- We know that loss is an emotional event, yet we often hasten to quell others’ emotional expressions.
- Without the processing of relevant emotions, we become stuck in the trauma of loss, which leads to us being impacted more implicitly.
- Even though losing a loved one hurts and can evoke anger, frustration and sadness, our natural emotions are meant to be felt and experienced.
I first considered writing this post after being approached by an interviewer about my thoughts on coping with death. At the time, I found the timing to be appropriate, given that I had recently lost two people to whom I was close. Since then, my proximity to death became even closer with my father passing away and then having to attend not just one, but two funerals in the span of weeks.
Coping with a loss is not meant to be easy. We know loss is an emotional event, yet we often hasten to quell others’ emotional expressions, offering platitudes such as “don’t cry” or “try not to think about it.”
For many, faith becomes a valuable resource during a period of loss. I have personally witnessed the power of faith and prayer when I attended the funeral for the dearly departed father of one of my students. This difficult moment was filled with inspiration and hope created by parishioners and loved ones united in a celebration of life.
As I was told by a family member during one of the most difficult moments in my recent past, “Grief is private and personal and everyone copes in their own way.” Thus, I would like to share a few things I have learned that have been helpful in my own coping with death and loss.
Allow yourself to feel
This may seem like a simple act, but it’s probably the hardest part of the grieving process.
Loss is painful, and the greater the attachment, the greater the wound. We instinctually deal with negative situations through avoidance, denial, and distraction. Simply put, “If pain hurts, why should we feel obliged to feel it?” Unfortunately, experiencing these emotions is integral to healing. Without the processing of relevant emotions, we become stuck in the trauma of loss, which leads to us being impacted in a more implicit and chronic manner.
As our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated by the emotional threats of loss and grief, our brains continuously search and comb through our memories to find an explanation for the occurrence. While the physiological portion of this function is a necessary survival instinct, it can take hold when it continues as a method of processing and not only helps sustain negative feelings but reinforces and increases them as well.
Even though losing a loved one hurts and can evoke anger, frustration, and sadness, our natural emotions are meant to be felt and experienced. This is normal, so denying these emotions does not invite peace but instead provides a false sense of security that further distances us from peace and acceptance. Talking to those in whom you confide, journaling, or simply introspecting can be helpful. Holding back tears does not make them disappear, but instead drives them deeper, so allow yourself to emote.
Try to find meaning in the loss
Our neurophysiology and anatomical constitution cannot help but constantly look for a reason. It’s an innate function that can either be an asset or a detriment.
Since meaning is essential, we usually look for it in many places. Initially, we try to answer the question of “why?” We may blame ourselves, others, and even existence in general. Faith and religion are often able to fill that void for many, although some may look elsewhere.
Finding meaning amid suffering is difficult, but necessary. For me, meaning is found in everyday occurrences. There is no need to look for “nodal points"; rather, one should seek to find value in the moment.
There is an intrinsic value in life, and with value there is meaning. Now, the tricky part is not necessarily finding meaning in death, but finding it in life.
Do your best to find internal peace
As Elizabeth Kübler-Ross demonstrated, coping with loss is an emotional storm, yet finding peace is crucial. Belief in a higher power and religious tenets can bring peace through concepts such as eternal life, which helps what feels like a goodbye seem like more of a “see you later.”
Peace may also come from a better understanding of the connectedness embedded in existence or from exploring spirituality. We often think that peace is a passive exercise in which we must place ourselves in a quiet, calm environment, but life is often not calm or quiet. Therefore, peace must be an active experience fueled by intention.
Keep your loved ones “alive”
Using the words of author Sir Terry Prattchet, “no one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.” Finding ways to keep a person “alive” after they're gone is another effective way to cope with grief. For example, artists are often appreciated after their time and we seek to cherish their memories after they have passed. While we often like to say that people live on in our memories, thoughts, and prayers, I like to think it’s a bit more tangible than that.
Our loved ones become part of who we are. We are forever changed by them and evolve through every interaction we have had, with more meaningful interactions being significantly more impactful. Thus, the deceased continue to live on in our actions, everyday behaviors, and noteworthy achievements.
To honor someone “in our own way” can mean that with every one of our corresponding actions and interactions we give them life. But therein lies a paradox. So why not apply these tenets more proactively by seeking to live our lives by feeling more, finding meaning, exerting peace, and honoring them through our actions? We should not fear death, nor should we seek to welcome it.
Often, we are reminded about our own mortality when we experience the passing of a loved one. We usually cope with grief in a reactive manner because the ambiguity and finality of death can be overwhelming and scary, and so we choose to not think or discuss it.
To be a human being is to be in a dynamic state of action. Therefore it is through our actions that the departed remain, resulting in a more proactive approach in which the prospect of death does not hinder us in celebrating their lives through ours.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. Simon & Schuster/Touchstone