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A Therapist’s Advice on Coping with Unexpected Death

Read this therapist's advice for coping with unexpected death.

Facing the death of a loved one is never an easy experience. No matter if a loved one’s passing was unexpected or followed a long illness, or if it’s the first time someone close to you has died or not, grief is a normal response — even if can feel overwhelming.

When someone you love passes away, you are faced with a significant loss and life change. A significant relationship is suddenly gone from your day-to-day life, which profoundly affects you emotionally and even physically.

There are ways to cope with grief that move us toward healing. Better understanding how we experience grief can normalize the process, and it could also help us recognize when we might need to seek out professional help for what we are experiencing.

Common symptoms of grief

As you cope with losing someone you love, you can experience both emotional and physical symptoms. Some people experience several of these symptoms while others might only experience a few. It all depends on the person.

Some common physical symptoms of grief that people experience include:
• Crying
• Headaches
• Difficulty sleeping
• Loss of appetite
• Aches and pains
• Stress

Some common emotional symptoms of grief that people experience include:
• Feelings of detachment
• Feelings of isolation
• Worry or anxiety
• Frustration
• Guilt
• Spiritual struggles or questions
• Anger

Stages of grief

There are some common stages of grief that many people experience. Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief that people go through after an experience of death:

• Denial: feeling numb and as if the person did not pass away and is still alive.
• Anger: feeling upset that the person left you; feeling angry that this experience happened to you; feeling angry at God.
• Bargaining: going over past events and imagining how you or the person who passed away could have done things differently to avoid the person passing away (i.e., “If only they had left ten minutes later, they wouldn’t have gotten in that accident.”)
• Depression: experiencing the weight of the sadness of losing your loved one.
• Acceptance: realizing that you can still miss that person and find a way to move forward in life.

While it was once thought that people moved through these stages one-by-one (i.e., someone first experiences denial and then moves through anger, etc., until they reach acceptance), but it is now understood that people move in and out of these stages as they grieve. Some people experience all five stages (no matter the order) while others only experience some. In my work as a therapist, my clients often bounce between these stages, sometimes in the same hour. For example, my clients can feel angry that their loved one died and left them to grieve alone, and then move into the bargaining stage.

Grief differs from person to person

One of the most important things for you to know is that everyone experiences grief differently. The five stages of grief appear to each in their own way, and everyone experiences a different combination of physical and emotional symptoms. Why? It’s simply because each of our lives and stories are unique. When I help clients cope with the loss of a loved one, each one of their stories is different and there is no one-size-fits-all experience when it comes to losing a loved one.

Similarly, it’s important to remember that there is no “typical” timeline for grief. For example, I have had clients who come into my office and, in our first session, tell me that they believe they should be over their loss because it’s been more than a year. But the tricky part is that grief doesn’t have an expiration date — you will always miss that person, in some sense. How you miss them may look different and change over time, but that hole will always be there in some way.

The good news is that most people get better and better at coping with the loss of a loved one over time, and their physical and emotional symptoms lessen. While it’s cliché to say that “time heals all wounds,” it is true to a certain extent. As time passes, you will get an idea of how you can honor the person you lost while still moving forward with your own life. Be patient and give yourself the freedom to go through the grieving process without pressuring yourself to “get over it.”

Reach out for support

Mourning the loss of a loved one can feel like a very lonely process. You might feel like no one knows what you are going through or understands what you are experiencing. Despite this, it is very important to surround yourself with supportive friends and family. Even though they may not fully understand what you are experiencing, they can still offer you the emotional support you need at this time.

And don’t be afraid to seek out the help of a counselor if you feel like you need extra support for figuring out how to grieve. A counselor can help you process the loss and teach strategies to help you cope with the physical and emotional symptoms of grief as you heal.

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