before going to sleep because your body will just produce more energy because your body thinks you need to solve it right now. Look for options earlier than bedtime. There are at least 3 options for every problem. See the problem-solving blog for more information.

  2. Escaping with hobbies or interests. Hobbies and interests work because when your mind is occupied while you are doing your hobby with friends or by yourself, your not thinking about whatever you were stressed about. After 20 minutes, your body turns off your adrenaline. (scroll below for 12 museums giving virtual tours)

  3. Friends and support can work in 2 different ways. First, spending time with friends can be an escape. Or second, talking about it can be helpful if stress is a problem that needs to be solved. More heads are better than one when looking for options.

  4. Relaxation. You want to choose ways to relax that get your heart rate lower than it is when you are resting, for eg. watching fish in an aquarium, taking a bath with candles, listening to relaxing music, doing progressive relaxation (telling each muscle group to relax starting with your head to your toes) or using visualization (imagine you are someplace relaxing). When your heart rate is lower than it is when you are resting, your body thinks you are asleep, and it reboots your immune system.

In summary, use 2 coping skills a day, 20 min each. Add more coping skills when you are having higher than normal stress on a particular day, or at a particular time in your life. The goal is to keep your adrenaline off so you are not running the stress cycle. (Triggering adrenaline and then being exhausted). You want to have 3 or more coping skills from each category to create balance in your life. You have to consciously add them into your life and when you lose interest in one, you replace it with another. If you only have 1 coping skill in 1 category, it becomes hurtful to you instead of helpful. For example, if it is one type of exercise, it's too much physically on your body so your body breaks down, or one friend and when that friendship changes, it's devastating, or one hobby like shopping, then you overspend.

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