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Good Grief: Coping After Loss

Patterns and stages of grieving the loss of a loved one are not always the same from person to person.

Grief has long been broken down into stages. One cycle made famous by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., uses the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But researchers have shown that stages don't always apply. Camille Wortman, Ph.D., and Roxane Cohen Silver, Ph.D., found several individual patterns. For example, some people suffer interminable grief, and others show no distress at all.

In fact, avoiding grief sometimes helps recovery. George Bonanno, Ph.D., of Columbia University, found that those who repressed grief were psychologically and physically healthier six and 14 months after their losses than others who grieved more. Although that's a surprising discovery, it's not to be confused with denial.

The recovery period can also vary widely. While some people recover in a year, there are those who find the second year to be much worse. According to Theresa Rando, Ph.D., of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss, people who suffer abrupt loss can find the second year of bereavement harder than the first. When a person dies suddenly, the mourner learns the reality of their loss by having the need for the loved one repeatedly frustrated. These people may enter a state of shock that delays recovery, often for extended lengths of time.

Even when male and female grievers are compared, there are patterns and differences. A University of Kentucky survey found that men grieve in a way that does not seem like grieving. While women talk and cry, men think and act. Men, for example, often mourn the death of their fathers by taking action. When 46-year-old Neil Mose's father died, Mose took up the martial art wing chun. His father practiced the art every morning at dawn, and Mose learned to do the same.

Regardless of method, any means of easing the pain is appreciated, seeing as one-third of grieving individuals suffer detrimental physical or mental effects, according to the British Medical Journal (BMJ). From depression to anxiety and impaired immune response to heart disease, the potential effects are many and varied. Even something as simple as disrupted sleep can weaken the system. University of Pittsburgh researchers, for example, revealed that disrupted sleep in elderly mourners decreases levels of natural killer cells, which help destroy illness-causing agents.

Indeed, it's vital to take note of the many findings that help quell grieving. There is research, for example, focusing on loss and spirituality. Quite plainly, when and if people do find meaning in the loss, they are better able to cope than those who do not. According to Holly Prigerson, Ph.D., of Yale University, "Bereaved individuals who relied on religion to cope generally used outpatient services less frequently."

Her study, which appeared in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, is one of many in this area. In a similar BMJ study, researchers found that people who have strong spiritual beliefs seem to resolve grief more rapidly and completely than those with no beliefs.

Here are helpful tips if you are assisting a grieving friend:

  • Don't force your method of grieving: Respect what the person wants.
  • Avoid minimizing the loss: Never tell the person to "get over it."
  • Be a better listener: Be aware of your feelings; and know you can't solve the problem.
  • Be with the mourner: You just have to be there with the person.